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How Educator's Dress for Work: Perception is Everything

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"In all professions each affects a look and an exterior to appear what he wishes the world to believe that he is."
It is my personal opinion that educators are professionals, who should dress "professionally" at school.  I was inspired to write this blog post today because of the passionate responses I received from one of my tweets.  The tweet "If we (educators) want to be respected as professionals, we should dress to impress, Jeans & polo shirt vs. shirt & tie: no brainer" received immediate response and follow up discussions.  The debate centered on the correlation between professional teacher dress and "professionalism." 

Core Values:

My beliefs & values pertaining to professional dress are deep rooted.  As a head coach it was important to me that my assistant coaches understood that they were a reflection of our team, our school and our community.  We dressed professionally at practice and at games, wearing school colors only.  During games we all wore the same Khaki pants (or shorts) and the same collared shirts, tucked in.  Our shoes were all black.  Our athletes respected this, and were held to the same expectations- matching practice shirts, undershirts and socks.  If our captains wanted socks up, then all socks were worn up.  I often told the team that "if you dress good, you play good!"  I am a big proponent of not asking anyone to do anything that I have not done, or am willing to do.  I also believe that professional dress on the field reflects attention to detail and pride in what we do. 

I believe the same holds true with my educational experiences.  I strongly believe that administration, faculty and staff are a reflection of our school, our students and our community - how we dress sends a message.  I also believe in what @ToddWhitaker tweeted, that "dress is important, but one small piece of being a professional, not the most important one."  He also pointed out that "if your worst teacher wears a tuxedo, they are still your worst teacher."  I think the point is that professional dress is not a life or death decision, but one that is important to discuss.  

In Practice:

@GraemeCampbell had several outstanding responses to my tweet, including a link to an interesting blog post via @DaveDodgson Excellent post with terrific comments, I suggest you read.  Graeme Campbell believed that how educator's dress was a reflection of "how they are conveyed and viewed," and @blairteach added "dress may not affect teaching, but does affect perception of professionalism," I concur.   

At our school, our new principal shared my values on professional dress.  At our first meeting it was never mandated that we all need to wear x and y, professional dress was explained as part of the entire culture shift we anticipated making.  It was well-received by our staff.  Our administration and teacher's bought in, dressed in ties, suits, dresses & other professional attire.  Our students, parents, central office administration and community noticed immediately and we received several compliments.  What a difference when parents come in for a meeting and all educators are dressed impressively, it sends a message that we take our profession seriously.


Educator's are now under fire more than ever, being scapegoated for many of our countries woes.  I often hear the education community asking- what can we do to fight back?  Although there are several pro-active measures we can take, I am a proponent of making small, lasting changes reflective in a school's core values.  "Dressing to impress" is one small step that shows the public; and more importantly, our students, that we are professionals who take our job extremely serious. 

Furthermore, I don't think dressing professionally makes you a "stuffed suit."  A stuffed suit is filled with stuffing, my suit is filled with passion, pride and tenacity-it's what's in the suit that matters.  I also realize teachers get dirty - I can still get dirty in a suit, often taking my tie off to play catch with the kids at lunch, or to help the custodians move furniture.  We need to do whatever it takes to help students succeed and learn, but we can do it looking good!

Thank you:

I would like to thank @ToddWhitaker, @GraemeCampbell, @phsprincipal, @pjenn86, @blairteach, @Coleprincipal and @JenRoberts1 for an outstanding discussion on this topic today (6.12.11).  Your ideas, thoughts and opinions are respected and appreciated!             

Please feel free to comment- we can learn from each other on this topic!

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Comment by Bill Burkhead on July 16, 2011 at 5:21am
Thank you Nikki, great points.  As teachers, we are certainly role models.  No matter a child's age, they certainly watch, program and remember most of what we do in the classroom, including our attire.
Comment by Nikki Stansfield on July 15, 2011 at 4:48pm
I strongly agree with this point of view. In order to be a role model and advocate for our students (NOT a friend), we need to demonstrate professionalism in our appearance. As Lorraine mentioned in an earlier post, many times teachers are the only professional role models in a student's life (this is very much the case at my school which has a high level of poverty).
Comment by Bill Burkhead on July 13, 2011 at 7:44pm
Thank you Lorraine for such an insightful and succinct response.  I could not have said it better!  I failed to mention in my blog post your extremely important point about modeling professional dress for our students. It is important that our students enter society viewing their teachers are true "professionals" and dress is certainly one aspect of that persona.
Comment by Lorraine Richardson on July 13, 2011 at 7:29pm
Yes, I agree. How educators dress is crucial. So many students have NO role model for a workplace dress code. Educators  are surrogate parents. When we dress inappropriately, it gives credence to those forces that spew negative words about the profession.
Comment by Bill Burkhead on July 11, 2011 at 9:10am
thank you Neal for the great feedback.  It is such a fun topic to discuss.  I think people are getting hung up on ties-I am ok with teachers dressing professional w/out a tie, although I'd prefer it.  I think you nailed it when you said "you need to look like you care about your job," I agree.  I think we are all closer on this issue than we think.  I am not striving for tuxedos or high heels in school, but I certainly wouldn't expect a teacher in jeans and/or t-shirt, unless it is a special school-wide occasion.  I also agree that dress alone is not linked directly to professionalism, but is one key element of a professional culture.
Comment by Neal McQuaid on July 11, 2011 at 7:34am

Very interesting point and stimulating thoughts.


