I'm not sure if it was my teacher role models while I was growing up or my own teacher prep program, but I have had a strong feeling throughout my career that a "teacher should look like a teacher." At least in terms of what they wear to work. We're professionals, are we not?
Mind you, when I started this job, I was all of 21. I'm about 5'2" in height and for the first few years of my career, I was often mistaken for one of the kids. (Keep in mind that I taught at a junior high.) Somehow, putting on a dress, pantyhose, and high heels each morning made me feel like I was able to separate myself from my students. Whether or not it made me look more "adult," I couldn't tell you. But being able to feel that way was enough of a confidence boost to keep me going.
And here I am, 14 years later, still wearing dresses, pantyhose, and high heels to work. Even on most lab days. Do I really need this sort of outfit anymore? Do clothes matter to my students in terms of my credibility?
According to "The Effect of Teacher Dress on Student Perceptions," by Pamela Phillips, et al. (1992), "Research indicates that clothing is a significant form of nonverbal communication that affects the perceptions of others. Fourth, seventh, and ninth graders (27 males and 33 females) were shown three photographs of a female model in casual, moderate, and conservative attire. A modified Likert scale was used to measure student perceptions of eight teacher traits for each of the stimulus photographs. Results indicate that students' perceptions of teacher attributes are affected by teacher attire. In addition, different modes of dress tend to elicit certain perceptions while simultaneously decreasing the probability of other perceptions. Casual clothing was perceived by students to convey teacher friendliness, fairness, and interestingness. Moderate attire conveyed teacher friendliness, organization, interestingness, understanding, and discipline. Conservative dress elicited perceptions of teacher organization, knowledge, and disciplinary skills. Although differences in perceptions were evidenced at varying grade levels, no pattern of differing perceptions due to student gender emerged."
Okay, so looking at pictures is not the same thing as being in the classroom and seeing someone in action. But the results are interesting. I would put myself in the "moderate" to "conservative" range of things. Very rarely do I dress down for work. I've been looking for some research on whether or not teacher dress makes a difference in terms of student behaviour/discipline. What happens when a whole school staff dresses professionally? So far, I haven't found an answer. My personal anecdotal information is that I believe it does make a difference. It conveys an important message to kids that we're here for a purpose. And an important one at that.
"Harry Wong, a former California science teacher who now conducts workshops and writes books on classroom management, including the widely circulated The First Days of School, says he believes teachers should have decision-making power about what to wear but that what they wear sends a message. He tells teachers to ask themselves, 'What do kids perceive? My issue is that people look at you and they make perceptions. Right or wrong. Usually it's wrong. That's a reality of life. It's how people market products. So I tell teachers, 'How you dress so shall you be perceived. And as you are perceived, so shall you be treated.' Wong adds, 'Always dress better than your students. If you don't care how you look, how can they care about you?'"