Sometimes, teachers must dress to oppress

3rd September 2010 at 01:00

A teacher's wardrobe is a curious thing. For the first week back in September, the staffroom blooms with reminders of freedom: the last floaty dresses and defiant shirtsleeves. Suddenly the black boots and "don't-even-think-about-it" jackets come out. They won't withdraw their troops until March. No one tells us to do this, so why does it happen?

It's not the weather. A teacher's wardrobe reflects the psychological seasons of the job. What makes us swap "freedom pink" for "detention blue" is that first double lesson with 9X. That does what a howling August bank holiday failed to do: it makes us reach for our uniforms again. Striding takes over from strolling as feet forget the feel of grass.

Power starts with your footstep: how it feels and how it sounds. I knew a deputy head who could strafe the corridors with her kitten heels. You could tell when she was in trouble with the head, though: the "we-attack-at-dawn" rap became a "don't-panic" scuttle. I like a boot that bites the floor with an "I-could-squash-you" thwack - especially if I'm in a bad mood. It's an outlet for the bad mood while the rhythm calms me. Teamwork, too: the face is smiling but the boots are snarling. They help each other do their jobs.

The staffroom in September reminds me of an old television I used to fiddle with as a child. There was a dial that turned the colour down to black and white. I loved the weird stage just before the colour was gone. Faint patches of yellow made the people look almost dead, but they were still moving. That's the look we're heading for this month.

Teaching is a profession that invented a new colour. Is it blue? Is it black? Who cares - it won't show the dirt. 'Won't-show-the-dirt' is a magical hue that goes with everything - especially dirt. It looks particularly fetching with a grey sky and a filthy car. We get used to a world of no colour - and then the sun comes out.

Sunshine! Breaks light up with travellers' tales, sparked by glints of remembered freedom. "Where did you get that?" is a question that flings open doors to other worlds. I have planned holidays based on stories about jewellery. These talismans bless the wearer as well as the viewer. The dangly parrot earrings that hurt your ears always remind you of Spain, and skinny-dipping. How wonderful to wear nothing but the sea.

The clash between "won't-show-the-dirt cardigans" and parrots reflects the tension at the heart of teaching. We want to be ourselves but we're in an institution. We want authority, but we don't want to merge with the organisation that gives it to us. Dressing smartly shows respect to pupils and makes you feel more capable, but only if your heart is in it. Then it's appreciated. There is a Facebook page called "Mr Bell's Dress Sense". A photo of a tie has the caption: "Dark trousers, light trousers, jacket, no jacket, white shirts, blue shirts. Whatever the combination, we all have to love Mr Bell's sense of style. And he's a good English teacher too."

Michael Gove made approving noises about a dress code for teachers, but I don't see that coming about. If it does, it will just push sartorial subversion underground. There'll be a run on South Park boxer shorts.

Catherine Paver is a part-time English teacher and writer.

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