The Link Between Teacher Dress and Student Decorum

by RUTH STERNBERG
Does teacher dress influence student attitudes? Maine educational consultant Kathryn Markovchick is one of the few researchers who have studied the question. She thinks the answer is yes.

Markovchick, who directs the Maine Support Network in Readfield, Maine, interviewed students for her 1995 doctoral dissertation at the State University of New York in Buffalo. She talked to 9th graders at three Buffalo-area schools—in the inner city, a suburb and a rural area.

Her study involved showing them pictures of female teachers dressed in different ways. “I had them rate each teacher’s ability in a number of different categories,’’ Marvochick says. “Like, ‘Is this teacher friendly?’ ‘Do you think you’d learn from this teacher?’ ‘Is this teacher a fair grader?’

“I found basically that students were accepting of how teachers dressed, except a teacher in blue jeans they figured would be friendlier, but didn’t give much credibility. And the woman in the more formal look they thought could teach well, but did not think was friendly.”

Clothes Communicate
Caroline Clauss-Ehlers, a psychologist and professor at the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, says teachers should think about their classroom goals and relate them to the way they dress.

“The teachers are role models,’’ she says. “Oftentimes, if the teacher doesn’t handle or conduct him or herself in a professional manner, it can communicate that they (the students) are not important and that the material doesn’t matter.

“At the same time, I know there are assemblies or more personal get-togethers with students. At that point, it might be more helpful to wear something more casual. It’s really about finding a balance. It’s very much about common sense.’’

Clauss-Ehlers says students are aware of the impact clothing can have on others. She has talked with some of them about their own dress.

“They say they actually wish they had a dress code. They found that teachers treated them differently, depending on how they were dressed,’’ she says.

Appropriate Modeling
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?’’

John Fahey, an assistant professor of educational leadership at James Madison University in Virginia, says teachers have an opportunity to teach through their dress. He tells his students they should model appropriate casual dress, no matter what their school district’s rules are.

Use the opportunity, Fahey tells teachers in training, to wear a colorful tie or a neat, pressed pair of jeans to show students that casual dress can be professional.

“I think students need to see that we can wear blue jeans one day and not have our belly showing.’’