Guest Column

Blue Denim Blues

by Charles Waggoner

To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, “Happy school districts are all alike; every unhappy district is unhappy in its own way.”


The district where I am superintendent became unhappy in its own unique way in April 2000 when newly elected board members suggested that a few teachers were not dressing in a professional manner and needed to wear more appropriate attire. This seemed like an innocuous request on the part of the board at the time. All they were asking was that teachers refrain from wearing blue denim jeans on “casual day” (payday Friday), which had become the unofficial custom in our district.

The board pointed to mandatory dress guidelines for Hamburger University at McDonald’s corporate training site in Oak Brook, Ill., and for the professional staff at Disneyland, both of which stipulate that business casual does not include jeans of any type. Wouldn’t it also help to reinforce teachers as role models if they returned to a more professional look? Can’t schools set their dress standards for staff as high as McDonald’s or Disney?

Casual Spreads

For decades, students have been scrutinized by school officials who could send them home for inappropriate clothing. Almost every school, with few exceptions, has a student dress code, but few districts in Illinois have any dress code statements pertaining to teachers.

When the “no-jeans policy” was distributed to the teachers following the board’s action, it took only a few days before a grievance was threatened, charging that the district had failed to discuss changes in the contract with “respect to wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment.”

The advice of the school district’s counsel was to rescind the dress code directive and move on. A teacher’s dress code policy was in his legal opinion “a very slippery slope” that was not worth the pain involved nor the time it would take to get a decision on the issue. His advice was taken and the board and administration collectively blinked and rescinded the dress code edict.

The no-denim jeans matter—some would say fiasco—resulted in “Casual Friday” becoming the norm most days of the week for a certain group of teachers who were determined to demonstrate to the board and administration just what they thought of tampering with their grooming standards. The majority of the staff refrained from wearing blue jeans, either out of respect to administrative wishes or a personal sense of professionalism.

In researching the legal aspects of a teacher dress code, I found that historically the courts have upheld the school administration when the application of teacher dress was reasonable and intended to serve a legitimate purpose. Some dress code decisions have favored boards and some have gone in favor of the teachers. The unique circumstances in each case make it impossible to establish any trends or judicial tendencies.

The cases give some direction regarding what the courts may approve and what they may not. Blue jeans are something a person can put on and take off, unlike facial hair, which is part of the projection of a person 24 hours a day. Teachers are free to “be themselves” in blue jeans on weekends and before and after school hours so the courts have stated that a rule against blue jeans is clearly not a First Amendment violation.

A school dress code must be related reasonably to a legitimate educational purpose, which must be justified. For many students the classroom teacher is the most professional person they see in the course of a day. We need for our students and community to see teachers as professionals and not as their pals, dressing alike in jeans and t-shirts. Some recent evidence turned up by Katie Swanger, dean of faculty at Heald College’s School of Business and Technology, indicates that students may judge the performance of teachers higher if they are dressed professionally.

The California School Boards Association has an optional policy for local boards to adopt. It states: “The governing board believes that since teachers serve as role models, they should maintain professional standards of dress and grooming. Just as overall attitude and instructional competency contribute to a productive learning environment, so do appropriate dress and grooming. The board encourages staff during school hours to wear clothing that demonstrates their high regard for education and presents an image consistent with their job responsibilities. Clothes that may be appropriate for shop instructors or gym teachers may not be appropriate for classroom teachers.”

The administration should set an appropriate professional standard for the staff in their own professional dress and require the same for the teachers. Ask yourself this question: Have you ever interviewed a teaching candidate who was wearing blue jeans and tennis shoes?

Would anyone go to an educational interview—or any job interview—looking less than his or her best? I think not. Why then should teachers settle for less in their day-to-day teaching appearance?

Chuck Waggoner is superintendent of the Havana Community Unified School District, 501 S. McKinley, Havana, Ill. 62644. E-mail: