Don’t Judge A Book By…

Today I decided to do my classic “tie with a polo shirt” look.

Photo 11 copy

Oh yeah, there was a hat.

One of the great things about my school — torn between being progressive and traditional, nurturing the whole child but with the looming vista of college admissions at the end — is that this tension is actually generative. It has its moments of maddening frustration, but it also allows for some pretty great things to happen.

Like what I wear to school everyday.

Let me explain. In my first week of teaching, I wore kakhis and button down shirts. (Which, by the way, I look awful in.) I had been told from everywhichway that your dress matters. That you need to dress older, to gain authority. I think even that horrible “First Days of School” bible gives the prescription of dressing in a suit everyday for guys, or something crazy like that. So I tried it out. And I noticed that some of my colleagues dress more relaxed, so each week I very consciously started dressing down. Button down shirts to polos. Kakhis to jeans. Dress shoes to grey sneakers. Polos to t-shirts. Grey sneakers to colorful Adidas.

No one commented. I hadn’t broken any norms.

Then, afterwards, I started adding to the outfits. A hat here. A scarf there. 5 pins one day. A cardigan with binder clips the next.

Why am I bringing this up? A couple reasons.

1. I was stopped on the street two times today by strangers because they needed to tell me “I found Waldo!” (One had alcohol on his breath.) And a few colleagues said something similar, and one said something about “Papa Smurf.” But he said it to me last week too, because I’ve been wearing this hat almost daily. It’s pretty kickin’, right? Okay, so I just thought it was neat and wanted to share.

2. I definitely think dressing up for teachers new to a school is important. Each school has different norms and they have to be carefully navigated early on. But I really, honestly think that people need to rethink this whole “you have to dress up to have authority” trope. Majorly. I get if putting on a suit makes you feel older, and that feeling gives you confidence, fine. But the suit does not make the man. I know I have control in the classroom. I can stand with a certain look and bring my class to silence in 3 seconds. My kids don’t take advantage of me. We have a good time. But I have control of the classroom.

And it’s not because of what I’m wearing. Wow, yeah, if that was a meterstick of anything, I would be an EPIC FAIL.

3. Most importantly, because of today, I was thinking again of why I dress the way I do. I’m not fashionable, I know. But I love my fashion choices. And it all started when I was in high school. My clothing was how I expressed myself. Badly, but it was. And in college, well, let’s just put it this way: one of my friends snuck in my closet and took out some of my signature pieces and was ME for Halloween freshman year, and definitely didn’t need to explain his costume to tons of people. (More impressive: my parents are from India, and his parents are from Korea. In other words, we don’t look at all alike.) Clothes are about individuality. And one benefit of being able to dress the way I do is that I get to express myself to my kids, and they see that it’s okay to express themselves in quirky, unfashionable ways. I don’t know if any of them take that away, that it’s okay to be yourself, by looking at me. But today, when I was pondering, I thought it might be nice if one of ’em did.

You know, teachers as role models, and all that stuff.

If you really want me to return full circle to the idea that the school is “torn between being progressive and traditional,” it is this: it is only because of this tension in my school am I allowed to express myself in this way, and still garner the respect from my students and from my colleagues that I think I have. 

Sam

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14 comments

  1. I’m jealous. Our principal is all about being “professional” and has set rules for our dress code. I can also see both sides.

    Especially for the younger teachers, it can be important to visually separate themselves from the students. A. So students can see the authority figure there and not always just try to be their “friend.” B. So others in the building won’t confuse you with a student.

    On the other hand, dressing to express is an important part of who we are in today’s culture. What your t-shirt says is almost as important as your “top 10 songs played in iTunes.” On our casual Fridays, I feel like the students can be more open in class when I’m wearing my “dog at my homework” shirt (http://www.threadless.com/product/690/Homework_Evidence) and jeans.

    1. I’m sad that you have to be “professional” — as if being professional was more about how you dress than what you do. However, I think if I started teaching at a place which was more like yours, I might actually be all about dressing up.

      But I’m glad I don’t. Because I don’t have the money to invest in nice dress clothes. I’d just be (more) awkward looking.

  2. Because I could see some misunderstanding, I just want to be VERY clear that I am squarely in the camp of not being “friends” with students. Even in the in quotation marks sense. I actually get supremely irritated with teachers who try to be friends with their students. You can be caring and respectful and funny without ever getting even CLOSE to that line. I know there are teachers out there who vehemently disagree with this approach.

