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A Question On Teacher Attire

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I wore a sport coat and tie everyday during my nineteen year career as a community organizer. It was clearly important in my work with community groups and religious institutions — it put me on the same professional “level” as many of the clergy and officials I worked with and removed a potential obstacle (casual attire) from getting my message across.

I have worn similar attire in the six years I have been teaching.

Apart from weddings and funerals, and from seeing people wear ties on television and films, I may be the only person most of my students have seen wearing a sport coat and tie.

I think this kind of attire slightly elevates my authority in the classroom, so I believe it’s in my self-interest to continue to wear it. However, I’ve been trying to figure out what, if anything, students get out of seeing me wear these kinds of clothes. Okay, I’m the only one they see dressing this way — so what? I’d like to think there is some benefit for them, but I can’t think of one.

Any ideas on that particular question?

What are your thoughts in general about appropriate teacher attire?

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

38 Comments

  1. I wear a slacks and a shirt and tie every day to school (except on “spirit days” when I wear appropriate clothes for the day). I don’t actually own any blazers, but I have a collection of around 65 ties, so the learners actually are amazed how long they go without seeing duplication in ties.

    I am a professional, therefore I dress professionally. There are many days when I would rather throw on a pair of jeans and a polo shirt, but my learners are more important to me than my comfort. I dress for them, because I am a professional, and I dress for myself to put myself in the frame of mind of the organizer, planner, and leader of the classroom. I may not be in charge every day, but I am the person with the plan and direction.

    I don’t bad mouth my peers who dress down, because they have their classroom and I have mine. But sometimes I do question their professionalism.

  2. I think you choice of dress is admirable. I agree with your comment…”that it elevates your authority’…that statement would be beneficial to younger members of a faculty. Also, I think our students could benefit by teachers modeling professional attire. Personally, I am a “dress shirt, tie, and dress pants everyday”. I don’t believe in dressing down at all; I used to and all it caused was a 5 minute question and answer period at the start of every class!

  3. Great topic Larry. In my 6+ years in the classroom I’ve gone back and forth on this topic.
    There are two issues at play in my struggle. 1. Only a handful of the 60+ male staff in my building wear ties. 2. Quite frankly, on my salary I can’t afford to buy school clothes and casual clothes so I compromise and go with the business casual attire.

    For the first few years I wore a tie everyday (mostly shirts and ties from my previous, much higher paying job) even though there were only 3 or 4 others of the 60+ male teachers my building wearing a tie. I wore a tie for the same reasons that Glenn outlined in his response. Over time I came to realize that those who I identified as the best teachers in my school didn’t wear ties. So gradually I got to the point where I was wearing business casual more often than not. In fact this year I haven’t a tie at all.

    Your statement about being the only person your students see wearing a tie has me thinking. I work in a district that is also populated by a lot of students that will never see anyone wearing a tie outside of funerals, weddings, court, etc. I do wonder now what the effect would be on those students if they did see me wearing a tie everyday.

  4. Hmmm, considering I’m a woman I think a sportcoat and tie would be highly inappropriate. But that may be just me.

    I used to dress up for class. Mainly because, coming from corporate, and especially consulting, you tend to own a wide range of business suit. However, I’ve gained weight and can’t fit into my 25yrs old wardrobe anymore, and I could not bring myself to buy more of those… I teach adults mostly nights and weekends. I dress casual. Denim and just any shirt will do.

    Students’ attitudes have not changed and my evaluations have not gone down one point.

    Attire is sure important but, somehow, who you are, how you speak, the energy you carry in the room make it disappear within minutes.

  5. I’ve only been teaching for four years, but as a professional, I definitely try to dress the part. That means slacks, button-down and tie. However, I accompany each outfit with a matching pair of Nikes… usually my black Flights.

  6. Great topic! I am amazed at some of the outfits teachers wear. If we want to be considered professionals we should dress as such. If students see us dressed in shorts and flip flops they probably feel we don’t take ourselves or our jobs seriously.

  7. I certainly admire your commitment to dress in a professional manner. I have been dismayed in the past few years to see our students teachers and young teachers showing up to a professional workplace in jeans, t’s, flip-flops with belly piercings a-blazing. I have taught for 20 years and have found that the more professionally I dress, the more respect I get. This has happened in my 20′s and my 40′s. This doesn’t mean that I always show up dressed to the nine’s; I do have my jean days and even my gym days. However, I am very conscious of how I look and strive to dress well 90% of the time.

  8. I’ve been teaching for 24 years and I’ve run the gamut on how I dress. As a science teacher who has been known to climb on top of lab tables to drop bowling balls from the ceiling, I rarely wear skirts. Okay, I never wear a skirt anymore. I’ll wear slacks and a nice shirt or sweater, but there are days – especially during football season – when I’m sporting jeans and my Texas Longhorn hoodie. The kids dig it – it gives them something to talk to me about that isn’t science related; since I’m in CO now, we banter back and forth with some good-natured smack talk. I don’t notice any difference in the respect I get from kids because respect has never been an issue for me.

    The “I dress like a professional” feel stuffy to me – I understand it, but it’s just not me. I think teachers being authentic is the most important thing – if a suit and tie is “you,” then by all means, go for it.

    Spend 15 minutes in my classroom and you’ll never question my professionalism – even when I’m in jeans and a hoodie. ;)

  9. This is an interesting topic. I experimented with this. Last year, I wore a short-sleeve, white shirt and a tie, a la Michael Douglas in Falling Down, every single day. I felt that the tone of the class was very business like and very professional. I didn’t have very many behavioral problems in class, and I felt that I was taken pretty seriously.

    I’ve loosened up a bit. I still wear ties and slacks. I think that by being professional in your attire projects professionalism, like everyone is saying. You had asked if students benefit from this.

    I think it does. Students generally want to feel safe in the classroom. Wearing professional attire projects the image of “I’m in control.” The second tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is safety. (Whoo hoo get to use a Maslow refrence!) When students are comfortable you are in control, the class will be successful. Your attire is an initial part and a constant reminder of this.

  10. I believe that my method of dress has had almost no effect on my relationships with my students.

    When I taught Mien high school age students many years ago, I did try to wear colorful tights because they liked it. They thought the black tights were sad, and with very little English, managed to tell me so : ). So I got blue, green, and maroon.

    You should dress however you are comfortable dressing. Whatever difference in relationship with students individuals are perceiving comes from how they are feeling about themselves. The student/teacher relationship is like a family relationship, where after the first 15 minutes, appearances don’t matter at all.

    Your attire might have some effect on how your coworkers or boss perceives you, if these are shallow or adversarial relationships.

    At least this has been my experience.

  11. Interestingly, the professors that I had in college and grad school that intimidated me and I didn’t feel comfortable around were the ones who wore suits or jackets, with or without ties. (They were all male.) I felt afraid to make a mistake in front of them, so I was hesitant to say anything or ask questions. Yes, I *did* feel like they were in control of the classroom–a little too much! So I think this approach can backfire. I remember 2 professors who managed to overcome the offputting, distancing aura, but they worked really hard at being friendly and approachable. (They were younger, too.)

    My other male professors mostly wore dress shirts, rarely ties, polo shirts, and nice slacks, khakis, or sometimes jeans in good shape.

    I think I had one female professor who wore a blazer occasionally, but she was from Austria and dressed differently from the other teachers, as I recall (pearls, etc.).

    I’m not saying that it’s a terrible idea to wear jackets and ties, but that the image you’re projecting may have negative associations for some students, particularly if you are a naturally serious person.

  12. I agree, wearing a jacket & tie or a suit benefits the teacher as well as the students. I teach in a corporate EFL/ESL program, so suits are the norm. However, the style of suit, tie, and how I carry myself shows something to the students (in my case my students are mostly mid-level management.) I hope it shows that I’m prepared and professional. It’s interesting though, in past jobs I’ve had coworkers who looked like they’d been hired from a hostel — still wearing their backpacks into class and a scuffy pair of cross-trainers.

