Although the vast majority of educators dress in professional attire for the classrooms and schools where they work, some schools districts are nonetheless drafting and implementing dress code policies for school employees. While the push towards standards may seem relatively benign, these efforts bring up renewed questions about teacher professionalism and what constitutes “required educator attire.”
Teachers in West Virginia’s Kanawha County School District are protesting a proposed dress code that’s currently being considered by the local school board.
The dress code would ban facial piercings, visible tattoos (teachers would have to cover them up), flip-flops, and “immodest” dress. Hair and nails are to be clean and neatly groomed, and those who work around moving equipment will be required to maintain shoulder length hair or secure it in place.
One of the more ambiguous inclusions is the prohibition of blue jeans, unless they are “dress jeans.” It’s these kinds of vague policies and stipulations that have teachers, who move from role to role within a school on a moment’s notice, wondering why standards are becoming a hot-button issue when the vast majority of teachers dress in a professional manner that suits their in-school role.
Several right-wing media outlets naturally have seized upon the episode in Kanawha County as a way to portray teachers’ displeasure as privilege and pettiness. The real issue, of course, is respect, says teacher Donna Hanshew.
“It makes you feel like you’re not considered a professional,” Hanshew told the Charlestown Gazette. “It’s just like everything else — you deal with the people who are the problem; you don’t need to punish the majority. It’s just like in school — you don’t punish the whole class for what one student did.”
“When you’ve got schools that are falling down — literally falling down around you — and then you’re making a big deal out of a dress code for teachers, what does that say about your priorities?” Hanshew added.
“Our association believes the administration should address inappropriate dress by professionals on an individual basis as opposed to throwing everyone under the bus,” explains Dinah Adkins, president of the Kanawha County Education Association. “The large majority of educators dress professionally and appropriate for daily activities. In our county only one board member actually supported the implementation of a dress code.”
Many educators object, not because they want to look unprofessional, but because they see this as yet another unnecessary and insulting attempt to limit their rights and demean the profession.
“We are professionals, and we don’t need somebody telling us what we need to wear to work,” says Bill McConnell, an English Teacher in Ontario, California and a member of the California Teachers Association. “We understand that we shouldn’t show up for work in sweat pants. We are adults and can make our own decisions. I dress in clothes that are practical for my job. I don’t need to wear a pair of $100 slacks to teach. It’s more practical and efficient to teach in blue jeans with a button-down shirt or a polo shirt.”
It’s true that being taken seriously as a teacher necessitates that one look professionally ready for the classroom, but what exactly does “professional attire” for educators look like? In a world where “business casual” can refer to a wide variety of attire, how should a teacher—who, it should be noted, often assumes other school responsibilities such as lunch duty, afterschool duty, and a bevvy of other impromptu roles that require mobility and comfort—be “professionally” dressed?
Almost every teacher has a basic understanding of what constitutes school-friendly attire. Dressing too casually sends off a blasé vibe to students and fellow faculty that might undermine their ability to teach from a position of respect and authority. But dressing too rigidly could have the opposite effect, creating a sense of separation between the teacher and students.
“It’s important to dress the part,” says Sherell Lanoix, a 4th grade teacher in Los Angeles, California. “Students, parents, and administrators take you more seriously when you come to work dressed as a professional.”
With almost half of all public school students required to follow dress codes, wouldn’t it make sense for teachers to do so as well? In fact, the overwhelming majority of teachers comply with the parameters of “professional attire,” knowing full well what their roles and responsibilities in school will require.
Teachers know to avoid revealing clothing and ultracasual attire; those who make that mistake are reprimanded by their school administrators. But stipulating that teachers follow an uncompromising guideline without understanding the required duties of the teachers isn’t the right way to go.
Teachers should have a say in defining their profession, and most already know what’s the best approach. The bottom line, says Dr. Janet Stramel, an Assistant Professor at the College of Education and Technology at Fort Hays State University in Kansas, is teachers should dress in a way that promotes respect and shows students that they’re the authority in the classroom.
“Dress like a professional. A teacher who wears jeans or sweats, or tops that show cleavage, does not promote respect.”