I like that I can experiment in my position as coach. So today, I would like to experiment by departing from my usual posts about teaching. Someone needs to address the topic of professional dress in the field of education, so it might as well be me.
We are role models to young people, even in the way we dress. It is true that no one should be judged on their appearance, but it would be irresponsible to suggest that all clothing choices are equal. Ideally, all people would be accepted for who they are and for the content of their character, but our society is not there yet. Freedom of style choice and personal expression is an important aspect to who we are, but we can’t be so naive to ignore the reality of the workplace.
The reality is that some education professionals – myself included – make fashion choices that are improper for work. Most of the choices are not career-ending failures, but they can sometimes affect our professional impression, impact the way our colleagues perceive our abilities, and influence how people treat us. We all make mistakes, and I know that. I am not trying to condemn anyone, just inform those who many not be aware of the unwritten rules regarding professional dress.
Because I am a woman and have had these experiences, I am focusing specifically on young women today. I know there are also rules of professional dress for men, but I am not qualified to speak on this topic. Another reason I would like to address young women is because I am concerned about how others treat them based on their appearance. Sometimes I see them dress up for graduation or show up for a job interview and see that they think they look formal or classy, but I fear their choice of clothing may convey a much different message.
The same goes for the younger teachers. Sometimes they just don’t realize what the acceptable dress might be for a job. They are also young and often want to be in style with the current trends. However, these trends do not always allow for optimal professional acceptance. I don’t think that is fair, but I know that it can be true.
Please don’t think me judgmental. I would never be condescending to a young woman because of her clothing choice. I am a high school teacher and understand that clothing is intimately connected to who we are. I value individual expression and creative personality. If students dress inappropriately, their choices do not diminsh their value to me. I understand that students may not be aware of the disadvantages to what they are wearing, and I know many like to test boundaries .
I will privately speak with students about the dress code – both girls and boys. My purpose in talking to them is to inform them of the rules and to find out the purpose for their choices. I will often try to help them see why another choice of clothing might be a better way to achieve the goal they had in mind.
Why do some young people dress inappropriately?
In my experience, there are several different reasons why young people might make these choices:
Sometimes they don’t know their clothes are inappropriate. They may not have a lot of money. One colleague remarked to me that she felt bad for her seventh and eighth grade girls with tight see-through pants because they bought their clothes at the swap meet and couldn’t afford quality clothing that fit well or was made of durable material. I had never considered that to be a reason why they might make that fashion choice.
Students are also bombarded with fashion messages from celebrities online and in the media. They often are not aware of the exaggerated fashion suitable in the entertainment industry and may not understand that there are different occasions that require different types of clothing.
Sometimes they don’t understand what is flattering to their body type. They may not be able to accept the reality of their appearance and they may buy the wrong size because their body has changed.
Sometimes they don’t understand the reason behind a rule. I taught at a private school where girls were required to wear undershirts beneath their white blouses. I had to delicately explain to one girl who was not wearing one that the button on her blouse was open and she needed something underneath her shirt for her own privacy. She was mortified!
Like shirts, low-cut and low-hanging jeans can also reveal more than the wearers intended, but the wearers may not think about the possible embarrassing consequences of their fashion choice.
Sometimes they just don’t realize the effect of their clothing on others. Some symbols or acronyms may offend other groups. A silhouette of a woman on a t-shirt might make a girl feel objectified. Perhaps a popular artist on clothing might call to mind a song with inapporpriate lyrics.
Maybe they don’t know that alcohol or drugs or violence is not appropriate for school because they haven’t read the dress code or thought about the message the clothing might send.
They may think something with a double entendre is funny, but school personnel may need to inform them that school is not a place for degrading or vulgar comments that demean or distract other students.
And sometimes they realize what they are doing and they are doing it intentionally, in which case I will often sit down with the student and ask if that is really how they want to receive attention, and how that kind of attention can affect a person. Most of the time, the student means no harm and only wants someone to notice or care about him or her. Often they will admit that they are going through rough times and share their emotions.
If they don’t see anything wrong with what they are doing, and the parent(s) aren’t bothered by it, then there isn’t much a teacher can do to change their choices other than model professional dress in the hopes that they will realize later that they could influence people in different ways with different clothing choices.
The Question: How does one address this sensitive topic?
I would like to be informative in the following suggestions without being judgmental, slightly funny without being offensive, and supportive of women without ignoring the reality of gender and sexuality.
The road to success in the professional enviornment has been a difficult one for women. Sexism is real. The “glass ceiling” has been stopping women for years. All too often, young women have been treated as objects or useful only for their appearance without regard to their skills and ideas. Sexual harassment continues in the modern era.
But tackling these issues can also mean crossing over boundaries – for example, how does one tell someone that her dress is too short?
Many questions arise, such as: how short is too short, exactly?
Too short by whose standards?
Why not wear what makes you feel good?
Why not be comfortable?
If you’ve got it, why not flaunt it?
It’s not a woman’s fault if people get the wrong message – that’s the viewer’s own fault.
So, here are some of my thoughts – the metacognitive for all to see my writing process:
- Do I say that women need to be professional so others don’t get distracted? That sounds like it’s a woman’s fault if someone chooses to focus on her looks rather than working.
