I recently read a blog on advice for new teachers from veteran teachers. In it, a teacher and author of an advice book for teachers carefully counsels any new teacher listening to “dress the part”. She goes on to mention how, as new teachers, you must “earn your stripes” so to speak, and that first year is a proving ground for your professionalism. While I do agree (to a certain extent) with this supplemental reasoning behind “dressing the part”, I take issue with that fact that one ought to look like a teacher.
How a teacher is supposed to look is the bigger question here. And more importantly, who gets to decide what the “norm” is? If you feel comfortable wearing a dress shirt and tie when you go out there and teach, by all means go right ahead. But there is also nothing wrong with wearing a pair of jeans and some Air Jordan’s to work in my opinion either. Remember, the things you teach students are not solely derived from the curriculum you deliver. Your presence in the classroom, and the way you dress also serves as a learning lesson to your students.
Teaching requires an understanding that the school is a microcosm of the real world. And eventually your students are going to graduate and base their decisions (in terms of careers, etc.) off of what they explicitly and implicitly learned from the schools they went to. When a teacher walks into a classroom wearing a t-shirt and jeans, they are re-establishing our current notions of professionalism. In many urban areas, part of the reason why there is such a disconnect between students and teachers is due to the perceptual difference. Students sometimes disengage with schooling because the teachers they are learning from sound and look nothing like them. I am not suggesting that all teachers go out and dress like teenagers. Far from it. I am saying, be comfortable with what you wear to school because “dressing the part” also ties into a systemic realism created from those in privileged positions.
A teacher’s goal is to open possibilities for students. Part of an opening of possibility can be created when teachers break down the current and limited views of success and “professionalism”. Validating voices, appearances, and bodies that have been on the margins by society will be more easily achieved when we open up the idea of professional attire and trouble our current stereotypes. There are certainly things that a teacher should never wear to work (belly tops, ripped jeans, etc.). But there is no definite model that all teachers should adhere to. So when you tell a new teacher to dress the part, be mindful of what you are insinuating and what you are saying about particular cultures.
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