    Why do I find it dangerous? When teachers change what they do, when they soften their policies or start compromising, to make sure kids “like” them, the whole ballgame is changed. Worth another post. But anyway, I don’t want anyone thinking I am one of those teachers that I thumb my nose at.

  3. >I can stand with a certain look and bring my class to silence in 3 seconds. My kids don’t take advantage of me.

    Hmm, you’ve achieved more in that way in your few years teaching than I have in over 20. It may be partly gendered. It may be partly the students. (You’d think they’d be easier in college, but then I have students who come from some pretty bad schools, so I hear.) It may just be me not liking doing the authority thing.

    1. I think it’s definitely the school. I teach at a nice private school. Not that the kids don’t sometimes push, but they usually don’t cross the line. So I haven’t really learned all that much, because I’ve never been put in an environment where I have to really deal with serious discipline problems.

  4. Oops! I meant to comment on the dress thing. In a number of previous jobs, I was criticized for not dressing up enough. So I wore the suit (women’s version) the first week at my first full-time CC position. The day I came in without a blazer on, my colleague in the Birkenstocks heaved a sigh of relief. ;^)

    Until recently, I’ve never worn a t-shirt to teach in. But this last semester, I don’t know why, I decided I wanted to give that personal rule up. If I really let myself get wild and crazy, they might think I looked like a very old Pippi Longstocking.

    Mostly, though, I’d rather not pay attention to what I wear. I like having comfy pants and colorful shirts (short sleeve, button-down) available for teaching days, so I can just throw it on, and put my thought into the lesson. That’s just me…

  5. I agree with Sue that this might be a gendered thing. I’m actually smaller than most of my students physically, and not only am I young, but I look even younger. I’m also fun and friendly, so not intimidating at all. If I didn’t try to dress professionally, I think it would be a lot harder to main any sense of authority. Although you are right that just dressing up doesn’t instantly give you authority! But in my case, it is a crucial piece. It’s my way of saying “yeah guys, I’m going to laugh around with you a bit, but that doesn’t mean you can drop the f-bomb around me.”

    1. I do agree that gender probably has a lot to do with it. And if I were a woman, I’d probably dress up for exactly the same reason.

      But I think the other component is your reputation in the school. If after a few years you are known as being a certain type of teacher — caring but firm — by all the students and the faculty, I would bet you could come in wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and you would be totally fine. Male or female.

      At least, I’m thinking about this in the context of my school. I would never profess to speak for other environments.

  6. The dress thing has always been tough for me to grasp. What message does a shirt and tie send to a student? Is it, “I’m very serious about my job and here to help you?” Or is it, “I am completely different from you and someone you would never dream of approaching?” Some parents don’t own clothes that would fit into a business casual category, so to those kids a teacher wearing “professional” clothes comes off as otherworldly.

    I’m more of a polo and jeans kind of guy. Throw in the most comfortable shoes I can find and I’m good to go.

    Sam, do you actually wear the hat while you teach? Do the kids find it distracting? Or is it just so much a part of who you are that not wearing it would be distracting?

    1. I do wear the hat. I don’t think they find it distracting. Or maybe they do for the first day, but I wear this hat a lot and the kids have either been taught by me before or have seen me around. If they’re not inured to it after the first day, they definitely are by the first week.

      (Though I can see it causing some cognitive dissonance the first time I enforce an expectation.”This guy, in this hat, making me throw out my bagel because I’m not allowed to eat in his room? What?” But I keep on enforcing my expectations and I assume the dissonance goes away and they get used to it, and start meeting my expectations.)

  7. I just keep reminding them that I eat in my living room all the time, but that doesn’t mean they can eat in my living room. So really the only thing that matters is that you are consistent with your expectations, which I am sure you are.

  8. Teacher dress varies wildly in my school.

    In the math department, most female math teachers have settled into a casual-but-not-jeans uniform of trousers + knit shirt. (On days when we happen to choose the same color shirt, it looks like we called each other to coordinate.) I used to wear non-athletic sneakers until I discovered Danskos which I will wear every day until I retire. The guys all seem to wear khakis + shirt with collar, except for the one young-looking guy who wears a tie.

    But other departments are all different…foreign language? Those ladies dress UP. Hose and heels and the whole nine.

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