School Dress

Many Americans are concerned about what students and teachers wear to school — clothing exacerbates social inequities, expresses power, becomes an opportunity for a lack of moral discretion, and … is becoming annoying. So some schools are doing something about it, including Wichita:

What’s going on in your community?

The Wichita School District is just one of a growing number in the nation cracking down on teacher apparel. Jeans are banned in at least one elementary school in New York City. A school district in Phoenix is requiring teachers to cover up tattoos and excessive piercings. And several Arizona schools are strictly defining business casual.

In an increasingly diverse nation where what you wear may be the ultimate self-expression, teachers are falling victim to the same dress code rules as their students.

In most cases, schools are taking the actions because they believe some teachers are dressing inappropriately. School board members received parental complaints about teacher dress at Arizona’s Litchfield Elementary School District, Superintendent Julianne Lein says.

The move comes at a time when the number of public schools requiring uniforms has nearly doubled over the past decade to 19%, reports the National Center for Education Statistics. The center doesn’t track teacher uniforms or dress codes. But it soon may have to, as schools have moved to:

•Ban tattoos and piercings. Teachers can’t sport outlandish hairstyles or facial piercings, and tattoos have to be covered up at the Litchfield Elementary School District.

Fifth-grade teacher Tim Schooley, who says he’s surprised it’s taken so long to implement a dress code, isn’t sure how school officials will enforce the tattoo rule. He has a tattoo on his calf, but keeps it covered .

“Tattoos can be a symbol or something of extreme significance that you have,” he says. “That, to me, is a little bit different.”

•Outlaw jeans. At New York’s P.S. 64 Robert Simon School, jeans are an absolute no-no.

•Nix skinny straps. Students shouldn’t be seeing too much of their female teachers in Peoria and Litchfield school districts, as tank-top straps can’t be less than 2 inches wide.

What happens to those who don’t follow the new rules?

“Staff members will first be counseled by their supervisor to brainstorm options in ways to meet the code,” Superintendent Lein says. “Further non-compliance will be dealt with through the normal disciplinary channels.”

But in this case, not detention.

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  • PJ Anderson

    I’m a big fan of dress code and appearance requirements for students. Thus it should extend to teachers. In my line of work we have professional appearance expectations. If you can’t meet them you are quietly asked if it is a financial issue. If not you are expected to meet the expectation.

    Students learn better in environments that are relatively free from distraction. I know a lot of younger Gen-Xers and Millennials have a fascination with tattoos. The request that you cover them up is reasonable. However I also realize that freedom of expression is something many legal organizations have sought to maintain. So while I’m all for the idea of expectations I also realize it probably won’t stand on judicial review.

  • scotmcknight

    We are seeing and hearing about more uniforms for public schools. We’re thinking this is a better idea than a bad one.

  • James Rednour

    “Tattoos can be a symbol or something of extreme significance that you have,” he says. “That, to me, is a little bit different.”

    Sorry, you’re there to do a job, not express something of significance. You can express whatever you want in your own free time, but when you’re in the classroom, you are representing the school and the district, not to mention being a role model to students. Teachers don’t get to use the Charles Barkley line of of thinking.

    I think as more Millennials enter the workforce, they are going to find out that sporting a bunch of tattoos are detrimental to your career opportunities. Would you as an employer want someone sporting a multi-colored sleeve tattoo to represent your company to potential clients?

  • As a Brit, the idea of going to an American school with no uniform would terrify me! We complained about our old-fashioned uniform (shirt and tie, knee-length pleated skirt and flat shoes) all the time, but we all admitted that we felt really stressed when we got to wear our own clothes to school once a year.

    A uniform meant we didn’t have to worry about it. My school was especially strict – much more so than the schools my friends went to. Everyday we were inspected to check our top buttons and cuff buttons were done up, skirts reached our knees and ties touched our waistbands etc. I’m sure it helped our school get some of the best exam results in the country for a not-private school. Again, a lot of grumbling, but it meant that we could concentrate on other stuff. And it didn’t make us all repressed and unable to show our individuality – just forced us to show it in ways other than our appearance. (I finished school in 2005)

    And as for staff – I definitely can’t imagine ever seeing teachers in jeans! I think if kids are going to be taught that professionalism counts when it comes to getting a job after school, they need to see it in action. But perhaps what’s considered professional will change over the years? Not wearing a hat would have been considered preposterous 100 years ago (or even 50) – don’t see many businessmen in bowler hats in London anymore!

  • Sean P. Nelson

    James asked… “Would you as an employer want someone sporting a multi-colored sleeve tattoo to represent your company to potential clients?” Yes. Why not? I wouldn’t mind either way.

    I think this is a cultural context issue more than anything else. Or maybe an age difference issue? My guess would be that James is older and / or from a more conservative context (geographic or social).

    But I hope people learn to get past these personal “taboos” (i.e. tattoos) and allow people to be who they are. Part of the human experience is developing an identity and expressing that to others. Why do we want to make everyone look the same? I don’t like school uniforms and all this other self-identification erasure.

  • Sean P. Nelson

    I should add… I think there is a difference between allowing self-expression and allowing explicit / sexually inappropriate expression. So I understand that some dress code does need to be in place. Tattoos can be explicit as well. If so, they should be covered up in a school environment.

  • Fish

    One benefit of uniforms is that it helps to relieve the insecurity of children whose parents cannot afford to keep up with the latest fashions. It is one thing to chose one’s identity; it is another thing entirely to have that identity – as in “look at those stupid shoes, doesn’t she know that everyone is wearing Uggs, what a retard” (and I’ve heard far worse than this) – placed upon a child. Dressing for school should not be a character-building exercise in making a child tough and resilient against cruel remarks from peers.

