Sunday, 5 June 2011

Suits you, Sir!

The school I work at has quite a detailed dress code for teaching staff. Basically, we are expected to be smartly dressed at all times with male teachers expected to wear a suit, plain shirt and tie except in the warmer months when we are graciously exempted from having to wear jackets. This was quite a contrast to my first job teaching adults in a language school. No dress code existed there and it was often the students who were better dressed while the teachers strolled about in worn jeans and faded t-shirts!

In fact, one thing that put me off moving to my current school all those years ago (apart from having never worked with kids before) was the need to wear a suit and ‘shiny shoes’ every day. Nevertheless, I ‘suited up’ and went to work, having little choice in the matter it seemed.

Ooh! Suits you, sir!

Ooh! Image courtesy of dailymail.co.uk

It all seemed a bit formal though and I, together with most of my colleagues, was always looking for ways to bend the rules by wearing more comfy shoes, ‘smart-casual’ trousers, jumpers/sweaters and so on. After all, you will see and hear many people advising you to dress down and be prepared to get messy when working with kids so the less formal, the better, right?

Only this week, with warmer weather here, a jumper (even a sleeveless one) seemed too much but it was a bit too cool in the morning to go without a jacket so I donned a suit for the first time in ages. I then thought I should wear appropriate shoes to match and off I went. I wasn’t quite prepared though for the reaction I would get in my first class of the day:

“Ooooh!” said a student in my first class. “Very smart, teacher. Very nice!”

“Are we having a business meeting today?” joked another.

“Teacher, in this suit, you look very handsome” said another.

Then the best of all (for anyone who watched The Fast Show on BBC in the 90s at least): “What is yakışmak in English?” a boy asked. I told him we could use ‘suit’ as a verb and he said “Suits you, sir!”

But the strange thing was, after this initial burst of reaction, we started the lesson and the atmosphere was different somehow - the students were listening a lot more carefully than usual, taking turns, getting on with their work… quite unusual, especially as the summer holiday gets ever close! I asked why they were so keen and attentive and one boy proclaimed “You are wearing a suit so today’s lesson is very serious!”

It seemed me wearing a suit and dressing more formally had made some kind of impression on them. This was confirmed in the next class as there was a similar reaction when I walked in and then they got on with the lesson very studiously. I used the chance to chat with them about uniforms and appropriate dress for different circumstances. What surprised me was that these 10 year-olds were basically saying they thought a teacher should dress smartly. They also said that the more casually the teacher dresses, the more they feel they can ‘get away with things’.

So, maybe dressing less formally to seem more approachable is not actually the right way to go. Maybe that sends out the wrong signals about being less serious or more lax. Or perhaps it’s a cultural thing with the norm in Turkey for male teachers being smart suits. Anyway, I’ll suit up once again tomorrow and see if it has the same effect!

And what do you think? Should teachers dress smartly or casually? Do you have a dress code at work and do you agree with it? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

22 comments:

  1. Tha Fast Show :) absolutely loved it!
    As to the dress code, I find it helpful to wear something in between - not exactly a suit and a tie, but something that feels comfortable and is a bit more "presentable" than jeans and a t-shirt. I find clothing very important to how I feel in class, especially becasue my learners are mostly adults. It gives me a bit more grounding, from which it is easier to switch between a "serious" and a bit more relaxed work.

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  2. I am intrigued by the results of your little "experiment". As a male teacher, I think that dressing smartly is important, although as englishandfilm stated I prefer something between casual and formal. I resort to dress shirts without a tie in the summer months at my year-round school when the temperature outside approaches 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But, when the cooler weather returns and I don a tie again, I receive many of the same comments as David from my middle school (age 11-14) students. It certainly seems that dress matters to them.

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  3. Interesting!!
    It could be interesting to have an online poll on the topic!
    What are teachers called? By their last names with a prefix? I wonder if there is a connection to the general formality of the school atmoshphere. I know class we have corresponded with are shocked to hear that in Israel it is very common to call both the teachers AND the principal by their first name. The principal doesn't wear a tie, b.t.w. It's mainly high-tech workers and insurance salesmen who do!

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  4. Hi Dave,

    Here in Spain we tend to be very casual. Even "heads" are seen in jeans and T-shirts. I used to work in Thailand where I was always smartly dressed. I personally prefer to teach in jeans and a shirt or top but I think that there is something to be said for smart attire. I may try it next year in the secondary school where I work.

