Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Dressing The Part

When I was getting my teaching credential, I had to prove "subject matter competence". There are two ways to receive proof of this competence--first, a California university could bless my West Point math major transcript, or I could take three different tests. I tried Option One.

First, I called the math department at UC Davis, the closest University of California campus. They asked if I got my degree in California; when I replied that I had not, they said there was nothing they could do for me.

So I called CSU Sacramento. There I spoke to a gentleman who was more than willing to meet with me, and I scheduled an appointment to go see him. Having never been to a "civilian" university before, I dressed as I thought appropriate--slacks and a collared shirt. I mean, this wasn't an interview, but I wanted at least to make a good impression.

I arrived a few minutes early for my appointment and, since it was obvious the professor was in his office speaking to someone, I waited in the hall. A few minutes later a person left the office and started walking down the hall. He was wearing cut-off shorts, a t-shirt, no shoes, and his Afro-style hair bounced behind him as he walked. I was mortified that anyone would dress that way to speak to someone so high up in the math department! A minute or so later that same guy came back around the corner and said, "Darren? Great, come on in."

That's a very long lead-in to this post about appropriate dress standards for professors:

To appreciate the connection between respect for authority and outward appearances, consider the one setting obsessed with maintaining authority —courts. Judges always dress the part though sartorial details vary. Severe black robes are standard while some wear special hats, even wigs and all sit high above the court proceedings. To drive home respect, judges are addressed with “your honor” or “may it please the court” and lawyers must ask permission to “approach to the court” for private conservation. Discussions are all judge-controlled and disrespect is punishable by contempt of court. All rise when the judge enters and nobody would dare catch up on e-mails during a trial. This is the physical aspect of respect for rule of law. Professors should be so lucky.

Other knowledge-based professions similarly understand the need to draw a sharp line between the expert and the client, the erudite and the ignorant. You can always spot top trial lawyers—sharply-tailored dark suits, flashy cuff-links, elegant ties, expensive leather attaché cases, real fountain pens, costly Swiss watches, perfect haircuts, and all the other “superficial” details that announce, “I am successful, very successful so you better listen to what I tell you!” Even doctors in a profession hardly famous for its Beau Brummels still wear ties and, when not in white, suits and decent sport coats.

The justification is obvious: who would heed a lawyer, financial advisor or doctor who showed up in dirty jeans, a frayed sport shirt, filthy running shoes etc. etc., who carried his professional papers in a nylon backpack? Not even a department dominated by radical egalitarians would hire a job applicant who arrived as if he was on the way to the beach. This would be insulting, a sign of disinterest in the job, and these egalitarians would be right.

At a minimum, dressing well informs students that one is serious about classroom responsibilities. If I can spend an extra hour before class matching ties and shirts, checking for stains, polishing my wingtips, combing my hair and all the rest, you can certainly pay attention.

Now consider a student who arrives for the first day of class and sees a professor who resembles a 1960s hippy-like graduate student (Levis, rumpled un-tucked shirt etc.) and if male, scraggly facial hair wearing a baseball cap and if female, tacky “folk” jewelry and a permanent bad hair day? It could be worse—the political billboard tee-shirt to remind today’s uninformed youngsters that “Bush Lied and People Died.” It makes no difference that this instructor may have a doctorate from Harvard and is being fast tracked to an endowed chair. Cultural conditioning is inescapable and ubiquitous: respect is given to those who dress the part and when they refuse, deference is not forthcoming. Professors should not look like janitors or stand-up comics.
I know teachers who wear shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops to school. I just can't do it. Maybe, just maybe, if they wear dressy-looking shorts, maybe I can see that, but they don't. To me it's just not appropriate, for all the reasons quoted above and in the rest of that post. I wear slacks and collared shirts to school, and on Fridays I might wear jeans and a staff t-shirt.

I don't remember where I heard or read this, but it's a rule of thumb I find appropriate for both students and teachers: if, when you get home from school, you don't feel like changing into something more comfortable, you're not appropriately dressed for school.

Update: By the way
, the Sac State professor wanted me to take three more math courses before he'd bless my transcript. I ended up taking the three tests instead.


Rhymes With Right said...


1) Spirit/organization t-shirts on appropriate days.

2) Coaches in shorts in the classroom from time to time, but not regularly.

3) Flip-flops only if you are recovering from foot surgery -- ditto sandals for guys.

Darren said...

Seems reasonable enough to me.

Mrs. Widget said...

I wear mostly skirts. When asked why, I say Professionalism. also "do you really want to see me in Capris?". Granted my style is steampunk, vest, pocket watch...but I point out, you could see me in a professional office.

Brother math teacher is always a dress shirt and tie. Refuses to wear jeans and t shirts on casual day.

My husband teaches business at a small university. Shirt, tie dress pants, who knows, some business person might just walk in wanting a student recommendation or a consultant.

MasonPiper said...

Hum. Mostly dress slacks and a Polo or Button up shirt. Occasionally a Tie, Logoed Shirt on Friday with jeans. Topsiders or Boots for the feet. And then there are the days I wear a kilt.

Anonymous said...

Sloppy clothes send one message and one message only: This is not a serious person.

