Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Reader Question: Appropriate Outfits For A New Teacher

Hi Meg!

I am in the education program at my school, and this past semester involved my first practicum, as an assistant to a high school English class. I really struggled with what to wear on these days--how low is too low? How conservative am I supposed to be? Taking cues from the teachers at the building didn't really help, because they featured a wide varieties of styles. I have a hard time finding advice for this, because while teachers are conservative, they do not, by any means, dress professionally in the sense of a lawyer or businessperson. I was wondering if you could offer some tips on being fashionable while staying within the boundaries of what is appropriate for a high school teacher.



The topic of appropriate attire for a teacher is certainly contentious, as I found out after this post where a reader asked if a sheer blouse (with a tank under it) was acceptable for a high school teacher to wear to work. I can understand your frustration in deciding what to wear, since teachers are put in the difficult position of trying to look stylish and age-appropriate while still appearing professional and polished.

As my of my friends in your position have told me, it's especially challenging when you're young and working in a high school, since the age difference between you and your students is not very large. Your first priority in dressing should be to make sure your clothes convey a sense of professionalism to your students, their parents and other teachers, so that you will be treated with the respect shown toward older and more experienced teachers. That said, you don't need to ditch your fashionable wardrobe for dowdy separates from Chico's. Here are a few guidelines for dressing appropriately at school that I've developed with the assistance of my teacher friends:

1. If you have any thoughts that a specific article of clothing is too sexy, don't wear it. You can get into some really hot water if you show up to school in an outfit that a parent or administrator deems sexually suggestive, and you risk losing some of the respect of your students. That means no cleavage, bare shoulders, exposed bra straps, tight clothing or short skirts.

2. You're in a position of power, so avoid wearing anything that you'd lounge around in. Anything made of velour or fleece should be left at home. No sweatpants, sweatshirts, baggy t-shirts, workout gear, Uggs, Crocs, or clothing that's ripped, stained or wrinkled.

3. If you wear jeans on a casual day, they should be fairly formal looking and in near-perfect condition. Avoid jeans that are too baggy and skinny styles, and go for a dark wash with no sandblasting or kitschy details like jewels or embroidery. A trouser style or a bootcut is acceptable in my book. If you do wear jeans, make sure you compensate for the casualness by pairing them with dressier shoes and a more formal layer, like a blazer over a blouse.

Okay, so now that I've gone over the don'ts, here are a few examples of looks that I think would be perfect:

This is a very cute, young look, but your body is totally covered and the structured jacket over a button-down makes it professional enough for a school setting. From Ann Taylor Loft.

Okay, I have no idea why this Banana Republic model is dancing and footless, but I think her outfit is a good example of a basic work outfit of a bright blouse and belted trousers. You could add a cardigan or a blazer, or throw on a sweater over it if it's cold.

A printed jersey dress is another great staple to have (I'm a huge fan of wrap styles in particular). Another plus is that they can be worn in any season and they're very comfortable and forgiving. This outfit is from Ann Taylor.

Those are my tips, though I know my readers will have many more to add on. Anyone else have suggestions for Catherine?


GrammarGirl said...

When I did my student teaching back in early 2000, this was one of the things I struggled with. I was teaching grades 11 & 12, and as Meg pointed out, there wasn't a great age difference between me and my students; I was a 21/22 (but looked about 17 -- I'm very petite and baby faced) and they were 17-19. However, there was a huge difference in maturity levels between us and that's what you want to reflect in your clothing choices.

As a college student, I didn't have a ton of money so I invested in some basics: Black and gray trousers, two button down shirts, a couple of nice knit sweaters, a knee-length A-line skirt, a nice knit dress (like the one Meg pointed out) and two well-fitting blazers. I found what made the biggest difference was how I cared for my clothes. I was ALWAYS pressed and ironed, wore a belt with any pants with belt loops, always wore tights or hose -- old fashioned, I know -- and kept my shoes and accessories simple and non-trendy.

Basically, You want to look put together, not slouchy like the majority of students. Re: Jeans. I think they can work, but if you're young looking I think they may be best to avoid. I only wore jeans once, and though I was wearing them with a button down shirt and blazer, on that day the principal of the school mistook me for a student so I avoid them from then on. (Your mileage may vary.)

Meg from The Bargain Queens & All About Appearances said...