  13. I have always tried to dress nicely, even when I was a completely broke pre-school teacher. All my clothes came from good will, so some finger-paint on dress pants that cost only $5 were no big deal. Now, I teach third grade in a school where I have actually had to explain to kids what the thing around my neck is. They are fascinated; they want to know how it is tied, and they want to try it on. I personally do not believe that jeans belong in any workplace outside of manual labor at all, ever. Many teachers at my school do not reserve jeans only for Fridays, and track suits are not uncommon. For me, it’s dress shirts and dress pants and a pair of shoes that still have “$2.99″ on the bottom written in marker. The only thing I have changed is that I stopped wearing ties, because they made me terribly uncomfortable, and I recently read that they are major carriers of bacteria.

  14. This is a fascinating discussion! When I first started teaching 19 years ago, I was in a school that did not allow denim or sleeveless shirts for any reason. Interestingly, while I worked there we began to make exceptions for field trips, school picnics, trips to the beach and the like.

    These days I work on a campus that has multiple buildings and is set in the middle of open space. The place is rife with dust, pollen, mud and running water on the ground. Though I usually wear a dress or skirt to school, I sometimes find that it inhibits my activity in the classroom. For example, I have high shelves with supplies, but I can’t very well climb up to them in a dress and heels (no matter how sturdy the heels). At any rate, I’m moving more toward business casual so I don’t have to worry as much about getting dusty, dirty or wet.

    One thing I have noticed is that teacher dress-codes are a hot-button issue for many in our profession. When my school opened the principal strongly suggested that teachers not wear denim (she was always dressed to the nines). Some of my colleagues responded with “that’s not in our contract, so we’ll wear whatever we want.”

  15. In my early years of my career, I was accused of dressing like a Hippie. Then I grew older and started wearing dresses and skirts with stockings daily. A few years ago, I was amazed on how casual teachers were dressing. Now I see some teachers wearing track suits, some wearing ties and some wearing stilletos in all grade levels. In my humble opinion and observation, teaching style is more important than the clothes the teacher wears. It is nice to show your personality with your choice of clothes.
    Old conservative hippie

  16. I’m a female teacher so ties are not really an option, but I do dress professionally in the classroom. We do have Friday jeans days, but I wear a blouse and jacket and try to dress them up a bit. I believe students do respond positively to a teacher who has enough respect for his/her students to dress in a professional manner. I’ve taught for 20 years and must say that my feet aren’t what they used to be! I do wear comfortable shoes (never heels…). I’m a pretty high energy teacher and I’m not really a big fan of skirts because you never know when I might stand on a chair or sit on the floor with a student group. It does seem that a younger generation of teachers, though, is dressing much more casually. And I can’t see that it affects their ability to be great teachers.

  17. I wore a tie pretty much every day of my first year as a teacher last year, with the goal of projecting seriousness and professionalism toward my students, peers, and supervisors. My students certainly noted this (one commented, “He dresses like the president.” This year, I have been a little more lax. I don’t know what kind of effect this might be having.

    I believe, though, that you hear what you see. So if I come in dressed in a t-shirt (unless it is a spirit day), I can’t possibly be taken seriously. I have to also say I feel very uncomfortable around supervisors if I’m not dressed nicely.

    Teachers have enough image problems as it is. Dressing professionally can help this, I’m sure.

  18. I read your article and all the comments and thought people had valid points on both sides of the issue. Personally, I still think it’s important to dress professionally. I like clothes and I am quasi-trendy, so I think it’s good for my girls to see how clothes can still be tasteful as well as cute.
    We only have jeans days when we are told (once a month-ish) and trust me, I’d really love to have more than that. But it is what it is. It makes me appreciate them more. And I still don’t dress totally down even with jeans on.
    I guess it just depends on what your district says and your comfort level.

