THE BLOG
01/11/2013 06:08 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2013

A Dress Code for Teachers? Or Anything Goes?

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."

Period.

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?