Professional Development Opinion

Response: More Advice On Teacher Attire

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 17, 2014 9 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s “question-of-the-week” is:

What are useful guidelines for teacher attire?

In Part One of this series, four educators - Roxanna Elden, Renee Moore, Jane Fung, and Rebecca Mieliwocki - shared their thoughts on how teachers should dress.

In addition, you can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Roxanna and Renee on the topic at my BAM! radio show , where we discuss gender, race and class issues related to this topic. It may not be online there, however, until a few hours after this post is first published.

Today, educator Robyn R. Jackson shares her very practical thoughts - primarily for new women educators. I’m also publishing comments from many, many readers.

Response From Robyn R. Jackson

Robyn R. Jackson, Ph.D., a former classroom teacher and school administrator, is founder and CEO of MindSteps, Inc., an independent provider of workshops, coaching, consulting, and resources for educators. Her new book, You Can Do This: Hope and Help for New Teachers, was published in August by Jossey-Bass/Wiley:

When you’re first starting out as a teacher, you’re pretty much broke. And yet, you have to build an entire professional wardrobe in a matter of weeks before starting your new job. You want to build a professional look and you want to save money so what’s a new teacher to do? The answer? Build a capsule wardrobe. A capsule wardrobe is a 10-item wardrobe that allows you to build a wealth of outfits. Although you start with 10 basic items, you can add additional pieces as your budget allows. Here’s how it works:

Choose a base color. Pick a neutral like black, brown, navy, khaki, or grey for your foundation pieces like pants, skirts, or jackets. Try to choose a color that won’t show stains easily.

Choose your accent colors: Select one or two shades that go with your base colors and that flatter you. Again, try to choose shades that will hide stains.

Plan to dress in layers: Classrooms can be cold one minute and hot the next. Pick items that can layer well. The added benefit is that the more you layer, the more outfit options you have.

Mix and match: Everything in your capsule wardrobe should be able to go with everything else.

Choose classic styles: You want your capsule wardrobe to last so don’t choose anything that is too trendy or that stands out too much. Otherwise, your students and colleagues will notice every time you wear that zebra print skirt.

Make sure it fits: You don’t want to be squeezing out of your tops or giving your students a great view of your underwear every time you bend over. So make sure that every item fits well, covers your underwear, and isn’t too tight or revealing. Choose fabrics with a bit of stretch which will be more forgiving for minor weight fluctuations.

Choose washable fabrics: Teaching can be a messy job. With only 10 items, you won’t have time to go to the dry cleaners every few days. Instead, choose fabrics that can be washed at home.

Make sure it feels good: Choose clothes that flatter your figure, and that you can move in. Since these clothes will form the basis of your wardrobe, you want to feel confident and comfortable.

Accessories make the difference: You can get a lot more mileage out of your capsule wardrobe by changing up a belt, adding a t-shirt to the mix, or choosing different shoes. Look at what you already have and get creative to keep from getting bored.

Above all else, look professional: You don’t want to dress like your students. Instead, try to look polished, professional and adult. That means when in doubt, go for the more conservative look

Here is an example of a capsule wardrobe and 40 different outfits you can get from it. Day 1 - 1+4 Day 2 - 2+6 Day 3 - 3+5+9 Day 4 - 7+10 Day 5 - 9+4 Day 6 - 2+5 Day 7 - 1+6 Day 8 - 3+10 Day 9 - 1+6+7 Day 10 - 2+4+8 Day 11 - 9+5 Day 12 - 7+6 Day 13 - 1+10 Day 14 - 3+4+9 Day 15 - 2+4 Day 16 - 4+7 Day 17 - 2+10 Day 18 - 3+6+9 Day 19 - 1+4+9 Day 20 - 2+5 Day 21 - 3+4+8 Day 22 - 2+6+9 Day 23 - 1+5+7 Day 24 - 3+6 Day 25 -- 10 Day 26 - 1+4+7 Day 26 - 9+6 Day 28 - 3+4 Day 29 - 5+7 Day 30 - 2+6+8 Day 31 - 1+5+9 Day 32 - 2+4+7 Day 33 - 8+10 Day 34 - 1+6+9 Day 35 - 1+4+8 Day 36 - 2+6+7 Day 37 - 9+10 Day 38 - 1+5+8 Day 39 - 1+5 Day 40 - 2+4+9

Responses From Readers


Let’s see...we justify much as preparing students for the “real world”, which might include dressing nicely. Shouldn’t we model it? Some activities we do with our students might require dressing down, but not sloppy. Attire does convey professionalism and is often the first impression. It’s part of what the community observes. We want to be viewed as the professionals we are, we would like to receive pay as professionals. We should dress the part, when we can.

