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Teachers Make Style Statement By Dressing Up

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In the past few years, Joe Catalano, a 27-year teaching veteran, has gotten back in the habit of wearing a tie. Each morning, he makes his selection from a closet bulging with traditional prints, Mickey Mouse and Looney Tunes characters, and golf and basketball themes.

Mr. Catalano, a 6th-grade teacher at Niagara Middle School in Niagara Falls, N.Y., has plenty of company. Nearly all the men at his school wear dress shirts and ties, while the women teach in skirts, dresses, suits, or tailored pants.

The businesslike attire isn't the result of a school board edict or principal's command. Instead, teachers at the school decided when it opened last year to show their high expectations for students--and themselves--by wearing professional clothing.

Quietly, their colleagues around the country are making the same fashion statements. Many teachers are consigning jeans, sweat shirts and pants, and T-shirts to the back yard, rather than the schoolyard.

Others are voluntarily donning uniforms in solidarity with their uniformed students.

Student uniforms have become a hot topic in recent months for educators and politicians alike. Many districts have adopted, or are considering, such policies to reduce discipline problems and focus students' attention on their studies.

Stricter standards for what students wear, in turn, have helped shift the style spotlight to teachers. So has the steady emphasis on high and rigorous academic standards, which connotes a no-nonsense school atmosphere.

Finally, many teachers say that dressing well is a simple way to promote public education at a time of intense criticism.

Judging from the community's reaction, Niagara Middle School could be a trendsetter in the 9,100-student district. Teachers at the local high school also are talking about sprucing up.

"I registered three kids today, and one of the parents said, 'How do you get everybody to dress up here?'" said Edward Marinucci, the middle school's principal. "People mention it to teachers, and it pays off in their motivation."

Mr. Catalano, who began his career wearing ties, only to abandon them during the relaxed 1970s, says his students are less talkative and more attentive when he wears a tie.

"To me, it has a more calming effect," he said. "It seems that kids react to you differently being dressed up versus more casual."

Do's and Don't's

While some school districts have sought to bargain teacher dress codes into their contracts, a more common approach encourages teachers themselves to take a look in the mirror.

Businesslike attire--sensibly modified for the demands of primary classrooms or messy projects--leads the fashion "do" list. The "don't" list: Spandex, halter tops, open-toed shoes, dirty or torn jeans, sweat pants, jogging suits, inappropriate T-shirts, and too-short skirts and shorts.

Depending on the contract and a district's evaluation policies, principals may take teachers' appearance into consideration when rating their performance.

In Colorado Springs, Colo., where the school district has a new dress standard for students, the local teachers' union plans to conduct focus groups with its members on the subject of teachers' dress.

"We are doing our best to create a positive image in our community for public education," said Jan Noble, the president of the Colorado Springs Education Association. "We want to make sure we are modeling the same behaviors we are asking students to demonstrate."

Teachers, principals, secretaries, and administrators at each school and district office in Long Beach, Calif., are working to craft their own "dress standards" by Oct. 1. The district was the first in the nation to mandate uniforms for students, a decision that has earned it kudos from President Clinton. ("Uniforms Get Credit for Decrease in Discipline Problems," Feb. 14, 1996.)

"When teachers are in shorts and sandals--and I'm not saying that doesn't happen--it causes the school board and parents to say, 'Why aren't our teachers also dressing professionally?'" said Marilyn Russell Bittle, the executive director of the Teachers Association of Long Beach. "You can wear a very nice jeans outfit without looking like you just came in from feeding the horses."

At two Long Beach schools, in fact, teachers and other staff members have joined students in wearing uniforms.

So have teachers at Sedgefield Middle School in Goose Creek, S.C., which this fall adopted, on a voluntary basis, blue and white uniforms for students. Teachers wear khaki skirts or pants and white tops, topped by blue sweaters and jackets in cool weather.

The decision to suit up is popular even with new hires who had no say in the matter.

"We decided to do that to provide a role model for children and unity for us as a faculty," Principal Rita Mantooth explained. "It's also a heck of a lot cheaper, to be honest with you. Instead of spending funds on some other things, teachers have been able to find these clothes at a better price."

Neat and Clean

Teachers in Lake County, Fla., began the school year with a new contract that includes a broadly worded provision calling for "appropriate professional attire and personal hygiene." Rather than mandate what teachers must wear, the contract encourages them to reach consensus.

"We all realize that a kindergarten teacher may not dress the way a shop teacher would dress," said Gail Burry, the president of the Lake County Education Association. "The vast majority of teachers are in agreement that there's nothing wrong with this language."

Many teachers in the Dallas public schools, in contrast, were not happy with detailed "employee standards of conduct" issued in 1991 that require men to wear dress shirts and ties and women to wear "professional dresses and skirts which are no shorter than 2 inches above the bend of the knee."

Male employees cannot wear earrings and must keep beards and mustaches neatly groomed.

Cheryl Walker, the president of the Classroom Teachers of Dallas, said enforcement of the policy varies among schools. When it was adopted, a teacher filed a grievance when administrators said her skirt was too short. A quick check with a ruler proved her right--the skirt was the proper length.

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