How do we define inappropriate teaching attire? Some schools try to spell it out with detailed dress codes – for example, dictating the exact hem length of a skirt. And yet, despite such specifics, dress codes are often not enforced in the same manner for all teaching staff. I recently ran an informal study at my school, polling which teachers were most often reprimanded for their attire. Who were the majority of “offenders”? Female teachers.
The problem is that teacher dress code is often taken out of context and culture. School administrators decide what they deem appropriate, without any input from teachers, and enforce the policy without considering the situation. A female colleague of mine was reprimanded recently for wearing heels that her supervisor thought were too high for the classroom, even though she was presenting at a formal event for parents. An art teacher was told she was not allowed to wear her paint-splattered jeans, even though she works with paint most days.
I too come under fire: I am an experienced, modest and mature female teacher. Towards the end of the school year when temperatures can reach 37 degrees, I have been reprimanded for wearing shorts. Additionally, I was told on a separate occasion to be careful when wearing sleeveless tops, as they might show too much shoulder. During these sweltering summer days, I come home from my classroom and immediately wash the sweat out of my clothes. I aim to always dress as professionally as possible, but the context of the situation sometimes demands flexibility in that endeavour.
Perhaps the issue is that the crackdown on female office wear at the school has coincided with a crackdown on female students’ attire as well. Several of my students have been called down to the office for wearing shorts that are too short, tops that show too much of their bra strap, or have lace or cut-outs in the back. Visit any H&M store and you will see that this is the style for teenagers. When teenage girls dress this way in our school, they are told they are a distraction to others, removed from class, and sent home to change.
I agree that teachers and students should dress in a manner that shows they are ready to work and learn in a professional environment. But policies that overwhelmingly impact on women are eerily reminiscent of our patriarchal past in which women’s bodies were policed by men in positions of authority.
So how do we enforce a dress code without shaming women and enforcing patriarchal standards?
The number one pitfall of education policy today is the top-down approach. Teachers who work in the classroom day in, day out, possess an incredible amount of knowledge. But too often what they do in the classroom is dictated by policies created by politicians, bureaucrats or administrators who have little to no teaching experience. School administrators should involve teachers in drafting the dress code policy. They should open a dialogue where teachers and administrators can discuss what they hope to accomplish with the dress code and how appropriate attire should be defined.
The majority of teachers at my school are women. We all want to be taken seriously as professionals in our field of work, but we resent being shamed for our appearance by men in positions of authority over us. Schools should be a haven of democratic principles. Involve everyone in the policymaking process and make us feel that our voice counts.