Let’s Talk: Professional Dress for Teachers

When I was in grade nine, I adored Mrs. Cohen. Something about the way she moved, with purpose, and how she dressed, with flair, made me want to be her. Although she was not a beauty, her pressed blouses, her beautiful jewelry, and her matching lipstick all oozed elegance. And in this respect Mrs. Cohen stood out. Of all the teachers I had as a student, she was the only one who dressed really beautifully. She was the only one to enter the classroom and announce, through the clothes she wore, “Pay attention! I am here! This is important!”

The pride Mrs. Cohen took in her appearance communicated to me that she cared about her job. Whether or not she took pride in being a teacher is uncertain, but it certainly made that impression on me. Even as a student, I intuitively knew that the way one dresses expresses not only how one feels about oneself, but also how one feels about one’s work.

Strangely, this idea—that the way one dresses says a lot about one’s self-esteem and pride in one’s profession—has proven to be controversial in teaching circles. Over the years in conversation with other teachers about professional dress, many teachers object to the idea of dressing just as an accountant, lawyer, doctor, or business person might dress to work. For these teachers, a professional dress code is stifling, creativity-restricting, uncomfortable, too hard.

I think as teachers we need to have a conversation about these teachers’ reasons for dressing casually, and I hope to start that conversation here by sharing why I dress professionally every day to work.

professional dress for teachers
Check it out! I’m dressed like a professional, and I’m a teacher!

When I dress professionally, I enhance my teacher credibility and my students’ learning.

John Hattie, in his now-famous meta-analysis of teaching practices, put in his top five practices for skyrocketing student learning teacher credibility. A teacher is credible when he or she establishes his or her trustworthiness, competence, and dynamism (Dave Stuart Jr. discuses teacher credibility in depth here). While “professional dress” is not listed as the three traits of teacher credibility, like most people, students will judge our competence in part by how we dress.

The fact that we judge a book by its cover, or a person’s competency by his or her appearance is no secret, but a credo of business people, salespeople, and professionals around the globe. A whole industry of fashion consultants and image advisors rise up to the occasion to guide people in the finer details of suit fabrics, tie patterns, and makeup. The fact that these professionals exist, and that professionals in a variety of fields seem to be using their services, or at least Googling “how to dress professionally to work” tells us that professional dress is seen by most people as important in developing credibility.

So when we greet our students at the classroom door, we might ask ourselves: Is the way I am dressed today a reflection of my credibility?

While some teachers, dressed in yoga pants and t-shirts—for comfort and fluidity of movement, they might argue—are comfortable, and themselves, they do not appear especially competent or credible. Intelligent and insightful as they may be, the impression they make is one of apathy and carelessness. We are not so enlightened, as a society, that we look at a person and see his or her character. We see what he or she wears. And we make a judgement based off of that.

Until we as a human race develop psychic ability to look beyond appearances and see people for who they are at the core, we might as well “do as the Romans do” and dress up. Our students deserve a competent teacher—both in fact and in appearance.

When I dress professionally, I enhance the image of the teaching profession as a whole.

When we dress professionally, we are not only dressing up for the benefit of our students, but we are also dressing up for the benefit of all teachers everywhere. When we dress well, we are saying to the world, “I am part of a group of people that is educated, intelligent, adequately paid, appreciated, and professional.” When we dress in yesterday’s loungewear, we are saying, in contrast, “I belong to a group of people that is uneducated, of average intelligence, unappreciated and underpaid, and unprofessional.”

Which group do you choose?

When students see their parents dress for work— and their parents may well be lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers, and so on—they see them wear pressed shirts, ties, polished shoes, skirts, heels, and the like—and they learn by their example that professionals dress well.

When students then come to school and see us—dressed in yoga pants, jeans, low-cut t-shirts, and flip flops—what they will certainly conclude is that teachers are not part of the professional group to which their parents belong. Teachers, they might logically conclude, belong to a lower group. Parents of these students, as they drop their children off to school and see a group of ragged and tired-looking men and woman called teachers, may conclude the same thing: Teachers are part of a lower group.

Now the idea that teachers belong to a lower group in society is an idea that I can’t get behind. As teachers, we are important, and we deserve respect. The fact that our job is difficult and important, I am sure, is not a fact lost on you. But it is a fact that will be lost to our students and their parents, when the only contact with teachers they have is with people who appear to be dressed for a picnic, rock concert,  or barbecue.

All this is to say that the way you dress does not affect you alone. The way you dress affects how all of us teachers—as a group—are perceived. If we want respect and decent salaries, then we must dress well.

When I dress professionally, I feel great about myself and it shows.

The penny pinchers among us may balk at the idea of spending money on a professional wardrobe. As a frequent thrift store patron, I can attest that an elegant female outfit could cost me as little as $40.00 Canadian. I consider the small investment I make in professional clothes worth the profound effects it has on my psyche.

When I leave school and I look in the mirror, I see a person who is polished, attractively dressed, and put-together. On the few days that I did not get enough sleep, and in the morning I grab the closest sweater and pants—ironed, if I’m lucky—I feel much worse. The way I look makes me feel certain ways. Today, I choose to feel like a boss—powerful and purposeful—so I iron and prepare my clothes on the weekend for the rest of the week.

A powerful and purposeful person, like my former teacher Mrs. Cohen, does more good in the world than she may know. By just being herself, a well-dressed and elegant self, she inspires greatness in her students.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Mrs. Cohen taught me important life lessons each day when she entered the classroom. She taught me that by dressing well I can change the way people perceive me. She taught me that by dressing well I can also change the way I feel about myself.

And so Mrs. Cohen taught me that I can shape my own destiny.

For these lessons I am grateful.