Maybe this is a silly thing to think and worry about as an educator, but it is something I wrestle with every morning. I never really paid much attention to it in my other jobs, but I now stare at myself in the mirror each morning with this question: What do I wear to school?
It sounds like something a 5-year-old would ask (I don’t believe my tone is quite as whiny), but I really do fret about this every day. Even now, working in a university setting, I spend a good deal of time deciding on my appearance before leaving the house each morning.
This indecision dates back to my first year of teaching in an elementary school a few years ago and continues to this day in my work at a university. My wife and I were fresh out of the Peace Corps, and I was pretty laid-back about the clothes I wore to school every day. A typical outfit would involve khakis and some sort of untucked polo shirt. Not nearly as dressed-down as I was for my volunteer experience in the Philippines, but not the best I could do. I think subconsciously I was trying to go for the I-just-returned-from-Peace-Corps-and-don’t-want-(or-know-how)-to-dress-professional look. Judging from pictures of that year, I hit that look spot on. The following year was more of the same, with a couple of haircuts thrown in. Then something shifted. It started with a simple bet I made with myself: Could I wear a tie every day to school for a month?
I teach in rural New Mexico. Unfortunately, the state ranks toward the bottom of the nation in personal income and toward the top in poor health habits and alcohol use. In this high-poverty area, even a teacher like me wearing a $6.99 discount-store tie is a pretty unusual sight. I definitely stood out. By the end of the first week, my 5th graders were asking me why I was so dressy, and one teacher scoffed, “Isn’t that a bit much for here?”
Was I supposed to conform to the prevailing culture and dress more like my co-workers?"
For better or worse, regardless of the comments, I stuck to my bet for a month and ended up really liking wearing a tie to school. I felt more professional. I felt more important. I felt like my students felt like they were more important. I decided to continue my bet for the entire year.
My male principal occasionally tossed on a bolo, which fit the school’s style quite well. Seeing this made me think a lot about what I was doing and gave me incentive to stick with it. Yet the comment from that one teacher ate at me. What did families and the other teachers think of me? Was it too much? Was I supposed to conform to the prevailing culture and dress more like my co-workers, even if sometimes I felt like they were too dressed-down for our profession? I began to focus more on how other people dressed and how I looked in contrast.
Then in the middle of the school year, my students and I had a surprise that convinced me to go all double-Windsor every time I entered a classroom.
My 5th graders wrote letters to provoke meaningful change in the world. Many students decided to write to President Barack Obama asking him to take seriously the problems of bullying in schools and alcohol abuse among preteens—both of which are major problems in our area. Though I was a Negative Nelly and told them they would have a better chance of getting a response from a local official, the White House responded. We received a letter from Washington, and I was stunned to receive a voice mail from the White House as well, informing me that if the president were in our area, he would love to stop by and see us.
This got me thinking. What if the president really did decide to come to our school? How would that change the way people dressed? I believe everyone would be dressed to the nines because, well, that is what people usually do when a world leader visits. I know I would. I would be sure to wear a tie if the president were visiting.
If I wore a tie for an important person like the president of the United States but not for my students, what kind of message would that send? If I did not wear a tie, did that mean they were unimportant? I don’t know if my students would ever reach that conclusion, but I felt like it was implied somehow. We dress up for important people and events. We dress up for presidents. My students are important. Every day of school is important, as important as if the president were visiting.
While I am not proselytizing that every staff member in a school building dress up, I do feel that students need to know they matter. So I wear a tie. I shine my shoes. I get haircuts. I try to reflect their value by what I wear, how I speak, and how I behave. When I enter a classroom, I think about how I look because I want my students to know they are important, as important as a president.
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2012 edition of Education Week as About the Necktie