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Can An Educator’s Clothes Affect How He/She Teaches?

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I’ve previously posted on the topic of teacher’s attire (see A Question On Teacher Attire). In that post, I wrote about how I have worn a tie and sport coat every day I have taught (except for when we’ve gone on field trips). Here’s an excerpt:

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.

That post results in forty comments, and I definitely don’t get that many often.

I was reminded of that post, and that question, by a recent study that has been receiving a lot of attention this week. Researchers suggested that they had discovered “enclothed cognition” — that wearing certain clothes can affect how people think and subsequently act (they experimented with people wearing white lab coats):

“Clothes can have profound and systematic psychological and behavioural consequences for their wearers,” the researchers said. Future research, they suggested, could examine the effects of other types of clothing: might the robe of a priest make us more moral? Would a firefighter’s suit make us more brave? “Although the saying goes that clothes do not make the man,” the researchers concluded, “our results suggest they do hold a strange power over their wearers.”

I wonder if wearing a tie and sport coat affects how I teach and, if so, how? I’ve got to think about that one…

What do you think — does how you dress affect how you teach?

Here are links (in addition to the one I’ve already included in this post) about the study:

The Brain-Focusing Power of the Lab Coat

Does what you wear affect how you act?

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

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

21 Comments

  1. Is it any less reasonable and legitimate to make the same claim regarding students’ clothes?

    • One of my most influential HS teachers required (or strongly encouraged) us to dress up for exam days. I think it did help. And today I have a strong dislike of pajama days in elementary school!

  2. I teach at a middle school with a dress code, and I hate fighting with the girls over skirt length. “But Mrs. Lahey! My arms are long in proportion to my body, so that’s not fair!”

    I dress up – skirts, dresses – almost every day, and while I am not the type to spend a lot on clothes or pay attention to the latest fashions, I do try to achieve some semblance of hipness while showing the girls that women can dress nicely and reasonably modestly at the same time.

    I have gotten thanks from students and parents alike for these efforts, and it shows the kids that I believe in the rules I enforce. Plus, it conveys to the girls in a subtle, everyday way, that they should value what’s in their heads and not what’s showing beneath their hemline.

  3. Hi Larry,

    An interesting question and one I sometimes have to deal with in training new teachers who dress very casually when they come to their input sessions – shorts, mini skirts, very tight or very revealing clothes.

    We (their tutors) tend to dress smart but conservative and ask our trainees to make sure that when they do teaching practice, they wear clothes which make them look professional, are not revealing, don’t show stretches of midriff between pants and t-shirts (if worn in the summer), not very short skirts or tattered jeans.

    This can sometimes be quite difficult, especially with younger teachers who think this is a bit old fashioned, but we did a short survey amongst our adult students asking them how they thought professional teachers should be dressed, and most of them came up with ideas similar to ours.

    When asked why, the students responded in a variety of ways, but the main message was that the way a teacher dresses shows how seriously they take their job.

    Revealing clothes or colours that are too bright were thought to be distracting, taking attention away from the lesson.

    I remember a lesson I learnt the hard way as a young teacher of an advanced group of teenage learners. I was wearing a trendy (though not too tight or brightly coloured) pair of slacks with suspenders and noticed one of the girls had been day-dreaming the whole time through. When I asked her why she had not been paying attention that day and whether my lesson was boring or difficult, she said “Oh, no miss!! I’ve looking at your slacks! I love them! I want a pair like that myself! Please tell me where you bought them!!!”

    That really sobered me up and made me really seriously begin to think that being careless/thoughtless about what I wore to class was really unprofessional and inconsiderate of my learners.

    Some schools have a specific dress code for their teachers – we don’t go to that extent, but I do agree with you that how you dress when teaching is very important. The semiology of clothes suggests that what we wear constitutes a whole set of overt or covert messages and it’s worth taking some time to reflect on just what those messages might mean to different students and different cultures

    Marisa

  4. This is a interesting topic that I bring up often with my colleagues. Since my student teaching days, I have always insisted on dressing up and never wearing my casual clothes at work. I have always felt that dressing like the students is degrading to our profession. I honestly find it surprising that schools even need a dress code for teachers. Don’t we teachers have more respect for ourselves?

    I see dressing up as part of the job, an extension of our role. I find that when I am in jeans and a t shirt for field trips, I behave more childlike and less professional. My clothes make all the difference. I wear nice clothes to insist on being treated like a professional, and help myself remember to act like an adult!