  19. I wouldn’t go to see the President in jeans and T-shirt because he is due respect by virtue of his office, if for no other reason. I dress professionally for classes for the same reason: my students are due respect by virtue of their roles as learners.

  20. Interesting discussion.

    I came to teaching after working 25 years in a polo-shirt and jeans environment. When I started teaching, in a poor inner-city elementary school, I wore nice slacks, a button-down shirt and a tie every day.

    I favor ties with flowers on them, so I became known to all as Mr. Flower-tie. Cool. Everyone knew me, even the little pre-K kids.

    Then I moved to a poor, inner-city middle school. I teach special education. I wore my ties every day until a student tried to strangle me with one. Then I stopped wearing them, all except the black tie with bright, iridescent jack-o-lanterns scattered on it.

    I am one of ten male teachers in the school and I was the only one who ever wore a tie. One super math teacher shows up in sweats every day. I stick to my button-down shirt and slacks.

    What I think is interesting is that none of us have thought to ask the students what they read into how we dress. That would be an interesting discussion that could lead into one about societal expectations, job-seeking, etc.

  21. OK, I guess I’d like to throw in my $.02…

    1. Whether I want to be or not, I am a role model for my students. At my urban school in an extremely economically disadvantaged area, I am likely one of very few with-it, professional people in my students’ lives. I dress professionally (skirts, dresses, or slacks, no denim or sleeveless) becasue I am hoping that some of them will aspire to careers where they too have to dress professionally.

    2. It’s very likely that, if not for some of the professionally-dressing people on my campus, my students would have no idea what is apporpriate in an office setting, and potentially embarrass themselves or worse.

    3. I start the year super professional (dark suits) and gradually get more relaxed. I think that this subtly reinforces what everybody knows about classroom management.

    4. I’m youngish and dressing professionally sends the message that “I am not one of you.”

    5. Let’s not forget that we’re often in situations where we have to interact with kids who are NOT students (emergency coverage, hallways, etc.) Stranger-kids do treat me with more respect than some other teachers, and I think it’s because they look at me and make the snap judgement that I am serious.

    6. My principal and other administrators dress professionally, and seem to have a good impression of my job performance (and have done VERY little actual observation).

    7. For my own psychological edification, I have work clothes and weekend clothes. This helps me be in a more relaxed state of mind when I’m off duty and need to rest.

  22. Wow, this topic sure got people talking!

    My students are the ones that made up my mind. They comment that I am one of the best dressed teachers in the school. They complain that they have to come in uniform but the teachers can wear jeans and tee-shirts and whatever they want.

    I agree with Breanna that I am a role model for my students. How I dress relays how seriously I take my job. I take my profession very seriously and dress accordingly. If I were in any other job with the same level of education I would be required to dress as such. (office/corporate/whatever)

    I actually think it is disrespectful to the school environment and the students for teachers to come to school in sweatpants, tracksuits, etc… every day (yes, we have teachers who look like they’re going to the gym<–and they're not the PE teacher). Some of our teachers only dress up for parent conferences. Which means they know the importance of dressing appropriately but don't practice it.

    That is not to say I don't dress down sometimes on early dismissal days, but I still try to look neat and professional. Even when I dress down my students say "you look nice today, Ms. Hertz." For me, it's a sign of respect.

  23. Great discusssion!

    I’ll start be saying that I wear a tie 9/10 of the time in my role as teacher. I agree with all the comments above that mention seeing more respect in the classroom as a result. I don’t think less of my colleagues who choose to dress more casually. My only concern is with some of the younger female staff who dress inappropriately for high school. I am not sure that shorter skirts, high boots, or lower cut tops are anything but distracting for students. I see many teachers wearing clothes they think are cute, but would be more appropriate for a night on the town. We are professionals focused on student learning. I wonder if any studies have been done that show how teacher attire affects student learning.

    • I have been amazed at the amount of interest on this topic, and appreciate everybody’s thoughts! Please keep ‘em coming.