    Interesting read Dave.

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  5. Attire most certainly does matter. This is one of my biggest pet peeves - especially when teachers complain about not getting respect from the community. I am a female high school teacher and each and every day I wear heels, a suit coat or cardigan sweater, dress slacks, and about 60% of the time a skirt or dress. I have had students comment that it seems like I really care about and have pride in my job (which I do) but I attribute that perception to the way I dress. I am embarrassed by what I see teachers wear at my school. It isn't required that I wear specific attire, but I come from the state of mind that says you dress for success and it is apparent to me when I see my students respond to my instruction and take me seriously that it works!

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  6. For me, dressing somewhere in between works best. At times, I like to dress up and this certainly makes a good impression on the kids I teach -- mostly 13-18 y.o. Still, there are days when I dress down a bit, so that we can get into a TPR sort of mood, and accomplish tasks that require some moving around, or even sitting on the floor with them for a round "table" discussion. At the school where I teach, there is no specific dress code, so long as we avoid going too far down and walking in for class with flip flops, scruffy jeans or t-shirts, messy hair, etc. It is always good to look presentable, to give oneself the respect s/he deserves, and will eventually give others the same.

    Great post!

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  7. I've always worn dress pants, dress shirt, and tie. I've rarely worn a jacket, but teaching in Florida allows that sort of oversight, I believe. I agree completely; dressing up imparts a seriousness and respect. I don't fault anyone who dresses "down," but for me - dressing "up" works. It's my way of showing respect to the class.

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  8. Hi Dave,

    If you continue dressing smartly I'll be interested to know if the students' reaction remains the same, or if there is a change over time as they get used to a suit and tie as the norm!

    It always bugs me when managing at summer schools because some of the teachers seem to have no desire to look like anything other than scruffy backpackers (ahem), I can use this information as a carrot rather than the disciplinary stick.

    Cheers

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  9. I agree with lmatthews. If we want to be treated as professionals, we should look like professionals. I have always worn a shirt and tie to school and wouldn't think of doing it any other way. With so much attention being placed on teachers, we should look the part.

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  10. Thanks for all the responses so far. Funny sometimes how these 'spur of the moment' blog posts generate the most discussion. :)

    Well, I was in a suit again today and I have to say, for classes approaching the end of the year (only two weeks until summer holidays begin here now), the atmosphere was a lot more manageable than normal. It would be interesting to see if, as Richard asked, the effect would last long-term or not.

    Do you think I could get a research paper out of it next year? :p

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  11. I have been sitting on the fence for a while on this issue... Here are some of my meandering thoughts:

    I believe in the value in dressing appropriately for the the professional position I have sought - I just wish the the classroom was as clean as my attire at the start of the day.

    I think snap judgments regarding a person and their approach to the classroom are misguided... In my case, I have Multiple Sclerosis and with that comes an inability to moderate my body's temperature. Wearing shorts and a polo shirt (or sweat shirt) is my way of working through the issues that come from being placed in two different classrooms (one of which is a computer lab)every day (they are both on the same campus but different sides). Factor in the miserable air conditioning/heating systems and the heat generated from 36 computers -- something has to give. I could make a day or two with slacks and a tie but then would end up teaching needing the use of a cane or wheelchair... Again, something has to give.

    With this said, if I could have the room cleaned professionally every day (as buildings professionals use are) and have working heating and air conditioning on a daily basis (which means they also need to be operable for afternoon meetings, evening events and weekend activities), I would gladly don the clothing that has been hanging in my closet unworn.

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  12. Good move and an interesting experiment. One thing which irks me about a number of teachers is the way in which they dress: casual to the point of scruffy. The problem is that they reflect the "backpacker teacher" image which is part of the reason why TEFLers has such a bad image in many countries.

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  13. Haha, superb. I share you feelings about suits, in particular--stuffy and uncomfortable. However, I'm sure the reaction you received from your students was a welcome one. I wonder though, if you'd worn suits all along, whether students would have become desensitised to their effects...

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  14. Like most backpacking teachers starting out, I was all against suits and looking smart. In America and other places we tend to associate it with selling out or getting old. In fact, it's perfectly acceptable for high school teachers and university professors to show up in shorts and teach our classes. Generally, we find these people less stuffy.

