The idea that clothing in some way creates a person’s identity is not a new one. Erasmus, in the 16th century, pointed out that “vestis virum facit” (clothes make the man), referencing a medieval writer who was himself referring to a couple of lines in the Odyssey. So it’s pretty old, as ideas go. Certainly even today, a lot of the argument against uniforms in schools can be boiled down to the idea that putting students in uniforms limits their ability to express their personality through what they wear. (Sometimes that’s also considered an argument for them.)

Recently, however, I was a part of a conversation on Twitter about teacher apparel. The question at hand was the effect of casual clothing on a teacher’s relationship with students: should teachers wear formal clothing all the time, should they wear more casual clothing, should they be able to wear either, depending on their mood and the activities of the class that day, etc., etc.?

I came in when this tweet appeared on my timeline:

I agree that dressing casually isn’t going to make one a better teacher – but I also disagree that it makes one worse.  I don’t think that my students respect me because I wear dresses (sometimes) or disrespect me because I wear jeans and t-shirts with funny slogans (sometimes).  That being said, I do believe that our dress impacts our audience.

At the beginning of the school year – or semester – I dress more formally and wear makeup every day.  I do this for about two to three weeks.  Then I start to dial it back.  By the end of the first month, I’m in jeans and a t-shirt, and I wear this for about two to three weeks.  Both decisions are deliberate.

When my students don’t know me, I want to form a first impression of professionalism, control, formality.  Just like I insist on the expectations being followed nearly perfectly every time, I dress up every day.

As the year goes on, I no longer need the outward trappings that inspire my students to see me as Teacher, the person in charge of the classroom, just as I no longer need to insist consistently on the classroom expectations being followed every single time.  The students know who I am, and they know what the expectations are.  If I relax them a little, they’re not likely to take advantage – and if they do, I can firm them up again.  At this point in the year, my goal is to connect with them, to make them see me as approachable and friendly.  I’ve established that I’m Teacher; now I want to establish myself as the person who’s going to help them find what works for them in the school and in our class.

So I wear jeans and funny t-shirts.

Once my students know me, know what my expectations are, know that I’m here to help them succeed and that I want them to succeed, I no longer feel that I need to dress in a certain way to be seen as professional by my students.  I want them to feel connected to me, that they can trust me and come to me with problems.  I am not their friend, but I am absolutely on their side and willing to help them work through things.  When they see me as both professional and approachable, I can dress up if I feel like it, wear jeans if I feel like it, participate in spirit days almost always, and I can do all of these things because they have developed their first impression of me as someone who is strict but who cares, someone who demands respect but can laugh at herself – and someone who respects them and wants them to be as incredible as they are.


Works Cited

Erasmus, Desiderius. Collected Works of Erasmus: Adages II vii 1 to III iii 100. Trad. R.A.B. Mynors. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1992. 204-5. Text.