Why we need a school uniform for teachers

20th May 2016 at 00:00
A teacher ashamed of a profession that cannot dress ‘professionally’ argues in favour of dictated attire

REMEMBER that photo that went around Facebook of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s closet? It was captioned “First day back after paternity leave. What should I wear?” and it showed his closet full of identical grey t-shirts in – count ’em – two different shades. Over 1.2 million people liked that image.

When asked about his lack of variety in attire, Zuckerberg answered: “I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.”

Is there a more compelling argument for a teacher uniform?

I’ve been a teacher for more than 10 years now. I’ve tried power suits and red lipstick; I’m dripping with sweat and bleeding around the edges by the end of the day.

I’ve tried comfy cardis and corduroys; I feel underdressed and frumpy and it shows.

I’ve tried vintage chic, but I worried about catching expensive dresses on door handles or sitting in paint.

I’ve never tried the Zuckerburg. How would it work? Why would it help?

Teachers face a disorientating lack of clarity on dressing for work. Some strict academy chains now have a corporate policy, but most schools seem to leave it to chance.

The problem is compounded by the fact that teachers operate within very different working environments. Some sit primly on a chair for more than half the day, others work with open flames, crawl around on a scratchy carpet or regularly find themselves up to their elbows in something viscous. And in many schools that I’ve worked in, temperatures are well outside the recommended working temperature range of 16-22°C.

There is also a serious gender divide here. Female attire both enjoys and suffers from a much wider range than classically male clothing. It must be extremely frustrating to stoically sport a suit and tie in July, while floaty dresses abound; flip-flops or spaghetti straps are often deemed acceptable for Miss but not for Sir. But for women it can be challenging to find clothing that is smart, practical and sets you out as an ever-changing individual; maybe two out of three ain’t bad?

There is one solution: what about a uniform? It would have to be fairly season-proof, of course, and you’d have to splash out a bit at first to get five of them. The outfit would have to be smart and adaptable, relatively comfortable, easy to wash, and have something that you can add or subtract from to make you the right temperature. Yes, it seems I am describing some sort of suit...

If it was stipulated that I wear a black trouser suit with a dark coloured blouse or top, I could add flat comfortable shoes and put on the jacket or cardigan when needed. I could have a lab coat for anything messy or singey. I could wear jewellery or a hair scarf on days when I was feeling particularly expressive. Best of all, I could forget about the decision-making that takes up my time and energy every morning, and put that into thinking about how to best serve my pupils.

We could make the male and female versions as similar as possible, and so stop the inherent sexism that we are propagating in schools. We could even colour-code by subject.

Am I getting carried away? Perhaps. The last thing I want is to encourage the kind of cookie-cutter thinking that has been applied to almost every other aspect of teacher’s working lives. But neither do I want to continue to be ashamed of being part of a profession that consistently fails to dress professionally.

Lucy Rycroft-Smith is a teacher and writer


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