    I quickly learned that this is not the case in many countries. If you show up casually dressed you'll be viewed as a slob and given less respect. I've found this concept very hard to get across to new teachers arriving from the West. They see you as some kind of corporate sell out when in fact it's a cultural reality in many places that by not wearing smart clothing, you'll be seen as unprofessional and not worthy of respect.

    For this reason, dressing up as a teacher is essential in many countries, Turkey included. I think this is one case where it's important to embrace the cultural differences because it really affects your job and the way people view you while there.

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  15. Hi Dave,
    This is a fascinating post. I've always found it difficult when my colleagues walk in in casual t-shirts and scruffy jeans, even though our contract says we shouldn't wear them. I always try to look neat, wearing 'office wear', although never going as far as wearing a jacket, because I don't feel I can teach properly when I'm wearing casual clothes. To me, this is my profession, and part of being professional is looking that way. That's not to say that the teachers wearing jeans etc aren't great teachers (they are!), just that as I student I would have a hard time respecting them and I always try to teach how I would want to learn.
    Sandy

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  16. Thanks for the further comments. It seems this issue is one everybody has an opinion on!

    Most of the comments come down on the side of dressing up smartly for the classroom, although there are obviously cases where this isn't practical, as in mrlane's situation.

    I followed a similar path to Nick, before coming to accept that smart dress is part of the image of a good teacher here. Funny that in my first job teaching adults, it was the male teachers who were a little too casual with t-shirts and worn out jeans, as Sandy describes. In my current job in the primary school, male teachers don't have much flexibility and, suit or no suit, you always see them in a shirt and tie - it's the female teachers in this school tend to get the chance to be a bit more casual with some of them appearing in 'fashionable sports' shoes and t-shirts in the warmer months. However, one strictly enforced part of the female teacher's dress code exists - 'no tight clothes'!

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  17. Not sure how relevant this is, but there was some research presented recently that showed that football managers that wear suits are more respected by their players than those who wear tracksuits. I'm not sure, however, that this makes them more successful.

    As as a language 'coach' there are times when I need to 'wear a suit', and there are times when I need to 'wear a tracksuit'. Being able to choose the right one at the right time is the key.

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  18. Hi James,

    You reminded me that earlier towards the end of the football season, there was controversy about Stoke City manager Tony Pulis not wearing a suit for the FA Cup semifinal and Wembely and the question was raised whether or not it would be appropriate for him to appear at the final in his tracksuit. I think in the end, he wore a formal suit pre-match but was in his tracksuit for the game!

    He certainly seems to be well-respected by his players. :)

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  19. In the school division where I work it is an expectations to dress like a professional so it's an expectation for everyone to do so. Having been in a division where that wasn't always the expectations and it did have an effect on how students and even parents perceived you.

    The old idea of "dress for success" is something that educators need to keep in mind. For me, the young students always see what tie I'm wearing and usually have a comment about who's on them - I have a collection of different character ties. It allows me to add a bit of fun to the shirt and tie dress.

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  20. Students are very smart! :) I have also noticed that nowdays students pay too much attention on how the taecher dresses, and love when the teacher is smartly dressed rather than casually, even though there are some that prefer teacher wearing casual clothes but in their head it' s all about the dress code. I think we have to be an example. So Dave, buy more suits and don't wear just one like one of my old Croatian teacher who was always wearing the same brown suit! I hope they are not too much expensive.

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  21. I agree that teachers need to be dressed professionally. And as a female staff member I have noticed that dress plays a big part in how students react to a lesson. We have "Formal Friday" at our school where both staff and students are expected to be dressed formally. For male staff this means lounge suit and ties. Female staff are expected to be in a "professional dress" with stockings. And our students are expected to wear their number one uniform with ties. I have taken to wearing a full suit with tie on formal Friday and even last period Friday I get more work out of my students than any other lesson all week because I am wearing a suit and tie.

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  22. Came across your blog today and felt the need to comment--even though my remarks are months late to the discussion. I have been retired from teaching for 8 years and admit that nearly 20 years ago I also conducted your dress code experiment with similar results. I noticed that the reaction crossed even more forcefully with parents, administration, and colleagues. So for my last 20 years in the classroom I dressed in full suit and tasteful watch and earrings with heels each day. I had developed a year round wardrobe of 14 suits which wore like iron, were adaptable to trends yet timeless in cut. I was very pleased with the impact as well as the long term savings on changing out my wardrobe each year to meet the trends of a season.

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