Dressing for success in schools

November 10, 2019


Vintage books remind us of how teachers used to dress for success. Story by Leslie Anne Tarabella. leslieannetarabella.com

I pulled into the school carpool line one morning, and quickly made sure the doors were locked. There was a rumpled looking man approaching various cars and looking into the windows. He’d say a few words, then move to the next car. 

This unshaven man watched as the children scurried towards the sidewalk, carrying their books, science projects and band instruments. He wore thin rubber flip flops, baggy cargo shorts and a wrinkled T-shirt. “Don’t get out of the car until I can pull past that man.” I told my son. 

“Mom, that’s just Mr. ‘blah-blah.’ He’s a teacher.” 

If our schools have failing grades, maybe we need to start from scratch and restore a more serious approach to education, beginning at the top. While most teachers look appropriate and represent their schools well, there are always those looking from the outside who will judge a business or school by their weakest link. 

Exiting the carpool line, I was dumfounded, because after teaching in Florida, I knew if I had ever shown up wearing flip flops, shorts and a t-shirt, it would have resulted in a written reprimand.

teachers used to dress for success. Story by Leslie Anne Tarabella. leslieannetarabella.com

My principal ran a tight ship and insisted her teachers wear business attire, with dresses and heels for the women and the men in dress pants and a tie.  I had to negotiate and explain to her that since I taught the youngest children, I needed to be able to wear comfortable shoes. Since she had seen me running across the playground that very morning flying a kite with my students, she acquiesced and granted special permission for me to “dress down” with sneakers and more casual clothing, but I was so impressed with this woman and respected her so much, that I often changed into something nicer before I attended faculty meetings. Yes — it was that tight of a ship. 

My principal believed if we looked like professionals, we would be treated as such. It was an inner-city school, and the most beautiful place most of the students had ever seen. Because of federal funding, the campus was filled with the latest technology, shiny new toys and all the books they could imagine. Groups of educators and politicians often toured our campus to see how their money was being spent. It made sense that the adults should look like we knew what we were doing. 

teachers used to dress for success. Story by Leslie Anne Tarabella. leslieannetarabella.com

Dressing in heels and ties may seem over the top because there are some days teachers need to mix paint or dig a garden. but when the parents fear dropping their child off in the carpool line, it’s just a bit too casual. 

My principal may have had overly high dress code standards, yet looking back, we had few if any discipline problems and the parents, who were coming from bad situations that included unemployment, drugs and weapons showed us great respect and loyalty. 

Looking back to my own days as a student, I always studied harder, paid better attention in class and even did extra work outside of class for the teachers I admired, but of course back then, adults didn’t have to be told how to behave in public.  I asked my husband if his teachers dressed appropriately, and he reminded me they were all nuns. That’s another way to solve the problem.

This story first appeared on AL.com and in the Mobile and Birmingham Newspapers.

Leave a Reply

  1. At our school, it isn’t the sloppiness, but the short-short skirts and the too tight tops. Directing traffic in the middle of the street in leggings and a short top.

    1. Hmmm. Beth must drive through the same school zone as me because that was exactly my “view.” The teacher was standing in the middle of the street directing traffic in leggings with a shirt too short to cover her backside. Now, I’ve been known to wear jeans when I teach, but since they are online classes no one has ever seemed to notice!

  2. I never seemed to work at a school that had a principal that even allowed jeans on Friday. I am quite sure even at my age that I was at schools that had pretty strict dress codes far into my career. At one point, I finally got to a school where we could wear jeans on one day. I quickly noticed that behavior seemed worse on those days. I decided to see if I wore nicer clothes on those dress down days if behavior in my classroom was better and alas it was!! My own little experiment showed me that even in my classroom alone that children behaved better when I looked professional. I almost never wore jeans after that. It just wasn’t worth it. I am 100% convinced it makes a difference. There was a teacher that my husband was having to counsel (deal with) at a middle school a few years back. I distinctly remember a conversation he had with the gentlemen about dress and tucking his shirt in and so forth. BTW, he didn’t survive teaching. He might should have listened to my husband.
    I love the old pictures in the old books. They just make me feel warm and fuzzy.

    1. I don’t understand teachers like the one your husband had to deal with. They work so hard to become a teacher and finally land a job (which can be difficult) and then, act like they don’t care. Even the youngest children can tell if the teacher doesn’t want to be there. And . . . of course, for every out-of-sorts teacher/doctor/lawyer/pastor/store owner, there are 50 great ones! Thank goodness for that!

  3. Well said! I remember teachers in my ancient past who looked nice and ones who didn’t. There were some who were downright stinky! No one ever took those seriously. Love Bob’s assessment!

  4. My favorite teacher was Mr. Cunningham. His head was always somewhere off planet and his wife had to check him out before letting him out of the door in the morning. He often wore mismatched socks and a badly knotted tie but boy, could that man teach. We were seniors in high school but he expected us to perform as college students. It was a privilege to be invited to his home to talk about current events, politics, and great books. He touched many young lives but I’m certain that our vice principal (“Old Prune Face”) despaired at his appearance.

  5. Totally hear you…dress like you want to be treated with respect. Every year for my WAVS group (Women in Animal and Veterinary Science), we had a professional dress seminar/dinner. Some of the girls would go to Dillards and be professionally dressed as our models. The others were told to dress professionally as if going to a vet school interview. They all showed up looking like hoochie mamas! The last year I did it, we were at Dillard’s and one girl came out of the dressing room with a disgusted look on her face. “I look like my mother in this suit!”, she practically snarled. The professional shopper sweetly asked “does your mother have a job?” Yes, she snapped. We rest our case!!!
    PS. I had a nun who was my history teacher at College of Charleston, Sister Anne. She would come over to the Phi Mu house and have a glass of wine with us on Fridays. I adored her.

  6. Reading this made me think back to my teachers, back in the old days, and I had so many women teachers, young and old, who looked lovely at school. As if they were in church, not just pretty outfits on but pretty earrings and lipstick and hose, most in heels. I probably never appreciated that at the time but looking back now I certainly do after reading your post. I also remember that if my parents went to school for a meeting or anything that they also looked nice. I remember there were hat racks in the entrance for visiting fathers to deposit their hats (not baseball hats).

    My father looked so handsome in his hat!

    1. I LOVED seeing what Miss Pfeiffer, my fourth grade teacher, wore to school everyday! It’s time we started that again.

  7. (Stands and cheers.) I am absolutely convinced that if we all groomed ourselves and dressed up a little more we would brighten the landscape and bring more pleasure to those around us.

    You have hit me where I live, Leslie Anne! Couldn’t agree more!

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}
%d bloggers like this: