Does the suit make the teacher?

January 28th, 2011 | Filed under: Opinion, teaching

Not in The Netherlands it doesn’t. I’ve not had a great deal of exposure to Dutch work environments other than the few times I’ve visited the immigration office and the time I’ve spent with the curriculum team developing a new international school. Working from home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But even after a few visits to real workplaces, something is startling clear: Casual apparel is okay in The Netherlands, especially in the workplace.

In America, as most Americans can attest, your work attire is taken very seriously, particularly in offices. As a newspaper reporter I only dressed up when heading to a cushy office to interview someone and the rest of the time I rocked jeans and casual dresses. In a workplace where people (used to?) smoke and keep bottles of bourbon in their desks, this is an improvement. But when I became a teacher that all changed. I needed to “dress respectably to be respected,” as one principal told the staff during a meeting. Apparently dressing respectably meant skirt and pants suits like the administrators wore each day.

Tie

Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to begin training in the MYP curriculum. It was an all-day session that challenged me and my new colleagues to move away from our previous experiences as educators and think within this new curriculum focused on authentic, project-based learning and interdisciplinary collaboration. I’m still reflecting on the experience and writing about it, which I’ll share soon, but as invigorating as the experience was it was also a chance for me to chat casually with these teachers. Usually we’re cramming a lot into our meetings and have little time for chit-chat, but we had lunch together and tea breaks and I shared a lot about myself, the true outsider on the team, and learned more about them. Photo by semuthutan.

The most glaring difference I found while hanging out in the personeelskamer (teacher’s lounge) is that seeing people “dressed up” was a rarity. Now, these educators weren’t rolling into work in sweat pants, but here are just a few examples:

- Older gentleman in jeans, flannel shirt, suspenders, sneakers.
- Younger woman in cotton dress, tights, Ugg-type boots.
- Administrator in khakis, button-down shirt (no tie), and a houndstooth jacket.
- Younger man in khakis, loafers, and an untucked polo shirt.

It may seem that I’m being overly superficial, analyzing the wardrobe choices of the teachers I encountered, but it affected me so much that I knew there had to be a reason. I realized that this casualness toward dress code was indicative of something deeper in the culture of the school and the attitude toward the teachers. They are considered professionals and treated as such. It’s as if someone said “Yes, I know you’re a professional and I don’t need you to wear black pumps and suit pants to prove it.”

I met a young teacher who had the opportunity to do her student teaching internship in Pennsylvania as part of an exchange program. She said she was told she had to dress up and spent the first few weeks buying new clothes for the entire experience. She told me that in The Netherlands people dress down at work – wearing “work clothes” – and save their dressy attire for events and nights out. Makes sense to me. Teaching is hard work and I don’t know how many days I came home from my internship with my toes nearly arthritic from being crammed in fancy shoes for eight hours.

As a teacher in Virginia I’ve been frustrated with the discussions surrounding a potential ban on virtual communication between students and teachers. The state’s board of education is considering banning teachers from chatting with students on Facebook, Twitter, and through text messages. The reason? To protect the students. At first blush that sounds like a good idea. We all want to protect the students! But why would we want to protect them from their teachers? Yes, there have been the few cases of teachers and students sexting, but with nearly half a million teachers in the country that’s a small drop in the bucket. The education system paints with a wide brush and often does so to the detriment of innovation in our tired system. In this case, rather than deal with the inappropriate teacher-student relationships as they arise, the board is treating all teachers as potential predators than the professionals the majority of them are.

Yes, there are things online that I’d prefer students not run into – predators being the main one. But those dangers are everywhere, not just online. And to take away the one connection to responsible adults that kids may have in those spaces is truly irresponsible. Wouldn’t it be better for us to hold their hands crossing the road than to say “No, holding hands might lead to a sexual relationship, so we’ll just let the kid cross the six-lane highway. Alone.”

I’ve heard familiar gripes about teachers here – that it’s so easy and they get the summers off. Dream job! But overall the school culture itself seems to lead toward a mutual respect among colleagues and an understanding that no, whether one wears jeans or a suit doesn’t mean one is a better or worse teacher. Effectiveness isn’t tied to your tie. Leadership isn’t lost by leaving your collar unbottoned. Seems a little ridiculous when we think about it this way, don’t you think?

It’s small thing, but it means a lot. It has me wondering what other small differences might go a long way to change the entrenched culture of schools in America.


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