Threadbare, with no idea what to wear

23rd September 2011 at 01:00
Male teachers could do with a uniform, suggests Stephen Petty

I felt some sympathy for the teacher from Essex who was recently lambasted for taking his clothes off in his spare time and romping around in lewd films. I, too, once lived in Essex and I know it's not easy. Nor is it easy, as a male teacher, ever to find suitable clothes to wear. The Ilford teacher's decision to avoid the issue by playing the role of a scantily clad butler may have taken things too far, but I do partly understand his desire to opt out. There just don't seem to be any proper clothes left for us.

Some readers will recall the leisurewear their male colleagues recently shambled around in for the start-of-year Inset day. With the notable exception of the cool art department, it surely provided confirmation that the male teacher's wardrobe is a dark and demoralised place. Shirt and denim trouser has become the rudderless male's default costume. And yet even the blandest of jeans seem so sad and out of place in a school context, even on training days. Equally ill-advised are those on the senior leadership team who stick to the safe, professional-looking dark suit on such occasions. People need to chill out a little, and yet it's so hard to find a happy balance. One former senior teacher at this school famously went for the catastrophic compromise of smart shirt, tie and jacket for his top half, with a torn and faded pair of jeans down below. He was never allowed to forget it.

We also need to find some direction on the shirt-wearing front. Nowadays the teacher at leisure seems not to know whether to tuck it in or not. The balance proved to be about 2 to 1 in favour of letting it hang loose at our recent training day. This is another mistake. While I was supposed to be listening to a presentation on uniform enforcement my eyes fell on the free-flowing smocks in the audience, including my own. I began to hear a familiar mocking voice in my head: "You're not fooling anyone. You look an utter pillock."

The worrying thing is that this lack of good casual dress sense is reflected in our more formal school clothes as well. It should not matter, of course. Something that superficial really ought to be irrelevant, but I am afraid young minds are easily distracted. I am sure my own maths and science qualifications at secondary school would have been significantly better had my mind not been waylaid so often by the tendency of a previous generation of male grammar-school teachers to hoist the waistline of their trousers up to around the nipple area before tucking in the shirt.

I now make similar mistakes myself, the most notorious of which was the expensive red jacket I once bought to try to create a slightly racier aura. There followed much stifled laughter from colleagues and pupils during the jacket's autumn launch. I finally gave up wearing it after a parents' evening when a dad's first question to me was: "So where have you parked your bus?"

Besides, that kind of formal jacket is passe now. Many teachers come to work in those lighter, shinier numbers with zips. If there were ever a "paedophile range" this would be the centrepiece. It's become a minefield out there, and I think it's getting worse. Perhaps we do need uniforms after all.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire.

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