Dressing (Teachers) For Success
"Dressing appropriately" used to be a phrase with universal meaning. But in an age where flip flops appear in White House photos, some school districts want to make it clear how they expect all staff members -- including teachers -- to dress. Included: Sample dress codes, tips on drafting staff dress codes.
Everyone, of course, knows what "dress appropriately" or "dress professionally" means. Or do they?
Just as student dress has become more casual in recent years and tested boundaries of good taste, some districts found that faculty and staff members were dressing down a little too much on the job. They began instituting staff dress codes that were much more specific than the previous one-line "dress professionally" in the staff handbook.
While some teachers find the very idea of dress codes insulting, some administrators say they can work if enough people give input and administrators are flexible in implementing them.
"For us, it's a local issue," said Bruce Hunter, interim spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). "Some people feel more comfortable with certain styles, and you have to see what dress does to the learning environment."
YOU WORE WHAT WHERE?
"Appropriate dress" always has had different meanings among generations, but lately the definition seems to be more fluid than ever. When some members of the national champion Northwestern University women's lacrosse team wore flip flops to a meeting with President Bush at the White House, many people were appalled that the players did not see this as a fashion faux pas. The players seemed genuinely surprised at the fuss. While many people still view them solely as beach attire, others regard the new generation of flip flops as appropriate footwear for most occasions.
"I think the ideas of what is professional or appropriate have changed, fueled by the term 'business casual,'" said Carla Sutherland, assistant superintendent of the Sayreville, New Jersey, public schools. "I think that is confusing to people. It can mean different things to different people."
Administrators in districts that adopted staff dress codes told Education World they did so not because of glaringly inappropriate dress by faculty members -- that is, low-cut, torn, or see-through clothing -- but to set a tone for the school and an example for the students, and clarify what they meant by professional dress. Some administrators reasoned that if they were going to be very specific about what students wear, they should do the same for adults.
Some reported smooth implementation of policies, while others faced questions, grumbling, and grievances.
SETTING A STANDARD
Sayreville adopted a dress code for all its employees, with no complaints, according to Sutherland. "There were no problems when it was instituted. In three years, we have yet to employ any sanctions," she said.
Administrators thought the dress code was needed to set a standard and an example for students. "We recently had seen a great decline in student dress. Ripped clothing, more flesh showing, baggy pants, undergarments showing," Sutherland said. "They [students] were coming to school like they were going to the beach. We wanted a different climate for an educational institution."
The staff policy prohibits jeans, see-through clothing, torn clothing, short or very tight-fitting clothing, sweat suits, shorts, hats, with exception of religious headwear, thongs (flip flops), and sneakers or athletic shoes, although gym teachers are permitted to wear athletic shoes.
Women are expected to wear skirts, split skirts, or slacks with blouses or sweaters, or dresses or suits. As for men, "suits or sport jackets with ties are strongly encouraged, but not required," according to the policy. Men are expected to wear slacks and collared shirts, although turtlenecks and sweaters also are permitted.
"It was a group effort in putting it together and implementing it," said Sutherland. "The faculty and administration worked many months on this dress code."
The dress-up standards trickled down to other aspects of the school community as well. After the board of education approved the policy, she added, it adopted an even more stringent policy for itself, which requires male board members to wear jackets and ties and women dresses, skirts, or pantsuits at board meetings.
THE JEANS DEBATE
Other districts altered their dress codes not only to set a standard, but also in part to discourage staff members from wearing jeans, a move that did not always go over well with faculty.
That was one of the reasons the Santa Ana (California) Unified School District implemented a staff dress code for its 5,689 employees, and then later revised it. (Click here to read Santa Ana's policy.)
"The policy came in with a change of board members," said Susan Brandt, the district's interim spokeswoman. "We had instituted uniforms for students in K-8, and the board thought it was a good time to do staff dress. The next step was to set some standards, which didn't sit well with some teachers. They felt teachers knew best what to wear.
"I think the board wanted to get the teachers out of jeans," she continued. "District-wide, there is no denim allowed [for staff members]."
Tom Harrison, president of the Santa Ana Educators Association, called the dress code policy a "control issue" that was on the personal agenda of a board member at the time.
"About ten years ago, we had a school board member who thought some teachers at the junior high school were inappropriately dressed," Harrison told Education World. "The policy was imposed, and then grieved. It required mandatory ties, high heels, and stockings. Teachers did not participate.
"After all, elementary teachers wear clothes that can get gooey."
The revised policy gave teachers more latitude in their dress, but still prohibited blue jeans, sandals, shorts, beachwear, see-through clothing, and apparel with questionable slogans. "We can wear athletic shoes, but not dirty ones," added Harrison. "We're on our feet all day, so that makes sense.
