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Do Clothes Make the Teacher?

By Walt Gardner — March 19, 2014 1 min read

When we think of teachers we respect, knowledge of subject matter and mastery of pedagogy invariably come to mind. But apparently teacher apparel also matters (“Success Outside the Dress Code,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 18).

At least that’s the conclusion published in the Journal of Consumer Research in February. Students reported more respect for a fictitious bearded professor in a T-shirt than for a clean-shaven professor who wore a tie. Of course, the study pertained to college students, which calls into question whether the same thing would apply to students in K-12.

It’s here that the answer is more ambiguous. When I began teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District in 1964, I always wore a business suit, button-down shirt, striped tie and cordovan shoes because that’s what I assumed was appropriate for teachers. But as teachers in my school began to wear more casual attire, I decided to follow the trend. I realize that correlation is not causation, but I noticed a slow but clear change in the boundary between my students and me. Perhaps it was the result of changes in society, but there was less decorum than before.

There is little empirical evidence about public schools that have instituted teacher dress codes. But attire by its very nature can be distracting. I’m not arguing that what teachers wear is more important than their knowledge, skills and personality, but I think it’s worthwhile considering whether their apparel is a factor in student learning. Let’s not forget that teachers are professionals whose clothing is supposed to reflect their status. Unfortunately, common sense is too often in short supply.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.