Teaching Profession

Is It Time to Relax Teacher Dress Codes?

By Elizabeth Heubeck — May 21, 2021 4 min read
Illustration of clothes on hangers

As teachers taught from makeshift home classrooms during the pandemic, most dressed “down”—at least on the bottom half. It may have felt like a small, if unintended perk in an otherwise stressful period.

But will that perk carry over into the wide-scale return to in-person learning?

Teachers in a Missouri school district were allowed to continue to dress casually when they returned to work in-person last fall.

“In preparation for the school year, we knew our staff members would take on additional responsibilities—especially with the return to in-person learning,” said Sarah Marriott, the superintendent of the Boonville school district in central Missouri. “We thought about what we could take away that would result in a little less stress [for teachers].”

Historically, change within the K-12 education sphere comes slowly, even on something as seemingly mundane as teacher attire. Then came the pandemic, and school leaders were forced to create completely new ways of operating almost overnight. This massive disruption has given school leaders the opportunity to reflect and perhaps rethink decisions on everything from the practical to the philosophical. The teacher dress code spans both.

Evolution of the teacher dress code

Teacher dress codes themselves are nothing new, although the parameters around them look far different than they did decades ago. An employee contract from the Ohio Education Association, dated 1923 and aimed exclusively at women, forbade female teachers from wearing bright colors or dyeing their hair, and required them to wear “at least two petticoats” and dresses no more than 2 inches above the ankle. Times changed and, with them, teacher dress codes.

But flare-ups over what teachers wear to work have continued and while many schools and districts have relaxed dress codes for staff, some holdouts stick to traditional rules on attire.

In 2018, We Are Teachers compiled “14 Ridiculous Dress Code Rules for Teachers You Won’t Believe Are Real,” from teachers around the world. #1 on the list? Shoes that float are forbidden.

And wearing jeans—common in so many offices and professional workplaces—still remains a treat for special days in many schools.

Fast forward to the pandemic.

Downplaying the dress code during the pandemic

“During the pandemic, I had expectations that all educators would be professionally dressed to set an example to the students, but I didn’t reinforce it to the teachers because there were so many other variables they were dealing with,” said Otis Kitchen II, principal at Town N’ Country Elementary School in Tampa, Fla.

Kitchen says last August, when Town N’ Country returned to in-person learning, teachers had more than usual to manage—from simultaneously teaching students in the building and at home to ensuring the maintenance of health and safety protocols.

“If you add enforcing a dress code, it could negatively impact school culture,” Kitchen said.

As Kitchen’s observations indicate, teacher dress codes represent more than just choosing what to wear to work in the morning.

Peter B. Saunders, principal of Maritime Academy Charter School in Philadelphia, always dressed in a shirt and tie during his years as a teacher in the School District of Philadelphia, even though it wasn’t mandated.

“I guess I wanted to represent myself in a way that delineated who was the student and who was the teacher,” he said.

Now that Saunders is a principal, he takes a pragmatic approach to the teacher dress code.

“Business casual” is the expected attire. But, he says, the school administration encourages teachers to wear comfortable shoes, even sneakers, as teachers are on their feet most of the day. And on Fridays, teachers can dress down a bit more, as long as they are wearing the school T-shirt.

“There are teachers who dress casually and can manage their classrooms with no worries,” Saunders said.

Saunders’ openness regarding teacher attire extends to teaching candidates, whom he sees wearing more casual attire to interviews than in years past.

“Not every person I interview has on a suit or a dress, like they would have a decade ago. But they’re not coming in in flip-flops,” Saunders said. “That would be alarming.”

He recalls a human resources course he took years ago, in which he learned that most hiring managers form a strong opinion of job candidates within seconds of meeting them—a practice he intentionally eschews. “I’m not going to abandon this person because of how they look,” Saunders said.

De-emphasis on dress codes here to stay?

Considering a teaching candidate who’s wearing questionable attire is one thing; reconsidering employees’ dress codes is another. But for some administrators, the pandemic has proved to be the inflection point that could lead to permanent change.

“It has given us an opportunity to take a step back, look at where our priorities are, and possibly establish new norms,” said Kitchen. He adds that, as long as teachers aren’t wearing clothing that’s provocative or offensive and student achievement isn’t suffering, he sees no need to focus on teacher dress code.

As for the Boonville district, which officially relaxed the teacher dress code this year, Marriott reports no negative reaction from the students to the change.

“As a whole, they are just grateful to be in school,” she said.

But Marriott has yet to decide whether the teacher dress code will remain officially relaxed beyond the current school year.

“I need to put more thought into it,” she said. “Once we make that decision, it’s difficult to circle back around.”

Events

Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Embracing Student Engagement: The Pathway to Post-Pandemic Learning
As schools emerge from remote learning, educators are understandably worried about content and skills that students would otherwise have learned under normal circumstances. This raises the very real possibility that children will face endless hours
Content provided by Newsela

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Teachers Walk Off the Job at Chicago’s Urban Prep
With just two weeks left to the school year, teachers went on strike over what they say is a lack of support for special education students.
Karen Ann Cullotta, Chicago Tribune
3 min read
Images shows hand drawn group of protestors.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Teaching Profession Opinion Compassion Fatigue Is Overwhelming Educators During the Pandemic
Educators need acknowledgment and healing while dealing with their own and others' grief. Here’s what administrators can do to help.
Shayla Ewing
5 min read
Illustration of empty shirt and cloud
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Teaching Profession Opinion I Started Teaching During the Pandemic. Here's What I Learned
What’s it like launching a teaching career over Zoom? Kindergarten teacher Alicia Simba reflects on an unusual first year in the profession.
Alicia Simba
4 min read
Illustration of paper figures connected in a line.
JamesBrey/E+
Teaching Profession Juliana Urtubey, an Elementary Special Educator, Is the 2021 National Teacher of the Year
Known as Ms. Earth for her work with school gardens, Urtubey is a National Board-certified teacher in Las Vegas.
4 min read
Juliana Urtubey
Juliana Urtubey
Courtesy Photo