Jeanne Sayner:

I know that I teach best when I am wearing something I can move in easily, to walk, bend, sit on the carpet, and be on the playground. It makes it easier to engage with kids whether it is throwing a football or playing four square on the playground. I frequently wear slacks, nice jeans, or skirts and a blouse or sweater. I wear flats so I can move around the classroom easily. I find I have the most energy in days that are casual dress days: jeans, gym shoes, and a school t shirt or sweatshirt are most comfortable for everyone I know!


Professionally, dress professionally. Many teachers demand professional respect, but they dress like if they’re going to a picnic at the beach, or a barbecue in their backyard. There is no excuse for teachers wearing t-shirts, shorts, sandals, raggedy sneakers with no socks, or sweats to work. It disrespects the profession, the students, the school, and the community. They don’t have to wear a suit or a dress everyday, but leave the spring cleaning attire for spring cleaning!

Counselor KT:

I also believe that appropriate attire is dependent upon the grade level. A suit and heels for a first grade teacher is definitely not appropriate for getting down on the floor and having a class circle. High school students might not respect a teacher who dresses with apple sweaters. We also have to consider our audience.

Jennifer V. Jones:

I firmly believe that, in general, grades 3-12 teachers should model their dress after any other “casual professional” attire. This requires a few explicit rules (e.g. no flip-flops, no sagging pants, no torn jeans, no exposed midriffs, no undershirts or graphic tee-shirts except school/mascot, no hats or baseball caps) but leaves plenty of room for personal style and taste. Even teachers grades pre-K to 2 who often get on the floor with students can be comfortable within these parameters (jeans/pants, a shirt/top and shoes, sandals or clean sneakers). Just like any other workplace, there should be parameters, it is very annoying to me to see teachers dressed as if they were hanging out at the local bar. Maybe that adds to the public perception that teachers aren’t worthy of being treated like professionals...

Tracy Collins:

As a representative of not so young educators I still have several standards of teacher’s attire in mind (though it may sound old-fashioned nowadays). I suppose, a teacher should look authoritative and clothes play important role in it. If you dress like students, you risk to be perceived as a peer, not with a proper respect. Your clothes should not distract students from learning process as well. What is also important for me is to be dressed comfortably, so I can move and feel naturally, and not be exhausted at the end of a day. However, it is important not to be too old-fashioned, or indifferent to what you wear as you have to create a positive image among both - your students and colleagues.

Bill Ivey left this comment at Part One in this series:

“Teacher dress code” came up as a question at our new teacher orientation this year, and I said, “Generally, we’re asked to dress a level up from the students.” That seemed to work well for all of them.

I’ll confess, though, to a state of deep confusion on dress codes in general. On the one hand, as a gender activist who believes in feminist ideals, I instinctively oppose any dress code that ends up, whether or not this is the intent, objectifying people (in U.S. culture, this most frequently means girls and women). I’m also not a big fan of gender-specific dress codes, especially binary ones. Yet, I also instinctively support the underlying theme stated here that what teachers wear to school should both enable and not distract from our ability to do the job effectively. To expand on that, I remember when I moved from a high school to a PK-9 school, learning that the younger the age group with which one works, the less formal our teacher clothes may need to be. And Renee’s point about taking local culture into consideration is well taken.

Honestly, I really don’t know what that all adds up to. For me, it generally means trying to look professional while also working to shift our culture, both within my school and throughout the country. I guess my own underlying theme - shared, I can easily tell, with everyone who wrote above - is “respect.”


I wear identical three-piece suits, but I have a large number of super-hero logo and novelty cuff links to go with them. Great middle school conversation starters!

Elementary T.:

Another consideration is location. If you are living in a chilly part of the country, your dress will be different than an individual living in the continual HOT and HUMID desert.

Dress for safety. Not just yours, but students’ as well. When we exit our buildings for drills, we hit the sand immediately. If I’m in flip flops, high heels, or dress shoes, that walk will be long, frustrating, and distracting.

Dress for quick movement. If I have to move fast to direct students, they are not too responsive if I am limping up to them, with one shoe on and one shoe off. (Yes, have seen this happen to others).

Used to be an old radio commercial with the line, “Look professional, act professional, BE professional.” That’s my daily motto.

Reader comments on Twitter:

Many readers also responded to the question via Twitter. I’ve used Storify to collect their tweets:

Thanks to Robyn and to readers for their contributions!

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