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What We Wear Matters

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My 22 year-old self can’t believe I’m writing this post. When I was a brand new teacher, I was firmly convinced that I should dress casually for work. Relaxed pants and a button-down short-sleeved short was my normal outfit. I would don a tie for open house night and dress down on Fridays, often wearing jeans, sneakers, and a polo shirt. My rationale was that I needed to be comfortable to teach well. After all, as a fourth grade teacher I was kneeling for writing conferences, helping with glue and paints, and playing kickball at recess.

Over the years, my perspective (and my attire) has shifted. It’s not so hard to be both comfortable and professional, and there are significant reasons to do so. It’s important to recognize that the way we present ourselves makes a statement (whether intentional or not) about what we value. And, like it or not, the way others interpret our messages about what we value, impacts our work. Consider this idea through a few lenses:

  • Students: If we want our students to value the work of school, we should convey our belief that the work is important. The way we present ourselves to our students, in part through the way we dress, sends a message. Jeans and t-shirts send the message that we’re here in school to hang out, and the work may or may not matter. Neatly pressed pants and a professional shirt sends the message that the work is important.
  • Parents: Imagine, as a parent, taking your child to the pediatrician and having the doctor come into the room wearing flip-flops and their college sweatshirt. How would you feel? What message would you pick up? They could be a phenomenal doctor, but you may not trust their professionalism. The same is true in schools. Our clothes should send a powerful message to parents: We are educated, professional, and trustworthy.
  • Colleagues: Your attire and appearance impact your work with colleagues, much like they do your students. Do you care about the collective work? Are you a professional who takes school seriously? Consider that the way you dress not only impacts how your colleagues may view your professionalism and commitment, but it also impacts how the whole school is viewed.
  • Community members: If you knew that a school board member was visiting your classroom tomorrow, would you be more likely to be thoughtful about your outfit? What if you knew that a newspaper reporter was writing an article about an event in your classroom and you knew there might be a photographer present? What if we dressed for these kinds of interactions every day? As a collective profession, we often bemoan the lack of respect we seem to have—yearning to be taken more seriously as professionals. Dressing the part might help.
  • Self: Have you ever noticed that what you wear impacts how you feel? It may seem silly, even a little vain, but when you dress professionally, you feel more professional. And when you feel more professional, you act more professionally.

It’s also important to know that the way we dress actually impacts how we feel and behave. Have you ever noticed how you actually feel different when you put on different clothes. When you dress up, you feel more formal. When you wear pajamas, you feel more relaxed. Some studies have indicated that dressing more casually can negatively impact people’s ability to focus and be engaged. Even people’s perceptions of their own character (reliability, honesty, competence, etc.) are impacted by the clothing they wear.

As I said, my 22 year old self is cringing right now, but I’d like to think that 22 years later, I’ve learned a thing or two. Even though I still agree with my former self that the way I dress shouldn’t matter so much—that the skills I have as a teacher and the work I do with my students is what should really count—I now know that it does. And if wearing nice pants and a long-sleeved shirt can better help me accomplish my goals of helping students learn and continuing to elevate our noble profession, then it’s worth it.

  • Mike Anderson
    Mike Anderson is an education consultant, award-winning teacher, and author of many books including What We Say and How We Say It MatterThe Well-Balanced Teacher, The First Six Weeks of School, The Research-Ready Classroom, and Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn. Learn more about Mike and his work or invite him to work with your school or district through his website: www.leadinggreatlearning.com. Connect with Mike on Twitter: @balancedteacher.

  • 2 Comments
    1. As a teacher/educator with well over 40 years of classroom experience I would like to add a codicil or two to the base premise of your blog. While I do agree that the manner o the instructor’s style of dress may reflect adversely upon one’s publicly perceived persona, it does not predicate that one should only wear long sleeved shirts, or neckties, or formal jackets in the classroom at all times. The general locale of the teaching institution often plays a role in the desired manner of dress. Living in hot, humid climates, or for that matter really hot arid climates may make wearing long sleeves nor only unduly uncomfortable bub potentially hazardous to one’s health. Additionally, wearing a formal jacket may present the same issues. As to the wearing or not wearing of neckties, I find that it should be a matter of personal choice. Personally, I abhor wearing ties and do so only in the most limited of circumstances. I am very short-necked in the front and find myself repeatedly pulling at the tie as it sits across my vocal cords and generates a chocking sensation. In fact, my students many years ago actually asked me to stop wearing a tie as it was distracting seeing me struggle with it.

      When teaching I almost never wore clothing so casual, such s jeans, shorts,
      polo shirts, etc. in a classroom environment that students could have mistaken the relationship and roles of teacher and student. I have seen other colleagues dress in such a manner and have noted that the students tended to interact with those individuals in a manner more befitting their regular friends rather than as the adult leader and respected teacher. As I taught Microbiology as one of my classroom duties and was therefore frequently subject to exposure to liquids that will stain, burn holes in clothing and so forth and would only reluctantly wear more expensive, more formal clothing to class out of self-defense. I would, however, maintain the correct visual relationship with students by wearing a laboratory coat over my attire as combined protection and relationship maintenance.

      So, it appears to me that the particular style of dress one chooses for classroom presentation is often predicated by the environment one is teaching in.

      • I couldn’t agree more! I personally never wore a sport coat as a classroom teacher but found a tie comfortable. I agree that a tie isn’t necessary!

        I also agree that the environment in which you teach should play a role in your choice of attire. If you teach in the Northeast of the United States, you’re lucky if you have air conditioning, which means you have to dress for cool comfort in mid-June. I would also argue that you should consider being in line with the general tone of the school. To be way more formal or casual than your colleagues may ruffle feathers unnecessarily. At the same time, you have to be you, and personal style and preference is important.

        I guess that in the end, what’s most important, is that teachers are thoughtful about what they wear and why. Our clothing impacts how our students feel about school and can therefore have an impact on their learning as well. We should make sure that what we wear is intentional and in the best interest of our students.

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    Leading Great Learning
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    Leading Great Learning

    Mike Anderson is an energetic, experienced, and highly sought-after educational consultant who helps facilitate great learning in schools all over the United States and beyond. He has over twenty years of experience as a teacher, consultant, presenter, and developer and has authored many books and articles about great teaching and learning.