      Prior to writing the post I explored fairly extensively if there has been any research connecting teacher attire to student achievement. There doesn’t appear to be much. The only research I found was a small study that said students labeled casually dressed teachers as “friendly” and thought teachers with more formal attire were “organized.”

      I actually have asked my students what kind of attire they preferred to see on a teacher. Most said they liked casual better, but couldn’t really articulate why very well. One of these days I might come-up with a more rigorous survey tool to use with them, though would be happy to see what someone else might develop, too.

      Larry

  24. Larry,

    As a young (early 30′s) administrator I am acutely aware of the importance of ‘dressing the part’. In my position it is important to ensure that my dress fits my role, and yes this means proper attire when coaching my basketball team and on spirit days.

    I must admit that over the past few years I have been shocked at how often I have spoken to teachers about the role their dress plays in their practice. The main arguement I have heard from teachers is that their casual dress “helps them connect with their students”. I tend to put this argument in the same category as new teachers who try to be friends with their students and try to guide the teachers to understand that they don’t need to dress like their students to gain their respect. In fact if they act more as role models and less as friends they will be much more respected an have a more profound impact on the lives of their students.

    Great topic!

    Frank.

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  26. Interesting discussion here. I consider my style of dress is a reflection of my personality. I wear long, flowing skirts, with jackets or sweater sets. Nice shoes that are comfortable are a must! No heels for me! I like to look nice and since I have no hand at styling my hair or any desire to wear make-up, I tend to focus on what I wear. SO…what I wear is mainly for me. BUT what I notice is that students are extremely aware of my clothing and notice my outfits. I am THE teacher who always wears skirts or the teacher who always looks nice. In fact several middle school students told me recently that I was the ONLY teacher in the school that has attractive clothes. They went on to say that the other teachers NEVER dress up and in their words, never look good! Even the little boys will comment on my clothing. So maybe it really isn’t all for me. Maybe I dress so the kids can see something different, remember it and think about it as they grow up,

  27. I think it’s fine to dress business, casual, or extra special. Personal choice. But if we are relying on our dress to communicate respect to our students, or to receive respect back from them, we are far afield.

    Secondly, what values are we unwittingly teaching by putting so much importance on outward appearances? The argument that you are going to be judged by your appearance in the “outside” world is not a reason to validate that value inside the classroom. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and you can’t judge a book by its cover. I think you can find both of those in Aesop. And that can lead to a discussion about the destructive nature of these values, and that also, sometimes, to get what you need or want, you choose to fit in.

    As far as not preparing the kids for the real world, I have worked with the poorest and most disenfranchised teenagers that my city has, and almost everyone knows how to dress for a job interview. It’s common knowledge, and unfortunately a universal experience, to be judged by your looks, including your dress. If there is some confusion about how to dress to have the best chance of landing a job +/or retaining a job, it’s easily cleared up in a few lessons and funny videos.

  28. We are role models to our students. Dressing professionally SEEMS like it would be a given; yet, I am constantly surprised when teachers show up in flip-flops, sweats, uncombed hair, etc. To some extent, our clothing does determine how others react to us. To all of the people commenting on this blog (many who are in my PLN), we all get this. It’s the other teachers (the ones just collecting a paycheck) who should take note.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic, Larry.

  29. I’ve never been a big fan of dressing up for the job. I think if you do your job well, you will be respected for it. A good reputation is built upon good performance. Clothes are just for show.

    The professors I admired the most in college were the ones who dressed naturally, not up or down, but whatever suited them. For some this was a suit, for others, shorts and flip-flops. Before university I always remember being very intimidated by teachers who dressed up, like there was a huge distant between us. It projected coldness in my opinion.

    However, I work in Turkey now and things are different. I’ve had to adapt to the context. Here teachers always dress very professionally. I also teach a lot of business men. For those reasons, if I don’t dress up, I’m not taken seriously.

    Also, as this is ESL abroad, there are a large number of backpacker teachers with bad reputations. This means that if you come in in casual clothing you will get profiled as a backpacker and not as a professional. Even though I don’t care about dressing up, I have to act the part.

    So in the end, I think it’s about your teaching context. I think dressing up can bring a certain dignity and respect, but you also have to be careful because it can come across as cold, distant, and intimidating. I would change my attire based on my students’ attitudes.

  30. In Taiwan’s elementary high school’s, Taiwanese teachers generally wear quite casual clothes, such as polo shirt tucked into jeans or chinos with a belt and clean sneakers. Older female teachers tend to dress up a bit more, and young female teachers often dress quite fashionably. There’s a range.

    Few teachers wear a tie, partly because of the hot weather, perhaps, but also I think because it’s seen as being too formal for the school environment.

    Foreign English teachers often dress quite casually depending on the school’s policy, and the 20-something teachers often look quite scruffy compared with the Taiwanese teachers. I’ve never seen a foreign ESL teacher wear a shirt and tie in class unless the school policy demands it.
    I think most young students, if asked, would prefer their foreign English teacher to wear casual clothes rather than shirt and tie.

  31. Man, I wish I’d proofread that before submitting! Spot the errors :(

  32. The reason I choose to wear professional clothing to work started because I was a young (and younger looking) teacher and didn’t want to be mistaken as a student! After 11 years of teaching I continue to dress professionally as a way to set my mind and attitude for working rather than relaxing. If I wanted to lounge I would have stayed home. I don’t appreciate when students come to school wearing flip flops, slipper type shoes and pajama bottoms so why would I? I also feel strongly that in some areas where I have taught, teachers are the only professional people students see all day. If they are going to be prepared to work in a professional setting one day, they need to see examples of professional attitude, performance, and attire as soon as possible and as often as possible.

  33. I know this is old, Larry, but I feel compelled to respond. I am just not a business suit kind of person. I reach up to erase the board, squat down to look at a student’s paper, and haul the recycling out. I feel vey uncomfortable in some of the lovely, structured outfits that a few of our colleagues wear. But I also have a limit on denim (Fridays only, and only dark-wash trouser-style jeans) and would never wear shorts or sweats. I find khakis, trousers, skirts, cotton floral dresses and so forth to be a nice middle ground. And I have a strong sense of personal style and like to be able to tell my students “when you are an adult, you can have your own style and not dress like everyone else.”

  34. This post certainly generated a lot of comments! My 2 cents: I teach ESL on a large state university campus where the student body dress code can get pretty casual. I don’t dress up (almost never wear a dress or skirt because most of the school year my legs get cold), but I never wear jeans on student contact days (class or testing). I usually wear comfortable slacks with turtlenecks (winter) or pullover tops/blouses (spring/fall). I can’t tolerate heels so I always wear loafers or similar shoes. My colleagues wear a range of clothing types, some more casual than me and some more formal.

    I agree that most students notice the way teachers dress, and dressing too casually can send the wrong message.

    A related topic is forms of address. In my institute, most of the teachers have the students call them by their first names (even though many of our students are from cultures where teachers are highly respected and even students call each other by their surnames). I am older (old enough to be most of my students’ grandmother), and I began to feel uncomfortable with this practice a few years back, so I now ask students to call me Mrs. Liakos. I have noticed that their emails to me have suddenly become more polite as a result!

  35. I have taught middle school and high school English for ten years and I have always tried to dress nice. However, four years ago I started wearing a long skirt ( pass the knee) every day. It has made a great difference in my classroom. Students are more respectful and interact with me as someone in authority. I find that more and more teachers, especially female teachers, dress as though they are headed for the local night club for a night of dancing. These same teachers push for stricter dress codes for students and are the first to call out students who are not in compliance with current dress code standards. I am all for student dress codes. I am tired of seeing body cracks from every angle. Still, teachers should set a higher standard. I believe my decision to dress more conservatively removes many dynamics from the learning environment. My female students do not feel threatened by my fashion choices. Nor do they feel I am competing for male attention. My male students focus on my instruction rather than my attire. I firmly believe the way we present ourselves outwardly effects how we are perceived by all those around us.

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