PeggyU said...

who would heed a lawyer, financial advisor or doctor who showed up in dirty jeans, a frayed sport shirt, filthy running shoes etc. etc.,

Well ... it depends on the circumstances! I recall my dad (a small-town doctor) receiving an emergency call on a Sunday. They caught him as he was out clearing brush near the creek at the back of our yard. I think he probably washed his hands, but the rest of him wasn't looking any too sanitary as he left to attend to the situation. I only recount this because it is one of Mom's favorite stories. The parent of the child who had injured himself told Mom she about left when she first laid eyes on my dad in his filthy tee shirt and jeans. After the repair job on the child, however, the family became loyal customers!

Anonymous said...

As a parent, I completely agree. It is hard to teach kids that you dress for work at work when they see male teachers unshaven and in sweats, and female teachers in 3 inch heels and mini skirts. Yes, really, honest to gosh, the teachers at my kids' elementary school dress that way. I really wonder at the teacher's common sense if they can't tell the difference between a night club/lolling around on the couch before bed and the classroom.

maxutils said...

That's a ridiculous rule of thumb. Why does wearing uncomfortable clothing (your borrowed words) make you a better teacher or student? Personally, I'd rather be more cattle and less hat.

socalmike said...

When I was a young teacher (I'm in my 27th year now), I was told that dressing professionally would improve my classroom discipline, imperative for a young teacher. So I did, throughout my 20s and 30s. And it worked. Now that I'm in my late 40s, I still dress professionally (except on school gear Fridays), and it's amazing how well it has worked. Don't you want to be taken seriously? Don't you want your kids to respect you and what you do? Then dress like it matters.

Doug said...

As a teacher, My clothes (khakis/dress pants and collared shirt) are comfortable enough to wear standing in front of my class all day, so when I get home, I am still comfortable and don't need to change. However, but if I am going to come home and play with my kids, I am going to change out of my "work clothes". IMO, those that don't dress the part often don't play the part well either.

maxutils said...

Kids don't respect an outfit. They respect good teaching. And good teaching frequently does not wear a tie.

3rseduc / handsinthesoil said...

3 students is hardly a good statistical sample but a staff member of mine interviewed 3 senior students about what they t6hought could improve at our school and they said professional dress. They did say suit and tie was a bit much but that also teachers did not dress professionally. I have felt guilty this year, showing up to staff meetings in a nice shirt but with jeans, but then I usually have an infant in tow so such dress is conducive. Many teachers wear low-cut shirts (hello, you teach adolescent boys, bad idea) and our gym teacher/dean last year wore gym shorts the entire time...when running an expulsion hearing, how do you take the guy in gym shorts seriously?

Although in defense of young women, if you're say....20-25, professional clothing is either a ladies suit (which at least for me, looked odd...I'm petite and would look like I was swimming in the suits) which often looks too professional, or clothing that is professional for someone who is say, in their 50s or 60s which is not appropriate for a 20-something, or it is "club" type wear, where it looks dressy but it shows skin, is too tight, flashy. etc. Either professional clothes are finally beginning to improve for the younger crowd or I'm just getting older and finding "old" clothes to wear without knowing it.

TooMuchTime said...

Ever notice that both the teachers and the students, trying to be "individualistic," all wear the exact same uniform? Jeans and a t-shirt. But if you try to tell them they are wearing a uniform, they'll just laugh in your face. I remember as a student I used to dress nicely while pointing out the uniform the others wore.

Anonymous said...

Not only should teachers/staff dress appropriately, but so should students. I see no reason (biology field trip to pond etc.) for teachers to dress below the level of slacks/dressy khakis and dress shirt as a general rule. Ties and jackets for men are a nice touch and women should not wear sexy clothes of any sort. Even on officially designated casual Fridays, good jeans (not tight) and polo shirts are casual enough. The exceptions might be dressy bermudas and a sport shirt in hot weather, if there's no AC. BTW, when I was in school in the 50s-60s, Fridays were dress-up days for HS students; both guys and girls dressed as we would for church. Guys wore slacks, ties and sports jackets and girls wore nylons, heels and a nice dress. Of course, we were never allowed to wear athletic shoes. t-shirts or jeans and girls were not even allowed to wear slacks - and that was the norm in all of the public schools in my area.

Ellen K said...

Professional casual attire-collared shirts with khakis for men is the norm, appropriate skirts or pants for women with shirts or sweaters is normal for female teachers. Coaches sometimes wear school windsuits when they are heading to teach their sport. Jeans are only for Fridays and only with a spirit shirt.

Side note: Five years ago there was a very young, very lovely English teacher who persisted in dressing like she was going clubbing. Short skirts, high heels, see thru tops were regular features. And she had the gall to complain that her male students were not paying attention. Go figure.

Cal said...

"Kids don't respect an outfit. They respect good teaching. And good teaching frequently does not wear a tie. "

I agree with this. I wear jeans and a tee shirt every day, sometimes a button shirt. I'm a woman in her 40s.

From a practical standpoint, teachers in their mid-20s need to dress professionally to look different from their students, but that's a practical matter.

As for the guy who visited in cutoffs, perhaps he was already a student, as opposed to someone inquiring.

Finally, of course you take the tests. It gives you a much stronger credential and is, I believe, the only way you can win the "highly qualified" certifiation. I can't even imaging bothering with the credits.

Darren said...

The guy in the cutoffs *was* the professor.

And if a state school had "blessed" my transcript, I'd have exactly the same credential as I got from taking the tests. Taking the test, or having a state university "approve" your competence by looking at your transcript, were (are?) the two ways of establishing subject matter competence and hence of earning the "highly qualified" label.