The deprofessionalization of teachers is one of the greatest threats to American educators today. From curriculum confining state and federal standards to micromanaging administrators, we teachers are constantly fighting back against a system that treats us as glorified presenters rather than the intellectual professionals we study and work so hard to be. And while this form of deprofessionalization deservingly receives the lion’s share of the attention from those who are fighting back against it, there are other infringements on teacher professionalism that should be challenged too. One of those infringements is the monopolized dictation of what a professional educator looks like.
I have a somewhat unique appearance for an educator. I’m a white guy (which ain’t all that uncommon), but I also have tattoos on my neck and forearms, gauge earrings, and prefer to dress in black jeans and flannel shirts nearly every day of the school year. My district was great last year in letting me be me, but after a week of back-to-school workshops, I am a little worried about some of the language that was being thrown around about “professionalism.”
What is more, I know that I have male colleagues in other districts that have far less liberty in this area than I do. Teachers who have to dress in collar shirts and ties, Dockers and penny loafers, and whose visible tattoos would not be tolerated. Teachers who, in a word, are required to dress like “professionals.”
The accepted notion of what it means to be a professional is one that is generally unchallenged in educational circles. However, I would argue that it is a notion that is incorrect on the one hand, and worse, harmful to our mission as educators on the other.
The idea that professionalism can be defined in a dress code is blatantly false. An incompetent teacher gains no additional ability or credibility by slipping on a necktie. Likewise, a competent teacher is no less capable of providing a quality education to her students when she happens to be wearing a pair of sneakers.
Professionalism is not a look; it’s an attitude. Professionalism is not about the way you dress; it’s about the way that you carry yourself. Teachers demonstrate professionalism when they hold all their students to high expectations, when they create a curriculum that is rigorous and culturally relevant, and when they show respect to each and every one of their students, eliciting a mutual respect in return.
I understand the rationalization behind “professional dress,” the idea that we need visual representations of the line that divides teacher and student. I simply disagree with its ability to achieve those results. We teachers distinguish ourselves as professionals by what we do in the classroom, and that is something that a dress code cannot help nor hinder.
The Paradigm of a Professional
But how can a dress code for teachers be harmful? Dress codes for teachers can be harmful because they monopolize the idea of what a professional can look like. We want all of our students to grow up to be professionals in their chosen trades. But when we create a cookie-cutter version of what a professional is, we are consequently alienating any students who don’t fit that mold, oftentimes students that already feel alienated in school due to things like culturally irrelevant pedagogies or a lack of peers who look and think like they do.
To link professionalism to certain articles of clothing, clothing that for the most part descends from White European traditions, alienates those students that struggle to envision themselves dressed in such attire, as well as students who simply do not desire to dress in that way. Hence, those students may come to the (false) conclusion that they can never grow up to be professionals.
But what happens when you expand the paradigm of a professional to include those of us who choose to look or dress less traditionally? What kind of cognitive dissonance might that create?
Admittingly, at first, it could be met with some resistance. “Professionals tuck in their shirts. My teacher leaves his shirt untucked. Therefore, my teacher is not a professional.” But as the school year passes, this initial rejection to expand one’s paradigm will be repeatedly challenged as the teacher continues to gain students’ trust and to facilitate a safe, caring, rigorous learning environment. The only option the student has left is to allow their paradigm to be expanded, to accept that teacher as the professional they have proven to be.
Credibility as a Status Quo Challenger
The other reason I believe that stringent teacher dress codes can be harmful to our mission as educators, particularly educators like myself who wish to build their classrooms and curriculums on a platform of social justice, is because they reduce our credibility as status quo challengers. Social justice teachers are constantly encouraging their students to challenge institutions and question traditions. This message simply isn’t as powerful when it is delivered by someone who looks like either a tool of corporate capitalism or like they have a 3:30 tee time after school that day.
Social justice teachers gain credibility by practicing what they preach. Students recognize them as different, an especially powerful experience for those students who feel different themselves. Witnessing such challenges from their teacher could inspire students to push back against unjust policies as well. This probably isn’t what most districts want, but it is what a district deserves when they enforce student dress codes that contain so many racist and sexist underpinnings.
Of course there are limits to how far one should take the “new professionalism” that I propose. For instance, I would never advocate for teachers to be able to wear bathrobes and slippers to school, nor would I approve the wearing of a t-shirt featuring Bob Marley enjoying a marijuana cigarette. That being said, a tee containing some Marley lyrics, “One Love” for example, could be very powerful both for making connections with students and spreading a message of love and acceptance. Bob, too, was a social justice advocate, after all.
Also, I do not want this to be misperceived as an attack on those teachers who do choose to dress in attire more traditionally considered as professional. I think it’s great when teachers rock funny ties or high heel shoes or don a dry-cleaned suit. Some kids really dig this too. I just don’t want these to be the only kinds of professionals that I see in my building.
Teachers with non-traditional dress and appearance show students that there is more than one way to be a professional. They teach students that being a professional is about who you are and how you act, not what you look like. And in that lesson, those teachers also teach students to be fuller, truer versions of themselves, to chase passions and follow dreams. “Be you,” they say, “and be the fullest, most successful version of that you that you can possibly be.”
Our physical appearance is how we express who we are. It’s how we show others our history and our culture, our interests and our values. Limitations on a form of expression so vital should only be made with the utmost care and caution, and only when the added security provided clearly outweighs the consequences of any damages such limitations might cause. That rationalization works for swastikas, but not for blue jeans, especially blue jeans with so much potentially powerful symbolism sewn into their seams.