April 09, 2009

Research explores ‘appropriate’ dress for teachers

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Exposed midriffs, pajama bottoms and far too many jeans and flip-flops spell trouble in a school environment -- especially when worn by teachers.

“Students say, ‘We have a dress code -- why shouldn’t they?’” said Jane E. Workman, a Southern Illinois University Carbondale fashion design and merchandising professor, who with Beth W. Freeburg in workforce education has a grant from the Illinois University Council for Career and Technical Education to try to define just what makes a teacher’s outfit “appropriate” or “professional.” They reported preliminary results at a professional conference funded by the Illinois State Board of Education in Springfield in March.

The two longtime collaborators became interested in this problem when they noticed a flurry of news stories detailing concerns about the way teachers dressed.

“One article described a male teacher wearing a belt with a buckle shaped like a marijuana leaf,” Freeburg said.

“Another one talked about a principal with multiple body piercings.”

Intrigued, the pair searched out school employee handbooks and guidelines online, looking for dress codes related to teachers. They found 90 percent of those they examined had such rules, all of them vague.

“They’d say teachers should dress in an ‘appropriate’ or ‘professional’ manner but never defined what that was,” Workman said.

Added Freeburg, “If you receive a reprimand from your principal for what you have on, you need to have some sort of clear-cut rule.”

Both professors believe society’s increasing acceptance of casual dress has something to do with why a teacher might show up to class in sneakers and sweats. But something else is at work here, too.

“With lots of retirements in the schools, there are a lot of new teachers, many of them not much older than the students,” Freeburg said. “It’s easy for them to be confused about what’s appropriate.”

Said Workman, “Also, new teachers are sometimes reluctant to give up their role as ‘young people’ to adopt the professional role.”

Nonetheless, it’s important that they do so, the pair stressed. Teachers serve as role models for students. More importantly, it’s difficult to establish authority and discipline in the classroom if the teacher looks just like the kids.

But to dress appropriately, you have to know what that is. That’s where the duo’s project should prove helpful. Using 25 pictures of teachers dressed in a variety of styles, Workman and Freeburg have developed an online survey that will allow school administrators and board members throughout the state to rate each outfit on a six-point scale as to whether it’s professional or appropriate.

The difference between the two terms depends on context. Most folks would agree that a tailored suit and well-shined leather shoes look professional, where khakis and coveralls don’t. But if the teacher spends a lot of time on the floor with autistic children or in a shop demonstrating how to tune a car engine, the khakis and overalls would certainly be appropriate.

If respondents label certain outfits as almost or not quite to standard, Workman and Freeburg will then try to identify the elements that don’t make the grade. Once they’ve put it all together, they will develop an online seminar for new teachers and those on the verge of entering the profession.

“A standard definition of professional dress for teachers has been needed for a long time because everyone’s been coming up with their own,” Workman said.

“I think policy makers will find this very useful.”