You are what you wear

7th September 2007 at 01:00
You know you can walk the job, talk the job. But teachers should remember that first impressions count, even in the classroom, and that most are based on what you look like, says Rosemary Cairns

Wow, Miss, you look amazing. We thought we had a new teacher." Flattering and slightly disconcerting comments from pupils at Ridgeway School in Wroughton, near Swindon, but confirmation that the way we dress really can impress. Turning heads can also turn attitudes.

A top to toe Trinny and Susannah-style transformation of teachers at the secondary yielded immediate results. Out went the slouch, the despondency, and in came staff with a confident spring in their stride and an air of self assurance. But can teaching be enhanced by taking care of the way we look and behave? And is it the well-groomed among us who achieve the highest value added?

If we want to control our body language we need to be aware of it in the first place. Despite what we may intend to say, our body language is often the over riding factor in how a message is received. In theory, we know that opinions about people are formed in the first few seconds of seeing them.

Body language is a dead giveaway, but do we take this on board enough in the classroom? As teachers we are a bit like actors, so there is all the more need to train staff to express emotion with our whole body just like a professional performer.

I decided to research how appearance can affect behaviour and learning, following a Training and Development Agency programme in assertive discipline. All the staff were invited to get involved, but I approached those that were a bit more casually dressed.

Six brave teachers eventually volunteered for a complete makeover, in an experiment to gauge just how important our presence and looks in the classroom might be. I encouraged Kath Webster, a geography teacher more comfortable in a fleece than a suit, to wear her "going-out clothes" to school. The pupils were amazed at the transformation. With other teachers, we had a small budget to buy some work clothes.

To establish exactly how they felt and give them some material for reflection, a before photograph was taken prior to the revamp and then another after the treatment in case they ever forgot their moment of glory. A friendly professional hairdresser and her team set up camp in school, together with a make-up artist, but it would seem that we teachers are a conservative lot when it comes to a drastic change of hairstyle. After the transformation was complete, and wearing a new wardrobe, the intrepid staff took their first steps into the classroom.

It was clear from the first look in the mirror that these teachers felt good about themselves and much more confident, which was a great start. But did the new look have any special impact? Yes. Pupils did notice and were quick to comment on the obvious changes, even if they couldn't remember exactly what the staff had been wearing earlier in the day. On closer questioning, pupils said that they preferred staff to "look smart" and gave specific descriptions of what they thought of as both suitable and unsuitable clothes for staff.

Wearing "clothes that we might wear" or scruffy and old-fashioned garments were clearly a no-no according to pupils. They also said they thought staff who dressed smartly should command more respect although realised that there may be more to it than just dress.

Established research says that most 55 per cent of people's first impressions are based on visual judgments, with 33 per cent depending on tone of voice and only 7 per cent on what you actually say. If this is really the case, there may be cause to reflect on our non-verbal signals. The experiment I carried out did, according to responses from staff, reinforce that if you feel positive about yourself you are more likely to feel confident and thus able to handle events in the classroom in a more relaxed fashion.

Assertive teachers believe that a focused teacher in charge of the classroom is in the best interests of pupils. Like it or not people are judged by the way they dress and present themselves and it is this unspoken information that is clearly transmitted in the classroom.

Dressing professionally sets the tone and if it gives staff confidence, why not go for it?

Rosemary Cairns is the professional tutor at Ridgeway School, near Swindon

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