Skip to Content

Classroom Connection

Dress to Impress

Maren MacIntyre

You’ve gotta look the part to be at the head of the class.

We’ve all heard the phrase “dress for success,” but what does it really mean?

And why should you care about it? For an aspiring educator, knowing curriculum and classroom management aren’t the only things that make you a teacher. You also need to dress the part.

“Your attire says so much about you,” says Diana Pemberton-Sikes, an author and personal image consultant. “Too fashionable says you’re superficial. Too sloppy says you’re not into details. A well-groomed, appropriately dressed person will always enjoy more success than their poorly dressed counterparts.”

Dressing professionally also boosts your self-esteem and self-confidence, not to mention your employer’s confidence in your abilities.

“When you dress well…you make a better impression on your clients or students, and you may be looked upon as a better employee by your supervisor,” says Brian Earle, who teaches business etiquette at Cornell University.

But in many schools, dressing professionally isn’t just a smart choice. It’s a requirement under the employee dress codes that districts like New Hanover County School District in North Carolina have adopted.

“By creating a focus on professionalism and modeling high standards of personal conduct, we establish and maintain a more effective and positive learning environment for our students,” says John A. Welmers Jr., the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources. “In essence, we wanted to differentiate the professional staff from the look and actions of the students.”

How can you keep your look professional and avoid a serious fashion faux pas? Here are a few guidelines:


Understand your school dress code, if you have one
“The new hire should ask about the dress code for both the students and the faculty. This will give an indication of the culture and leadership of the institution,” Earle advises. “If there is any question about the definition of the dress code, ask for examples of what is considered appropriate.”

Don’t dress like your students.
“The biggest problem new teachers seem to have, especially at the high school and college levels, is separating themselves from their students,” says Earle. “If you dress exactly like the students it compromises your authority regardless of how well you teach.”

Pemberton-Sikes agrees. “As a teacher, you want to be seen as relatable, but also as the leader of the class,” she says. “To accomplish this, you need a shirt with a collar and/or a third layer, like a vest, a cardigan, or a jacket.”

Avoid tight-fitting, revealing, or trendy clothing, Pemberton-Sikes adds, but make sure your grooming is current and consistent. “You want your students to pay attention to you and show courtesy, not make fun of your attire or 1980s hairdo.”

Select clothes that suit your teaching duties
“Dress needs to reflect the activities of the teacher,” says Earle. “I don’t think an elementary school teacher wants her supervisor to stop in while she is sitting on the floor and leading an activity in a short skirt. Likewise, a male gym teacher would probably not want to play soccer in suit pants and wingtips.”

Slacks are a good choice for teachers who spend time on the floor with students, suggests Pemberton-Sikes. Meanwhile, a science teacher, or other educator who works with chemicals, may want to a wear lab coat, she adds. Comfortable, supportive shoes also are a must.

Don’t bust your budget with expensive clothes.

Updating a wardrobe of jeans and T-shirts to suits and ties can be expensive. But find out what your school requires before you invest in pricey threads. Districts like New Hanover County School District, for instance, let teachers wear khakis with polo-type shirts and blouses and other economical options.

Remember, “dress for success” really works.

“Raw talent will get you only so far,” says Pemberton-Sikes. “Cultivated talent polished with appropriate attire and nice manners will take you anywhere in the world you want to go.…Package yourself appropriately and ‘the sky’s the limit,’ as they say.”

First, Broaden Horizons—Then Teach

Stepping up to lead a class for the first time can seem like stepping into another world—even if it’s in the elementary school down the street!

But one Indiana education program says getting out of your comfort zone is the best way to prepare for full-time teaching. Last May, students from the University of Evansville spent two weeks teaching, and learning, in the schools on the Caribbean island of Trinidad.

“I was really excited about the opportunity to visit another country and it was a complete immersion into an entirely different culture,” says senior Victoria Gohmann, president of the university’s Student chapter.

 “My favorite part was being able to work in the schools. Their schools are very different from ours, but we learned a lot of ways to implement the teaching strategies we have here with the students there.”

Davies Bellamy, associate professor of education and Student chapter adviser, organized the trip as part of a class he developed on multicultural competence. In past years education students had traveled to Jamaica, but for this trip Bellamy decided to take students to his home country of Trinidad and Tobago.

The 12 students, including eight education majors, lived with host families in Bellamy’s home village and worked alongside teachers in Bellamy’s former elementary and secondary schools.

As part of the coursework, Bellamy asked students to evaluate their own preconceived notions about different ethnic groups. Then, through their travel experience he wanted them to gain a greater knowledge and awareness about a different culture.

“The literature shows that the immersion experience is life transforming to a greater degree than experiential learning,” Bellamy explains. “We hope that when they get to know people individually, they will see that the values, beliefs, and assumptions they make about groups do not categorically apply to individuals and that would help them interact with individuals more openly, caringly, and effectively.”

Students say the trip definitely pushed them outside of their comfort zones, but for the better.

“The first few days it was overwhelming. It was like no place I’d ever been,” says junior Lauren Johnson, an elementary education major. “But it was eye opening to find out all that I had in common with these people even though they were so seemingly different at first.”

In addition to acclimating to the hot and humid weather, students had to adjust to the relaxed pace of their new environment. Instead of individual classrooms, the schools had open layouts where chalkboards divided different grade levels.

The teachers also had fewer resources and supplies to use with their students. Knowing this, members of the Student chapter used a CLASS grant to make classroom manipulatives and purchase art supplies and athletic equipment that they delivered to the teachers in Trinidad.

“You can’t help but realize how little these kids had, but they were so excited to have us as their guests,” says junior Dana Hagmann, an elementary education major. “I realized how important it is to teach students about their differences and how that makes them unique. If we were all the same, school would be boring.”

Ultimately, Bellamy hopes the students apply the lessons they learned on their trip in their own classrooms and that the experience makes them better teachers.

“When these students come back here and get further along in their teaching experience, they can begin to see students who are from minority populations through a new lens, a lens that will help them teach them effectively,” he says.


From the NEA Professional Library!!

The checklist format of Countdown to the First Day of School will help you start the year off right. Here’s a sample grab:

A successful first day of school takes a lot of preparation. You can’t tell students about everything on the first day, so you’ll need to decide exactly which information to convey on the first day and which on subsequent days.

Determine how you will interact with students and how you establish and enforce behavioral expectations. Consider the following principles when planning your first day:

• Many schools have shortened periods/days the first day of school. Overplan but don’t rush, hurry, or cram in too much.

• Keep a whole-class focus since one large group is often easier to monitor than several small groups.

• Consider some kind of brief get-acquainted activity, either for the first day or subsequent days.

• Teach something the first day. Have students do some kind of school work, particularly something that can be sent home. Make sure that first-day activities are something at which all, or nearly all, can succeed.

• Clearly state your rules, procedures, and academic expectations.

• Establish a daily routine to end the class period, allowing students time to put papers and

supplies away, clean up the work areas, and gather their belongings if they will be leaving the classroom.

• Relax! Look forward to the first day and the rest of the year. Reward yourself in some way at the end of the first day or week for a job well begun!

From: Countdown to the First Day of School by Leo M. Schell and Paul R. Burden. Order your copy.