- Do I suggest that women should not want to feel attractive at work? Many women want to feel attractive and do their best work when they feel confident and self-assured.
- Do I say that a woman who dresses inappropriately sends the wrong message? That sounds judgmental, like I am determining for her what is the right message.
- Do I say that others might think she is just there to meet dates? Then it sounds like I am saying she is responsible for how others interpret her clothing.
Since I want you to keep reading, I will begin with some lessons I’ve learned.
Some fashion lessons I’ve learned over the years
We aren’t born with knowledge of what work clothes should look like. This lesson is often a series of learning from many mistakes over time. I am not a fashion expert, but I have worked in offices and attended professional events. What I have learned has been through dress codes and the mistakes of others and myself. To help you understand that there is a definite learning curve to dressing professionally, I share some of my career clothing errors:
- When I was fit, I enjoyed wearing clothing that showcased my figure because I worked hard on achieving those results. I didn’t realize that I appeared unprofessional to students. I also didn’t think that other teachers viewed me as “available” because my colleagues knew I was in a relationship and I wasn’t trying to meet anyone. I changed my style because I wanted to be taken seriously. I wanted credibility with students, and I wanted respect from my colleagues — not their phone numbers. I learned by how others treated me when I wore certain clothing that I needed to change.
- Sometimes parents, students, colleagues, or administrators will tell you that you need to make better fashion decisions. Once a principal discreetly let us know that someone’s (me) work clothing was inappropriate due to the length of her skirt. She gave us a general reminder to make sure we were dressing conservatively enough that our clothing covered us when we leaned out to close the window.
- Another time, a student revealed the error to me. I liked wearing low-cut blouses and form-fitting pants because I thought they were flattering on me. I did not realize that some of the eighth grade boys were distracted by my clothes until one made an inappropriate remark to me.
- Other times, people are afraid to approach you to tell you about your clothing choices and you just have to figure it out on your own. Once I wore vinyl platform boots to work because I thought they were cool, but I didn’t realize that they looked tacky. Looking at the pictures of myself that day, I thought, “Those boots look unprofessional. Maybe I shouldn’t wear my Halloween costume boots to work anymore,” and that was my epiphany.
PART I. SHOES
So, now that we are better acquainted, let’s begin with shoes today. Take a look at these photos and determine why these shoes may be inappropriate for work:
- The first thing to remember is that the accepted standards of professional dress vary. What may be fine at my job may not work in your district. Hot temperatures, such as California (where I live), Arizona, Texas, and Florida may have different guidelines because of the weather. That said, it is inappropriate in many places to wear open-toe shoes.
Even if you have cute manicured toes and no callouses on your heels – and not everyone does – showing your toes is often a no-no. (I can’t say why this is a practice, but I did work with a colleague obsessed with women’s feet. It was not suitable for work, that’s all I can say.) Office etiquette in some areas may also require women to wear tights or nylons if their legs or feet are showing. Look around and see what others are wearing. You may even ask what is acceptable in your organization.
- Formal shoes are different than dress or casual shoes. Shoes you would wear to a wedding or prom may not fit in well in an office. They are often distracting and can make the wearers seem like they are not knowledgable about appropriate clothing. They are also often made for a one-night event and not built to sustain repeated use, so they sometimes lack support for repeated wear and may therefore be even more uncomfortable than standard heels.
- Straps and other accessories should usually be minimal. One exception: I once saw a young woman with purple suede mocassin high heel booties at a training. Everything else she wore was black, and she had no other jewelry or accessories. I don’t know why the outfit looked professional, but it did. Usually, it is wise to stick with just one or two straps or other small decorations on the shoes.
- High heels are appropriate. Super-high heels are not often appropriate. Here is a visual from Capitol Hill Style. (The blog is a good one.)
Most women want to look classy at work. There is sometimes a fine line between what is considered classy and what is not. People will often take you more seriously if your heels are on the lower side. Platform shoes are generally associated with the entertainment industry and do not often appear professional in an educational environment. This is also why the see-through acrylic platforms will generally not work in an office as well.
The “dress code” at my workplace is pretty relaxed. I am in jeans and a t-shirt as I write this because Wednesdays are “college t-shirt day.” However, when I must present at a meeting or attend a conference with district personnel, I know that I must dress appropriately. I have learned by experience and understand that there is a time and a place for everything. That is my main message today: find out what works where you are and dress for success in your organization.
I hope my observations have been helpful in clearing up the confusing and frequently unformalized and unwritten rules. I wish you positive impressions from all who meet you and success in all of your endeavors!
TOMORROW: PROFESSIONAL CLOTHING CHOICES
Other notes about coaching today:
No post for yesterday due to my attendance at Units of Study.
We used the peer editing forms to guide our work on the Chromebooks; students added comments to the Google Doc which the author shared with them.
I also researched some of the topics for presentation on technology and emailed Amy to find out about what I should present on Friday.
I will be meeting with a coachee and hosting some classes in my room to work with the Chromebooks. I spoke with the coachee to determine what skills we should focus on, and we agreed we would meet tomorrow at 8:30 to set the assignment up on her Haiku. I am creating a lesson to upload tomorrow for our meeting.
Thank you for reading and have a pleasant day!