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Should School Administrators Enforce a Teacher Dress Code?

I like meeting a principal who has on business dress. I like the air of respect it brings to a building, to the personnel, to the profession. I like knowing that the person in charge has enough respect for him/herself and for the profession to make an effort to be, well, professional.

I like teachers who look professional rather than like they are going to a school picnic. I like paraprofessionals who have the same respect for the profession as a certified teacher.

I taught for thirty years in private and public schools and have witnessed the gradual deterioration of professional dress during that time. As I recall, it started with Friday Spirit Day. On Fridays we all wore some sort of dress pants or skirt along with our school colors or school polo. We did it to show spirit. Spirit Day then became "dress-down" day. I remember teachers commenting: When did Fridays cease to be "spirit" day and become "grunge" day?

I must ask: How much has lowering our dress standards influenced lowering our academic standards? I think the question is viable and the answer is important. If the influence is as I imagine-fairly substantial-then I will address the question to superintendents and administrators: What are you going to do about it?

I'll give you a firsthand example of how dress affects students. Way back in the early 1980s, I taught at a parochial school. The dress standards were fairly stiff. The students were allowed to wear jeans only on Fridays. The jeans could not be too tight, too worn, torn, or have frayed hems. But students pushed the limits, as students often do, wearing them too tight, etc. The school board then said, "No more jeans." The students rebelled.

Okay, they said, we'll follow the rules. Give us another chance. The school board agreed. The students blew it-again! So no more jeans. The school board suggested uniforms. The students and parents disagreed, saying it hampered individuality.

As an extreme response, and to make a point, the Associated Student Body (ASB) got together and decided they would institute their own dress code: dress pants and shirts for the guys, only dresses/skirts for the girls. No more jeans. The parents rebelled. "Too expensive," they said. The students pressed on, hoping to paradoxically make their point and get the school board to bend. It worked.

We like the way everyone acts when we are more dressed up. We are nicer to each other. We act like ladies and gentlemen. The boys treat the girls with more respect. The girls are even nicer to other girls. We don't want to give up our dress code. And so the student dress code remained in effect, enforced by the students themselves.

I, for one, was very proud of the students for taking the matter into their own hands. I have not stretched the truth here; this actually happened just this way.

What about uniforms? I applaud those schools and school districts who insist on uniforms for the students. It does indeed level the playing field. From time to time, news talk shows highlight schools and students from underprivileged as well as prep schools who have done something worthy, and these students are usually wearing uniforms-often dress pants/skisst, dress shirts, blazers, and ties. I am impressed, and they seem to have a certain pride about themselves.

Back to the issue of dress codes for teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrators. Here's another scenario: I walked into a high school the other day, looking around for the administrator. A man entered the lobby area. I assumed, from his dress, that he was working on the sprinkler system being installed outside the school. He wore a wrinkled plaid shirt, khaki pants with frayed hems, and scuffed shoes. To my surprise, when I asked to see the principal, it was indeed this same man. And it wasn't even dress-down Friday. So, I thought, well, it must be just an off day; maybe he had some sort of special circumstance. But, no, I've been back several times since, and he's dressed the same. I have also seen him in action in the hallways and classroom. He gives little respect to students and teachers, and they return little respect. Would it help if he dressed professionally? I don't know. Would it be worthwhile to find out? Absolutely!

The next question then is: Whose responsibility is it? Does a dress code need to be enforced from the top down? Why would that be necessary for administrators, teachers, and paraprofessionals who call themselves professionals? Why are we not capable and responsible enough to think this through and do it for ourselves? What does being a professional include?

I taught for many years in a district where most of the staffs, all included from the administrators to the custodians, dressed professionally. The schools had a professional air about them that you could feel from the moment you walked in. The teachers and paraprofessionals interacted with respect for one another. Not everyone necessarily liked each other or agreed with each other, but they treated each other with professional respect. No dress code existed; it was just understood that we all respected ourselves and our academic professions enough to want to look the part.

The other day I walked into a middle school classroom. A tall middle-aged man, dressed in casual slacks and polo shirt, was walking across the tops of the student desks. He jumped down and introduced himself as the assistant principal. Students were lying about the room, texting, listening to iPods, playing games. It was the middle of the classroom period; it was not on a Friday. I'm sure my eyebrows raised and my mouth fell open. I got the impression that the assistant principal was trying to relate to the kids-that he was trying to be cool. After he left the room, the students made fun of him, saying unkind and disrespectful things about him. Would his being dressed professionally have changed all that?Maybe, maybe not. But how much has lowering dress standards contributed to a general lack of respect for education in general?

Education is not what it used to be, academically or otherwise. Our nation's schools are in trouble. Yes, I know there are those isolated schools and programs that are making great gains through innovation, technology, raising standards, making school practical, producing soaring test scores. But that isn't the norm. We are in trouble. Where do we begin to "fix" this problem? Will enforcing dress codes across America solve the problem? Probably not. Will raising the professional standards for administrators, teachers, and paraprofessionals at least have some sort of positive impact? I think so. Whose responsibility is it to promote change? Who will step up to the plate to save the day? Where do we go from here? Or shall we just call it a day and go on a picnic?!

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