"Pretty much the only complaint teachers have is about blue jeans," he continued. "The jeans issue was contentious. The policy said blue jeans, so people did not question black jeans. Very few people are super-casual."
DRESSING UP THE WEST
When District 11, Colorado Springs, Colorado, revised its Staff Dress, Accessories, and Grooming policy, language was added indicating the district "discourages" staff members from wearing jeans, but stopped short of prohibiting them.
"We had lots of people wearing blue jeans," Naleski said. "We want the staff to look professional and be role models."
Staff members were notified of the revisions, but Naleski admitted she wasn't sure the policy revisions would change behavior. "We do have a lot of faculty members wearing jeans. I predict there will be men and women wearing jeans this year."
Irma Valerio, president of the Colorado Springs Education Association, said whether jeans are allowed or not is not really an issue for teachers. "But the principals may enforce that more this year," she told Education World.
While characterizing Colorado Springs as a conservative city, its pioneer roots continue to influence dress and other aspects of daily life, said Naleski. "It is a very casual place; it is still very much the West. You don't see a lot of people in hose and heels and suits."
Still, in 1997 the administration requested that a committee of staff members be formed to draft a dress code because of a sense that employee dress was becoming too casual.
"Teachers were coming to school in Birkenstocks (sandals) and running shorts, and then complaining they were not being treated as professionals," said Donna Hines, a secretary who served on the original dress code committee. "The committee felt that was inappropriate dress for work."
Some teachers also were attending evening meetings with parents dressed very casually, including wearing shorts, Naleski added. "We want them to dress professionally at any work-related activity at which students and parents are present."
The initial staff response to the policy was "very mixed," according to Hines. "The running shorts people were not happy."
Several committee members, though, believed the dress policy should be even stricter, and wanted to prohibit women from wearing pants, said Naleski.
One of the most contentious aspects of the policy when it was introduced eight years ago was the requirement for women to wear stockings. That is loosely enforced because of the heat at certain times of the year and a lack of air conditioning in most buildings, Naleski told Education World.
"You have to use common sense," she said. "No one should be wearing pantyhose if it's 95 degrees. It can reach at least 95 degrees in some classrooms. School resumed Aug. 18 and it was very hot during the day. And people should not be required to follow the dress code if they are on an outdoor field trip."
The district's superintendent, Dr. Sharon A. Thomas, in fact, rarely wears stockings, and when a male staff member pointed out that she was in violation of the dress code, "she put him in his place," according to Naleski.
Valerio agreed that the stockings' requirement generated the most grumbling among the female staff members.
The policy also forbids clothing that exposes cleavage, private parts, the midriff, undergarments, or that is otherwise "sexually provocative." Also banned are sleepwear, headwear, and sunglasses.
Asked whether many principals had encountered teachers wearing sexually provocative clothing or pajamas, Naleski said no. Some female office staff members had been wearing very low-cut sundresses that some people thought were inappropriate, she said. Committee members included sleepwear on the teachers' banned list to be consistent, because it is prohibited under the student dress code.
Most teachers dress pretty professionally, Valerio said, adding that some do wear shorts in warm weather. "We do want them to set an example."
SANCTIONS FOR STAFF
Enforcement of the policies falls to building administrators, and usually involves speaking privately to the staff member about his or her dress for a first offense. Subsequent violations can result in a letter in the staff member's file, and repeated offenses can result in suspension, or even dismissal, in some districts.
A Colorado Springs teacher who consistently ignores the district's policy could be fired because, after several violations, that person would be considered insubordinate, said Naleski.
Policies, though, are only as good as the enforcement at the building level, and can vary from school to school.
"These are standards," noted Santa Anna's Brandt, referring to the district's employee dress code. "At the site level, it is up to the administrators to implement the policies."
While the district policy prohibits staff members from wearing blue jeans, principals rarely question teachers who wear jeans, said Tom Harrison, president of the Santa Ana Educators Association. "The principals stopped enforcing it," Harrison said. A new principal, though, recently approached a teacher this year and asked her not to wear jeans, and she reported that to the union, Harrison added.
The revisions to the Colorado Springs employee dress code were done in part to clarify some sections and facilitate enforcement.
"There were some questions as to whether the policy was clear to employees," Naleski told Education World. "We found different people were enforcing it to different extents." The biggest problem with the policy, said Hines, "is that not all principals enforce it."
The president of the teachers' union, though, said policies can be implemented without sanctions. "I don't think there should be a reprimand [for violations]," said Valerio. "A principal should talk to someone and not make blanket statements. I haven't seen a problem that can't be fixed by talking to individuals."
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