Joe Catalano, a 27-year teaching veteran, has gotten back in the habit of wearing a tie to work. Each morning, he makes his selection from a closet bulging with traditional prints, Mickey Mouse and Looney Tunes characters, and golf and basketball themes.
Catalano, a 6th grade teacher at Niagara Falls Middle School in Niagara Falls, New York, 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 Catalano, a 6th grade teacher at Niagara Middle School in Niagara Falls, New York, has plenty of pants. The businesslike attire isn’t the result of a school board edict or principal’s command. Instead, the teachers decided when school opened last year to show their high expectations for students--and themselves--by wearing professional clothing.
Many of their colleagues around the country are making a similar fashion statement. They are saving jeans, T-shirts, shorts, and sweat suits for the backyard rather than the schoolyard.
Others have gone even further, electing to wear uniforms as a show of solidarity with their uniformed students. Over the past year, many districts have adopted uniform policies as a way to reduce discipline problems and focus students’ attention on their studies. Stricter standards for student clothing seem to have had a trickle-up effect on teachers. So has the new emphasis on high and rigorous academic standards, which connotes a no-nonsense school atmosphere.
Finally, many teachers say that dressing well is simply a way to promote public education at a time of intense criticism.
Joe Catalano and his colleagues at Niagara Middle School may be trendsetters in their 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?’ ” says Edward Marinucci, principal of the middle school. “People mention it to teachers, and it pays off in their motivation.”
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 one. “To me, it has a calming effect,” he says. “It seems that kids react to you differently being dressed up versus more casual.”
While some school boards have sought to bargain dress codes into contracts, a more common approach has been to encourage teachers 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 includes spandex halter tops, open-toed shoes, dirty or torn jeans, sweat pants, jogging suits, inappropriate T-shirts, and short skirts and shorts.
In Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the 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,” says Jan Noble, head of the Colorado Springs Education Association. “We want to make sure we are modeling the same behaviors we are asking students to demonstrate.”
Teachers, administrators, and secretaries at each school in Long Beach, California, have been working to craft their own dress standards, which they hope to have in place by the beginning of this month. The district was the first in the nation to mandate uniforms for students, a decision that earned kudos from President Clinton. (“Dressed For Success,” April 1996.) “When teachers are in shorts and sandals, it causes the school board and parents to say, ‘Why aren’t our teachers also dressing professionally?’ ” says Marilyn Russell Bittle, 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, teachers and other staff members have joined students in wearing uniforms. So have teachers at Sedgefield Middle School in Goose Creek, South Carolina, 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 Sedgefield’s 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 explains. “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.”
Not surprisingly, style mandates imposed by administrators are not popular among teachers. For example, the Dallas public school district angered many of its teachers in 1991 when it issued detailed “employee standards of conduct” that require men to wear dress shirts and ties and women to wear “professional dresses and skirts which are no shorter than two inches above the bend of the knee.” Male employees cannot wear earrings and must keep beards and mustaches neatly groomed.
Cheryl Walker, president of the Classroom Teachers of Dallas, says enforcement of the policy varies. When it was adopted, she recalls, a teacher filed a grievance after administrators accused her of wearing a too-short skirt. A quick check with a ruler, Walker says, proved the teacher right: The skirt was the proper length.
Teachers in Lake County, Florida, began school this year with a new contract that includes a broadly worded provision calling for “appropriate professional attire and personal hygiene.” But 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,” says Gail Burry, president of the Lake County Education Association. “The vast majority of teachers are in agreement that there’s nothing wrong with this language.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Fashion Statement