  • James Rednour

    “I think this is a cultural context issue more than anything else. Or maybe an age difference issue? My guess would be that James is older and / or from a more conservative context (geographic or social).”

    I’m 42 but I interact often with college students in a teaching setting, and I’m more libertarian than conservative so I’m all for individual expression. Having said that, I think that allowing teachers to display tattoos sends an implicit message to their students that tattoos in the workplace are not that big a deal. I assure you that many potential employers do not feel the same way, especially those who deal with clients face to face on a regular basis. Choices have consequences. Even if you have the right to have a barbed wire tattoo around your neck that does not mean that it won’t potentially cost you something later in life.

    An of course, if schools allow for non-explicit tattoos to be displayed, they will then have the potential problem of defining what explicit means. Far easier to just say that all tattoos must be covered.

  • StephL

    I have been posting as Steph. I will post as StephL from now on to more easily allow more Stephs into the conversation, without confusion.

    Small tattoos around ankles have become more and more popular for women. It would be hard to cover them up except with socks. That leaves wearing skirts and dresses out. (bobby socks, anyone?) You could wear boots, I suppose.

    I do have a friend who is a teacher who has an ankle tattoo and got it for an intensely emotional and personal reason, to remember the country in which she spent more than two decades and where her missionary father was murdered. I have another teacher friend who got an ear pierced (male teacher) after his dad died, and then after his brother died. He is in his fifties and lives in a small, Mennonite town. Seems to get along as a high school teacher just fine.

    Regarding the shoulder strap size, our school district spells that out for students. I am a little surprised that teachers wouldn’t just comply with that one out of common sense, since if something is expected out of students in terms of dress, teachers should at least match that. If students aren’t allowed to wear jeans, for example, then that changes things, and teachers obviously shouldn’t either. It is not clear to me why principals could not simply address this on an individual basis with teachers, based on that concept.

    My elementary-age-kids’ teachers *sometimes* wear jeans. As a former teacher, I was surprised by it, but I don’t mind it. It is appropriate to be casual when spending time with twenty plus kids in our casual classrooms. In a more formal setting, where kids are expected to rise and stand every time a teacher walks into a classroom (the context in which I attended elementary school in the seventies), dress code would be different. I think my fifth grade teacher wore dress shirts and ties and maybe suit jackets.

    Business dress is just that, for business contexts for the sake of clients, polished image, etc.

    Based on the context of my kids’ local school, where teachers dress modestly and have generic hairstyles, I don’t see the need for a change. Put me in the unconvinced camp. And the students’ dress choices are already spelled out and clear. School nurses seem to have extra clothing on hand, so if someone is not complying, throw a big, baggy t-shirt on them. If that happens often enough and they really care about style, they’ll adapt.

  • StephL

    I meant the t-shirt comment for the students, it they can’t or opt not to go home and change, or bring extra clothing when they know they are pushing the limits.

  • StephL

    Ok, there is one thing that could make me change my mind and be pro-uniform. My t-shirt comment made me think about embarrassment and humiliation, and while some kids find it fun to test the limits, and would not be mortified by the t-shirt, some students get a little too close to the limit by accident, because they really like an outfit and think it is okay, and they feel humiliated in the process of being called out on the rule breaking. It is possible for the specific rules to lead to a culture of legalistic crackdown and embarrassment or even humiliation, and in that case, let’s just go with uniforms…. Too many detailed specifics can be detrimental. When it comes to strap width and skirt length, often, in the application of rules, girls lose, girls get wounded, whether prone to testing limits or not. Stores don’t cater to school rules, after all.

  • Bob S.

    Uniforms or well defined dress codes for students and teachers. I was dead set against this back when I was in school but now that I have kids I’ve changed my mind. Express yourself outside of school all you want. Come to school to learn/teach and leave as many of the unnecessary distractions behind. There is still plenty of baggage brought to school each day by both students and teachers, clothes don’t need to be one of them.

  • Peter Stone

    In the UK I do not know of one School where students don’t wear a uniform. For me while I hated wearing a tie to School everyday, wearing a Uniform meant that you didn’t have to worry about what you wear, immodesty was out as everyone had to abide by the length requirments and it also meat if you wear from a less well off family you wouldn’t get picked on as the school would usually give you grants to help you get the uniform. For me it only becomes an issue if society lets it become an issue.

  • Travis Greene

    The following is of course just my opinion, but it’s strongly held. I went to a middle school that had uniforms, and it was absolutely not the case that they prevented the usual judgments about brand names and whatnot. I suppose it might be different if every single item you wear was from a uniform you had to buy from the school, but we still had control over shoes, belts, what *brand* of blue or khaki pants, watches, jewelry, etc. Kids will find a way to make fun of each other, and in my experience, uniforms did not free up space to learn so much as make us spend all our time worrying about compliance to various rules. A minimal dress code with respect to modesty, appropriateness, and safety is a good idea. Having a session or class on business or more formal attire might be as well. But uniforms are worrying about your company letterhead or logo when you don’t even have a product to sell yet.

  • Rick

    Speaking as a teacher, I am kind of surprised that these schools didn’t have dress codes in place already. The schools I have worked for had staff dress codes. It was definitely business casual. Usually I wear dockers and polos with comfortable dress shoes. Tats are covered. I have been noticing the appearance of nose rings in my current school. Very small and quite frankly unoffensive. We do it get casual Thursdays. (I teach in a 4 day school.) Here, I am allowed to wear dressier shorts on the hot days, but most of the time it’s jeans and a polo. I have to pay to wear jeans. The money goes into a scholarship program. I haven’t seen it abused much in my area. The teachers I work with are professionals and dress accordingly. I do know;however, that a lot of colleges are emphasizing what is appropriate attire for teachers. I thought it was sad that they actually had to explain to students that a thong wasn’t appropriate work attire.