My 22 year-old self can’t believe I’m writing this post. When I was a brand new teacher, I was firmly convinced that I should dress casually for work. Relaxed pants and a button-down short-sleeved short was my normal outfit. I would don a tie for open house night and dress down on Fridays, often wearing jeans, sneakers, and a polo shirt. My rationale was that I needed to be comfortable to teach well. After all, as a fourth grade teacher I was kneeling for writing conferences, helping with glue and paints, and playing kickball at recess.
Over the years, my perspective (and my attire) has shifted. It’s not so hard to be both comfortable and professional, and there are significant reasons to do so. It’s important to recognize that the way we present ourselves makes a statement (whether intentional or not) about what we value. And, like it or not, the way others interpret our messages about what we value, impacts our work. Consider this idea through a few lenses:
- Students: If we want our students to value the work of school, we should convey our belief that the work is important. The way we present ourselves to our students, in part through the way we dress, sends a message. Jeans and t-shirts send the message that we’re here in school to hang out, and the work may or may not matter. Neatly pressed pants and a professional shirt sends the message that the work is important.
- Parents: Imagine, as a parent, taking your child to the pediatrician and having the doctor come into the room wearing flip-flops and their college sweatshirt. How would you feel? What message would you pick up? They could be a phenomenal doctor, but you may not trust their professionalism. The same is true in schools. Our clothes should send a powerful message to parents: We are educated, professional, and trustworthy.
- Colleagues: Your attire and appearance impact your work with colleagues, much like they do your students. Do you care about the collective work? Are you a professional who takes school seriously? Consider that the way you dress not only impacts how your colleagues may view your professionalism and commitment, but it also impacts how the whole school is viewed.
- Community members: If you knew that a school board member was visiting your classroom tomorrow, would you be more likely to be thoughtful about your outfit? What if you knew that a newspaper reporter was writing an article about an event in your classroom and you knew there might be a photographer present? What if we dressed for these kinds of interactions every day? As a collective profession, we often bemoan the lack of respect we seem to have—yearning to be taken more seriously as professionals. Dressing the part might help.
- Self: Have you ever noticed that what you wear impacts how you feel? It may seem silly, even a little vain, but when you dress professionally, you feel more professional. And when you feel more professional, you act more professionally.
It’s also important to know that the way we dress actually impacts how we feel and behave. Have you ever noticed how you actually feel different when you put on different clothes. When you dress up, you feel more formal. When you wear pajamas, you feel more relaxed. Some studies have indicated that dressing more casually can negatively impact people’s ability to focus and be engaged. Even people’s perceptions of their own character (reliability, honesty, competence, etc.) are impacted by the clothing they wear.
As I said, my 22 year old self is cringing right now, but I’d like to think that 22 years later, I’ve learned a thing or two. Even though I still agree with my former self that the way I dress shouldn’t matter so much—that the skills I have as a teacher and the work I do with my students is what should really count—I now know that it does. And if wearing nice pants and a long-sleeved shirt can better help me accomplish my goals of helping students learn and continuing to elevate our noble profession, then it’s worth it.