I definitely don't think that ties mean teachers automatically restrictive and boring - you are what you teach. personal background is two years as a teacher, 6 years in IT working with a large telecommunication multinational. I struggle that the only image of professionalism seems to be wearing a shirt, tie and jacket. Before teaching, I'd never once worn a tie in an office and this included sitting in on meetings with very senior leaders of companies (CEO, etc). But I never once looked unprofessional - you can still pull this off with good shoes, good trousers and a good shirt. If anyone is wondering also, many of those very same professionals never once wore ties either and yet looked very professional and in work-mode. Granted, IT is regarded as wearing slightly more laid-back clothing (the image of a computer geek comes to mind) but considering what IT companies produce as products, you could never doubt their professionalism and work ethic. I'll just repeat again that I don't understand the correlation between a shirt, tie and jacket to professionalism - if you are well dressed and have an excellent work ethic/attitude, you also are professional?


Amusingly, I was chatting to some teachers about this very topic this morning and as a few of them admitted, they'd never washed their ties once in the years they'd owned them (bar the one time where they'd spilled food on it and it visibly had a stain). I've asked in both my classes today, and many pupils have pointed out also that they never wash their ties unless they are visibly dirty. I'm in a school with very high standards and financial backgrounds. From a hygiene point of view alone, ties are potentially not really professional at all - the ultimate germ carrier? (I'm rattling cages by writing that :).



Having said that I'm definitely not sold on idea of t-shirt and jeans (even if it is what I wear outside of the office :). For me at least, putting on some different clothes to what I'd wear at home, or going out (as wonderfully described in Lisa Mims comment below) is like flicking a switch between work time and home time. You need to look like you care about your job so turning up looking ultra laid back is most likely not the best example of this - the link from  @DaveDodgson alludes to this?


Still though, a good topic to discuss - I'll be watching in interest :) thanks for the post.

Comment by Bill Burkhead on July 8, 2011 at 12:22pm

Hi Wade, thanks for taking the time to comment.  It's great that educators can agree to disagree.  You make some excellent points that have been brought to my attention by other educators.  I completely agree with you that some of our best teachers are creative, energetic and spontaneous. I also appreciate teachers that are not slaves to their lesson plans and can make the most out of sudden teaching opportunities that may pop up. But none of this has to do with dress.  I don't agree that children are our only audience at school and further disagree that shirt and ties are restrictive and boring.  As I stated in my post-it is what is in the suit that matters.  I taught 7 years of elementary school (as a traveling health teacher) and wore a shirt and tie every day.  I played with the kids; got on the floor, got dirty at recess-kids & I both loved it.  My point is simple-we are a reflection of our profession and certainly a profession under fire.  If we can be great educators while dressing professionally, which I think we can, then my belief is we should do it.  Maybe some day if we work together we can compromise and you can wear dress slacks and collared shirt-no tie! I'll wear a suit. -:) Thanks again!

Comment by Bill Burkhead on July 7, 2011 at 5:38pm
Hi Ashley, thank you for your excellent comment.  Although I agree it is not a fashion show, it certainly is a profession that is under constant scrutiny, and one we want held in high esteem.  Even though you teach first grade; parents, community members and visitors also see how we represent our profession through our dress.  We can only control what our colleagues do by becoming leaders and influencing them-you can do it by modeling professional dress and explaining to others why it is important for our profession.
Comment by Ashley West on July 7, 2011 at 4:54pm
As a young professional, I feel it to be difficult to keep with society and my profession.  However, as a first grade teacher, I need to be a role model for the students.  It is not a fashion show, but it does seem to be a struggle for my peers.  I think that teaching is one of the most professional businesses, however, most teachers look like they rolled out of bed.  There needs to be boundaries set and commonsense should be the guiding light.  I think that educators need to see themselves as professionals, even if our clients are too young to read.  We are judged and watched more than any other career.  Children don't lie :)
Comment by Bill Burkhead on July 6, 2011 at 8:35pm
Thanks Lisa for taking the time to read my post and comment.  Several teachers have appreciated our perspective, but others have not.  For those who tell me they get on the floor with kids and "get dirty," I simply reply that you can still dress professionally and "get dirty!"  We need to collectively raise the perception of our profession, and this is certainly a step in the right direction.


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