Sometime in the 1990s, when I was a novice teacher, an incident happened at the FLS where I was currently employed. The new French language teacher showed up on that Monday for her first lesson, wearing a tight, blue-jean dress which admittedly looked great on her but revealed a lot of flesh. There was quite a buzz about her in the teachers’ room but nothing had prepared me for what I saw when I got into her classroom to give her the register. My colleague was sitting cross-legged on the desk and most of her thighs were naked and visible to the (mainly male) students. The low-cut, V-shaped neckline did not do much to ameliorate the situation. I must have been taken aback because I noticed the students noticing my surprise but my colleague remained oblivious to my reaction. I must admit, though, the students were engaged, albeit for all the wrong reasons. I do not recall why this teacher did not fare at that FLS, probably she got a belated appointment to the Public Sector, but I have a feeling that she would not have lasted long anyway.
This incident raises some serious questions: would that teacher have been effective despite her poor dress sense? Who gets to define what is appropriate or inappropriate? Since this is so hard to define on a personal level, should dressing appropriately for teaching become part of our standard teacher training and school rhetoric/ literature? Last but not least, does our appearance affect how we teach or, visa-versa, does what we teach affect what we wear?
The Dress Code debate
Before writing this article I googled the topic to find out what teachers and specialists worldwide think. I was amazed to find out that both in the UK and in the USA this is a hotly debated issue. Here is a brief recap of the debate.
Proponents of a clearly defined Dress Code for teachers maintain that the clothes make the professional and if teachers want to be taken seriously, they should dress the part. ‘’Business-casual’’ is a term used to describe what teachers should wear and from what I have read it requires male teachers to wear long-sleeved dress shirts, pants, a tie and smart shoes. For female teachers, dresses and skirts with blouses are on the menu. Jeans are out of the question for both sexes! The core argument is that we cannot manage students who show poor dress sense and use this to rebel against the norms of school behaviour if we ourselves do not look professional.
On the other hand, there are some administrators and the majority of educators who believe that a clearly defined Dress Code is far too strict and it makes the teachers feel like students who have to comply with rules to whose making they did not contribute. Therefore, such a code is seen as limiting and insulting. Surely, adult professionals can make up their own decisions regarding the clothes they wear based on their personal preferences, the money they can spend on clothes and what they actually do at school every single day of the week. Finally, educators who are against the Dress Code claim that it does not affect their teaching and students should be inspired by the content of the teaching not by the teachers’ appearance. It is funny to see how the two sides end up agreeing on that one but for so different reasons.
The real deal in Greece in 2016
Back when I was a novice teacher (and my mother’s pride and joy), my lovely mum used to take me shopping every November for a new three (or even four-piece) suit. Going on this shopping spree in November would allow me to make clever combinations for all the ‘’formal days’’ of the school and leave some room for extra appearances at TESOL events. Oh, those were the days! I might still be my mother’s pride and joy but the onset of the recession has left us wondering if it is worth spending all that much on clothes when we have so much else to pay for (like the dreaded EΝΦΙΑ or even worse ΟΑΕΕ). These days it is very hard for school owners to tell teachers what to wear and how smart to dress when the hourly compensation for teaching might be below 5 euros (!) in some cases, or even lower (!).
The problem with dressing and the real weakness in the argumentation of those who are against the Dress Code is that ‘’good taste’’ and ‘’appropriate clothing’’ are very hard to define and very objective. On the other hand, the argumentation of ‘’pro-Dress Code’’ group also raises a lot of questions. Firstly, I wonder where they would stop. They start with the jeans, which are out unless they are ‘’dress jeans’’. I am not sure if dress jeans means normal fitting, not torn jeans, but for the life of me I do not understand why it is unprofessional for teachers to teach in jeans. If anything they bring us closer to our learners and make us bond with them more easily. Is good teaching defined by the distance between the teacher and the learner or is that the way to earn their respect? If we get passed that, is it just clothes we should be worried about? What about neatness and being clean (which for me is extremely important)? What about body piercings and visible tattoos? What about nails and make up? If all these matter equally, should schools become beauty salons and dole out styling advice to teachers whose taste leaves a lot to be desired? At the same time, if we actually do that, don’t we reject these people and try to turn them into somebody they are not? If teachers do not seem to fit in at that particular school when they show up for an interview or model lesson, why hire them in the first place? Of course, in order to actually notice a professional’s dress sense, a manager would need to meet up with that person over a period of time and not just once before hiring him/her. This goes to show why hiring procedures and an induction period are so crucial.
When it comes to what teachers wear, three factors ought to be taken into consideration: comfort, professionalism (which for me does not mean expensive or designer garments) and the personality - body shape combination.
As an observer of lessons I rarely look at the clothes the teacher is wearing. I am more preoccupied with the content and variety of the teaching, the effectiveness of the method and the rapport between teachers and students. How can clothes play a part in these? In a way they do because students want to be taught by teachers who look well and feel confident. Confidence, though, comes from within us and it is a lot more than the clothes we wear. For me, my teaching and my dealing with the parents have little to do with the clothes I wear. I do not believe that I am better able to deal with an aggressive parent if I am well-dressed or wear makeup and high heels as an ex-colleague once claimed.
Schools need to address this issue early on to avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings. As a consultant, I believe that such matters need to be openly discussed so the entire staff can participate in the decision-making process, though the ultimate decision rests with the school owner who is also a role model in that case. At any rate, two things need to be avoided: competition between staff members as to who is prettier or better dressed and great differences in style especially on formal events. The former makes staff members compete on a ground irrelevant to their mission, while the latter sends a very mixed corporate image which confuses our clients.
No matter how we feel on this issue, we have to remember that it is the teachers that make the clothes, not vice versa.
www.educationalworld.com: ‘’Dressing Teachers for Success’’ Author’s name not mentioned
www.edutopia.org: ‘’How should teachers dress?’’ by Kevin Jarrett
www.telephraph.org: ‘’Ofsted launches new clampdown on scruffy teachers.’’ By Graeme Paton
Maria Sachpazian BA education / RSA dip/tefl (hons) is the Academic and Managing Director of Input on Education a company which provides academic, business support and consultancy to Foreign Language Schools. She is also an educational management specialist who has worked as a teacher trainer and materials’ developer. Maria works as an EFL teacher at the Straight Up Markoyannopoulou schools