Rags to riches

8th January 1999 at 00:00
You may want torevise your wardrobe for school life, suggests Mike Fielding

Play a word association game about clothes and most people given the word "teacher" will reply "scruffy". The popular teaching image remains the leather-elbowed sports jacket for men and the drooping cardigan for women. And many examples of this genre survive. But whereas style in the classroom used to be mainly the province of the students, this has been undermined (except in the field of less visible accessories) by widespread introduction of school uniform, and teachers have suddenly become the focus of sartorial attention.

What a teacher wears - particularly if it's unusual or daring - has always been a legitimate interest for children; now headteachers and, indeed, whole school staffs are taking an interest. Staff dress codes are becoming the norm and, even where the rules are not written down, there are implicit assumptions about what is appropriate.

In the main these favour conservatism and styles which project a more businesslike (or some would say "professional") image . There are variations between secondary and primary phases - as one teacher says: "a good suit can be ruined by PVA glue and younger children are more likely to be sick" - but the belief that "you are what you look like" is gaining ground and may become a significant arm of the fight for greater professional recognition.

All of which presents the new teacher with a dilemma: how to maintain a wardrobe suitable for the new image conscious occupation while at the same time retaining individual personality.

This dilemma is much less worrying if you've made sure you're working in the "right" school for you, one where the general ethos matches your own beliefs about what matters. If these are reflected in the style of dress preferred by colleagues you should find it easy to fit in. If not, then what appears a difference over what to wear may be much more fundamental and produce tensions in other areas.

Even where clothes philosophies match, there are still problems about suitability for task. Art and drama teachers have practical as well as philosophical reasons for favouring less formal clothes and PE teachers will be found in track- suits even more frequently than technology and science teachers in white coats. But even teachers of subjects presenting less potential risks to clothes may need to vary their dress to meet the demands of certain lessons: mounting wall displays, for instance, is probably best not done in a tight skirt.

An interesting development of the almost universal return to school uniform has been the increase in "wear what you like" days. Ostensibly a focus for charitable giving, they are actually a safety valve for self expression. Teachers often use these days to display their wilder side. To see an apparently quiet history teacher in a "Gladiator" outfit can provide a whole new insight into a man who normally only expresses his individuality through the floweriness of his ties. Before giving in to your wilder fantasies, however, check what teachers normally do on these days - in some schools it's "image as usual" for staff.

If you think all this talk of appropriate dress seems irrelevant to the real business of opening young minds you may be right. But it might also be worth casting your mind back to the teachers in your own school whom you found least inspiring. Was there no correlation between the liveliness of their minds, their interest in you and the clothes they wore? Laziness, indifference to children or lack of enthusiasm, can be expressed as effectively through the way teachers dress as in the lessons they deliver.

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