A Dress Code for Teachers? Or Anything Goes?

A Dress Code for Teachers? Or Anything Goes?
by Rae Pica

Who could have imagined that the issue of teacher attire would be such a hot-button topic? But, then, who could have imagined that the day would come when teachers sported too-tight clothes and showed too much skin? And, no, I’m not talking about just the female teachers. This is not an issue merely because it’s a female-dominated profession, as one tweeter suggested to me. As far as I’m concerned, flip-flops expose too much skin.

Admittedly, I haven’t been a public school student for a long, long time. So it came as an enormous surprise when I saw a proliferation of newspaper reports and blogs describing midriff-baring, sweatpants- and pajama-bottom-wearing teachers. Surely, this couldn’t be!

But, somehow, it is. So I decided to tackle the topic for Teacher’s Aid, and I brought in two experts and two teachers to discuss it with me: Eve Michaels, author of Dress Code: Ending Fashion Anarchy; Beth Winfrey Freeburg, Ph.D., a professor and chair in the Department of Workforce Education and Development at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, whose research has looked at “appropriate” wear for teachers; Amanda Dykes, M.Ed., a sixth-grade teacher whose blog post, “Because Books Are Sometimes Judged by Their Covers,” helped inspire the segment; and David Bloomfield, Esq., a professor of Education Leadership, Law, and Policy at Brooklyn College and the City University.

During the conversation, it was David Bloomfield, a professional educator known to me as a rather dapper dresser, who provided another big surprise. He was the lone dissenter in the group, asserting that people dress like the people they want to be and should be allowed to do so. He stated that concepts of appropriate and professional dress are too subjective, apply pressure for conformity, and will get us into “social and legal trouble.”


Now, I’m all for freedom of expression and nonconformity (I’m a big fan, in fact). And I do find myself wincing at some of the rules out there for professional teacher dress; for example, shined shoes for men and “natural-looking” hair for women. Subjective, indeed. And when I read that tattoos and piercings are prohibited, I wonder, as does Mary Beth Hertz, a former office worker turned tattooed-teacher, how many individuals would be unable to choose the teaching profession if more such strict rules were enforced.

But, as Eve Michaels pointed out, what we wear has a tremendous effect not only on how we perceive ourselves but, perhaps most importantly in the case of teachers, on how others perceive and receive us.

Many teachers, it seems, receive peers with an apparent disregard for “appropriate” attire with a great deal of discomfort. The viewpoint is understandable, especially from those who make a sincere effort to dress professionally. But Prof. Bloomfield may be right in his contention that someone’s discomfort is not an adequate reason to make people do what they don’t want to do.

But what about distraction? When a teacher’s message can’t be heard by students, administrators, parents, or peers because attention is instead focused on cleavage or a belt buckle in dubious taste, that teacher is missing out on opportunities to do the work with which she or he has been charged.

What about respect? What does it say to the student when a teacher comes to class in sweatpants? What does it say to the students’ parents, who trust their children’s teachers to serve as role models? To me, the unspoken message is clear; it says, “I don’t respect you enough to dress like a professional.”

And, for that matter, what about professionalism? I’ve been an education consultant for 33 years and have witnessed the struggle of teachers to be considered and treated as professionals. They certainly won’t receive the respect they desire and deserve if they’re dressed like party girls and picnickers.

Eve Michaels claims that what we currently have in this country is “total fashion anarchy.” No one, she says, knows what’s appropriate for the situation anymore, or understands the impact of image.
I don’t know why this might be so, but I feel strongly that something should be done about it, at least in the teaching profession.

Dress codes, which one educator told me “infantilize” teachers, may not be the answer. Some guidelines, however, do seem to be indicated. As Dr. Freeburg stated during the discussion, the guidelines can be flexible but also provide norms for behavior, reflecting the values of the community.

What values do we want reflected in the teaching profession?

Dress codes? Anything goes? Or something between the two? What are your thoughts?


3 thoughts on “A Dress Code for Teachers? Or Anything Goes?

  1. As a retired teacher who went both ways (very relaxed) and suit and tie, I tend to favor some boundaries. For a vey long time I eschewed business attire in my college teaching jobs as I felt it put artificial barriers to communication, but I did not test this tesis and for a scientist that was quite a failing. When I went “suit and tie” I found no difference in the level of communication I had with students. Interesting.

    I think one does one’s best work when comfortably attired and I have noticed over the years teachers tend to have no clue as to how to dress comfortably without looking slovenly. Yes, a tie can be worn . . . and a long sleeve shirt and one can be comfortable, but most male teachers buy clothes too small and tie their ties too tight.

    My current profession is “archery coach” and I am trying to instill some measure of professional dress, at least something better than shorts and a teeshirt. It is an uphill battle as you may have noticed a substantial sartorial slide in the general population. If one presents oneself professionaly and behaves professionally, it is more likely that we will be perceived professionally.

    • Usually my school (private school in Puerto Rico) the PE teachers wore long sweatpants, a teeshirt and sneakers: dressed for physical activities while not being too relaxed. However, in the school I worked in last semester one PE teacher, female, wore shorts. Female shorts. I found that while the school had a relaxed dress code (to the point that I never heard it, I wore jeans but with pretty shirts that showed little to no cleavage and closed shoes and once or twice forgot to take off my extra earrings (on the upper ear) until a child pointed it out. Not even the principal said a word), I found shorts that short was too relaxed.

  2. In the school I studied from 6th grade to 12th grade, where I also did part of my elementary prepracticum, teachers were not allowed to wear jeans (but male teachers did not wear suits either). I found that to be okay, but, on the other side… the school I worked for a semester last year had a loose dress code. A coworker always wore professional dresses with tights and heels. That was okay, not too flashy. But most teachers wore jeans and either the school shirt or a presentable shirt. I wore from long sleeve button shirts to pretty looking regular shirts with my jeans and always closed shoes. I found this to be a good dress code: leaves room for individuality, the jeans provided the students to feel more at ease while still looking more ‘professional’ (because of the closed shoes and good looking shirts, not just any random shirt). I find that forcing teachers to look too professional is bad while also allowing them to wear cleavage or PJ bottoms and flipflops to also be bad. It’s about, as you say, being comfortable with some professionalism.

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