I admit, I had a bit more fun with my outfits when I did my practicum -- nothing too sexy, just colorful. I was working primarily with elementary school students, though, and I figured out quickly that are drawn to color and shinies.

I love the looks you found, Meg! In my opinion, those would be absolutely perfect.

Anonymous said...

Great looks for younger teachers! My mother has been teaching for the past twenty years, and her big thing is practicality. You're going to be in a classroom all day, and you probably will be doing a combo of sitting, standing, and moving around. Things that are comfortable are key! Also, my mother refuses to buy anything that doesn't have pockets. She acknowledges that it's not as "body friendly" around the waist and hips, but she can't function without them!

pwatters said...

As a substitute teacher for the last 9 years, I would say that your comfort needs to be considered. You will probably find yourself doing many different things throughout the day, so you want to be prepared for anything. Think hall or lunchroom duty, stapling student papers on the wall and fire drills! Comfortable shoes (they can still be cute!)are important - if your feet hurt, your students will suffer. Also nothing too tight or too short - if you spend the day pulling and tugging on your clothing, you'll be miserable. My daily wardrobe consists of trousers, button down shirts, sweaters and blazers. One final thought; nothing too low cut or revealing -- nothing's worse than bending down to show a student how to work a problem and realizing your "girls" are on display!

dakiwiboid said...

Are you really sure about that shirt in the first outfit? It makes the model look more like a teacher's aide than a teacher. With younger students, it might work, but with anyone over 8 or 9, it'll be fairly hard for her to look as if she's in charge. That look might work for a field trip to a casual location, but I really don't like it for the classroom.

Anonymous said...

There's some excellent advice here. I teach college, but remember when I was in my mid 20's, teaching college freshmen for the first time as a TA. I learned pretty fast that I had fewer classroom management problems if I dressed a notch higher than I would have normally.

It's too bad, but still true, that appearance plays a part in people's judgment of competency and intelligence. So if we're smart, we'll use that information to dress the part (while doing what we can to challenge that assumption in the population at large.)

Anonymous said...

During my education courses and student teaching days (only a few short years ago), my peers and I were instructed to a.)dress for the job we wanted, and to b.)avoid looking like a kid. Comfort, while a personal priority, was never mentioned, and really not a consideration. Wear the clothes that make you feel good, and comfortable, but always look polished, even if this means making some adjustments to your conventional wardrobe thinking. Make the adjustments now, rather than when you're 35!
So, don't wear high heels--there are plenty of great flats, loafers, and low heels out there. As for comfort of clothing items, the cut and fit of each piece is more critical to wearability than a relaxed fabric or casual style. Buy what fits and flatters your body. Comfort exists in forms other than 'sweatshirt'. Invest in a few really good pieces that can last for several years, and will be worth having spent a little more money in the long run. Maybe Mom or Dad could help, if money's tight. Since your image is as much a part of your 'package' as your subject knowledge or your winning personality, some nicer pieces from stores that cater to adult women rather than teens in the mall will be very useful. After you've bought them, care for them as diligently as possible. Keep styles relativel conservative, and use accessories to liven up your outfits.
The example in the first photo, with the untucked shirt, just looks too sloppy. You're not in college anymore. Most of the other outfits look nice.
We were also told, simply, "Don't wear jeans". The reason given, aside from casualness, was that, the world over, denim, in the form of blue jeans, is the number-one fabric associated with youth. What look is a beginning teacher trying to avoid? That of the student. Students, virtually without exception, wear jeans. We were admonished to avoid them at least during student teaching, and were advised that, in our gainfully-employed future, we might try a conservative dark trouser style for Jeans Friday, IF it was dressed up as if we were going to work in an office--nice jacket, sweater or blouse (no Ts or camisoles), dressy shoes, a good piece of jewelry, professional-looking bag (no collegiate backpacks). It's a tough balance to strike as a younger teacher, but it's possible to achieve a professional look that won't make you feel as if you're wearing your mother's clothes. As in most situations, it's always better to be a bit overdressed, rather than underdressed.

cat said...

thanks so much for answering my question, meg! and thanks as well to all of the readers who chimed in--this is all really helpful. definitely bookmarking this entry!

Stephanie said...

If you wear jeans, dark black or blue jeans (no fades) would be best, just so you look a little more formal. A lot of the teachers are my school are pretty stylish, but most don't wear jeans (I believe there's a dress code).