    Sarah

  5. During our academic ESL program, students give “formal” presentations (stand in front of the class.) Some semesters, I’ve forgotten to mention “what to wear” for the presentation. I have yet to see a successful presentation given by a student in a casual (writing, graphics) t-shirt. “It’s no big deal” seems to come with the clothes. Even the most error-making beginner gets more positive active listening behavior from his peers!
    College and university students can’t be required to follow a dress code, so my students often imitate what they see on campus, in fashion magazines and in popular movies, and think that’s appropriate for everyday clothes. I sometimes have to take a female student aside and explain the cultural misunderstanding that could occur between her and her classmates, both male and female. That’s usually enough. (There is also some body language that is equally as important as clothing to focus on, but that’s another topic.)
    It’s all about modeling. We teachers feel (and act, I think) more like the professional we are when we don’t wear picnic clothes to teach in; our students see us in our “professional clothes” laughing and learning comfortably, something they are going to have to do when they’re in “the real world.”

  6. Oops. I should have read one more time. That beginner making lots of mistakes is NOT wearing a t-shirt full of distracting graphics! He is wearing business casual!

  7. I believe that dressing the part is important. People today don’t care about how they look and so in effect don’t care how they act. I’ve seen elementary school students (those that dress up) act differently on picture day simply because they are dressed up. I wish our society would place more importance on public appearance. Even our president doesn’t always wear a tie when talking to the public. I think it’s sad.

    • In that Mr. Romney occasionally wears jeans (sometimes with a jacket) and goes tieless, do you think his advisors are clueless and mis-advising him on matters sartorial? Or have they accurately taken the sartorial pulse of the public?

  8. I’m a college professor and I rarely dress up for lecture. In my job, working in the theatre, it is often impractical. I personally equate it with forcing students to call you Dr. I don’t do that either. I’d rather take the extra class or two and earn student’s respect. I also think it’s good for them to see some non-normative teaching behavior. That is the advantage of teaching arts though.

  9. While I think dressing appropriately is important, I also think what I wear as a teacher needs to be functional. As a middle school teacher, I rarely sit. I am moving to and with my students all day long. I am crouching to read things at their desks. I find that dressing too formally or wearing heels makes me less likely to be active with my students.

  10. This applies to other activities, too. I would never wear jeans to church, and I wear nice clothes to work. I don’t think God will strike me down or my boss would fire me if I didn’t dress nicely, but I think I show respect for them by dressing nicer.

  11. I wear dark trouser-like jeans only on our schools “dress down” half day Wednesdays. But more importantly, I need to keep my wallet, keys and phone in pockets securely. I have no safe place to leave them if I dressed in pocketless women’s clothes. So dressy chinos and loose shirts are my and most teacher’s norm in our inner city high school

  12. I think people should dress according to how they wish to be perceived. Are you a professional teacher or just a kid pretending for the day. I think smart casual is the order of the day in the majority of classrooms.

    You need to set examples to the students in your behaviour and dress. A scruffy teacher is unlikely to have the respect of students, parents and other teachers. It may also affect how students behave in class.

    Yes, appearance is important – would you hire a lawyer to do some important work for you if he was wearing scruffy clothes? (Yes, I know they get paid a lot more!)

  13. I think that appearance is something that is misinterpreted by a lot of people a lot of places. It isn’t the type of clothes that a person wears, but rather a sense of purpose in wearing them. Jeans and a t-shirt can be fine, but small aesthetic details (color matching, the condition of the clothing, etc) actually seem to make more of a difference than ‘business casual’.

    Dressing smartly won’t make anyone a better teacher. If you wear jeans and a t-shirt, then stand at the front of the room and demand that students obey you because by golly you are the teacher, of course you won’t get any respect. If you give them reasons to respect you, engage them, and earn their respect then I don’t think it really matters what kind of look you have.

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  15. It is important to be comfortable while teaching. Sometimes “nicer” clothing doesn’t allow for as much movement. Often in my job teaching middle school English I find I want to crouch down to talk to a student, and when I was a school librarian, I liked to be able to sit on the carpet with the little ones. That’s not so easy to do in a dress! I am not a dressy person anyway, but I definitely choose clothes that allow me to move freely and that can be cleaned easily (in case of a pen explosion or coffee spill). So, I don’t dress up but I do avoid sweatshirts, t-shirts, and jeans– that goes without saying, IMHO.

  16. hmmmm
    My son reports that his tips increase (he sings in a restaurant) if he wears nicer clothes.
    We used to require students dress for dinner when we went on our overnight trip to Washington DC. It definitely made a difference in their behavior.
    Teachers who dressed in their Facebook finest are not respected by many.
    If you had asked me this same question 30 years ago, I would have told you it did not make a difference!

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  18. I THINK TO WEAR PROPER AS A TEACHER IS GOOD BECAUSE IT SHOW MORAL ATTITUDE.FROM TANZANIA

  19. Teachers always complain about not being treated as professionals in the workforce yet many teachers feel that being told to follow a dress code is asking too much. If we want to personify teaching as a respectful profession we must show other professions and the public that we are proud of what we do and one of the best ways to show that is to not only act professionally but dress professionally as well!

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