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What Does It Mean for Teachers to Dress ‘Professionally’?

As the end of the school year nears and the temperature outside surges, so, too, does the urge to reach for what’s cool and comfortable when dressing for work in the morning: Think flip flops, shorts, and tank and crop tops. That’s particularly true for those who work in the roughly 36,000 public schools with inadequate air conditioning systems.

But whether teachers act on this instinct may depend largely on their school’s employee dress code.

Much like student dress codes, those aimed at teachers tend to stir up controversy. For starters, there’s little consensus around whether they should even exist. And among schools that do implement teacher dress-code policies, rationales for why vary.

Plus, while most schools that do implement teacher dress codes often emphasize “professional” attire, the very definition of that term continues to evolve; lately, it has taken what appear to be some very big fashion leaps.

What is appropriate work attire for teachers?

Harvard education professor Susan Moore Johnson, who has more than 50 years of experience in the education field, shares a revealing recollection about how attitudes have changed over the years regarding professional teacher attire.

“As a new teacher in the late 1960s, women were expected to wear skirts or dresses, though some of those were very short, which didn’t seem to be a problem. I remember when one of my tenured colleagues “dared” to wear a pantsuit to school. Those of us with less experience watched to see whether she was reprimanded. She wasn’t, so the rest of us gradually did the same,” said Johnson, who conducts research on teachers’ working conditions and satisfaction.

Clearly, times have changed and, with them, notions of what passes as “business” attire. For instance, crop tops—a fashion style that reveals the waist, navel, or abdomen, according to Wikipedia—have become a highly popular—some might argue an “essential”—wardrobe piece among young women. And for some people, crop tops have crossed the threshold from “casual fashion” to “office wear.” The Wall Street Journal published an article earlier this month that began with this sentence: “CROP TOPS are cropping up in the office.”

Do teachers think they should have dress codes?

But does that mean teachers should wear crop tops and other skin-baring clothing in schools, especially if students’ dress codes prohibit them?

Teachers’ opinions vary widely on whether educators should be held to the same standards written into dress-code policies for students—and, if so, what those standards should include. That’s according to their responses to the following question Education Week posed on its social media channels: Teachers & school administrators, student dress codes often include guidelines around clothes that expose body parts (shorts, tank tops, crop tops, etc.). Should they apply to teachers, too, especially as the weather heats up?

Here’s a sampling of the feedback from teachers, many of whom vehemently opposed the idea of teacher dress codes:

Jenn Tate: “No. The question is insulting to teachers!”

Rebecca Garelli, a learning specialist and consultant: “Dress codes are very outdated and way too conservative for both students and teachers. No one should police people’s clothes, ever. Most dress codes are developed with misogynistic and classist undertones…”

Ligia “Gigi” Vasquez, a bilingual educator: “We, as teachers, are supposed to be professionals in all aspects, including dressing for working. It’s a pity we should be regulated in that regard as well.”

But some teachers’ responses indicate that they expect or even embrace dress codes at work.

Elizabeth Crawford: “Um, what? Everywhere I’ve taught, the dress code for teachers was MORE restrictive. ‘The same rules as students’ would have been a VACATION.”

Dawn Rupert: “Lead from the front! Be the example.”

What factors influence dress codes for teachers?

David Law, the superintendent of the Minnetonka public schools in Minnesota, takes a practical approach to how teachers dress in his district, which does not have a teacher dress code. He points out that, due to the more physical nature of their jobs, elementary teachers are much more likely to wear clothes that are comfortable and allow them to move with ease, like “joggers” and a T-shirt. “They include themselves as part of the student experience,” he said.

Law said that teachers in his district tend to dress increasingly more “professionally” in the upper levels, especially those who teach high school. That’s because students notice.

Deborah Wortham, the superintendent of the Roosevelt Union Free school district in New York, said that the student dress code consists of khaki pants and collared shirts and that teachers don’t have a dress code per se, but that they consistently meet expectations of “professional” dress.

Wortham asked a handful of 11th and 12th grade students to share their opinions on how teachers in their district dress.

“They said that the teachers dress very professionally, and they appreciate that,” Wortham said. When she pressed the students on why, they responded: “‘Because teachers serve as role models, and we want to see what that looks like in the workplace.’”

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