Education Opinion

Dress to Transgress

By Nancy Flanagan — May 24, 2010 2 min read
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One of the golden rules in classroom management: never punish the whole class for the transgressions of one or two students. And yet stories like this one--a school board squabbling over the teacher dress code in New Hampshire-- are evergreen.

People like to believe they can solve small problems, definitively. With all the Big Scary Issues in education-- a school district where more than half of the students exhibit toxic levels of lead exposure, for example-- it’s comforting to focus on manageable questions, like whether teachers in flip-flops compromise the educational climate. When in doubt, throw down a few guidelines. When those guidelines are picked apart, turn them into a longer list of rules. Nail the policy down by imposing unpleasant consequences. Solved!

Or not.

As any novice teacher knows, picky little rules and their accompanying punishments can suck up surprising amounts of teacher time and energy. School boards are better off trying to make the buses run on time than tackling teacher dress codes, a topic that quickly morphs into minutiae (Are denim skirts “jeans?”) or a vehicle for low-information opinionizing (Teachers don’t deserve a raise when they dress like bums and sluts!)--and don’t think that won’t happen.

In my district, the high school principal regularly spouted his “dress for success” thesis at staff meetings (although John T. Molloy would frown on his short-sleeved shirts and loud, themed ties). The district’s policy was pretty generic--"neat and appropriate” -- and didn’t give Principal enough punitive leverage. After sending a first-year teacher home during his conference period to shave off his George Clooney scruff, Principal decided to take up the cause of a more detailed dress code. On his hit list: jeans, city shorts, pants with elastic waists, shirts with inappropriate logos and sleeveless tops. Plus toe-revealing footwear.

His crusade started a year-long pitched battle between the Board and administration and the union, wasting considerable time discussing things like “is the upper arm really an erogenous zone that will distract students from their studies?” (I can assure you, mine isn’t.)

And what about field trips? Gym teachers? Buildings with no air conditioning on warm days? For years, all four elementary schools operated under an informal Casual Friday plan, with teachers scheduling pond life labs and life-size portrait painting on Fridays, so they could wear jeans. Being told to clean up their act was not only insulting--it impacted good instruction.

After a few stories about the ongoing controversy appeared in the paper, the union cleverly turned the situation to their advantage by suggesting that teachers pitch in a dollar every Casual Friday, for the privilege of wearing jeans or shorts, with the take going to local charities. Teachers who never wore jeans to school--ever--pressed their Levis and wore them with sport coats and wingtips. The union presented the local library with a check for $1000. Teachers, 1; Principal, 0.

Should teachers dress professionally? Absolutely--although professionally appropriate attire is probably different in downtown Chicago than, say, Maui. If teachers are clueless about suitable dress, take them aside for a helpful chat.

Worth repeating: Don’t punish the whole class for the transgressions of one or two. Classroom Management, 101.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.