Attending to Teacher Attire

School leaders wage a tense campaign to maintain a staff’s professional look by RUTH E. STERNBERG
Teachers in Baytown, Texas, were willing to compromise on what they could wear to school. But give up blue jeans and tennis shoes? They might as well have been told they had to wear uniforms.

“A highly restrictive dress code is seen as harassment,’’ one teacher from the school district told a local newspaper. “A teacher needs the freedom to create his or her most effective style.’’

Barbara Sultis, superintendent of the 18,500-student Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District, which employs 1,500 teachers, believes she provided the key to that freedom when she involved as many parties as possible in the decision-making process two years ago. Serving then as the district’s administrative director, Sultis invited teachers, parents and principals to the table. They met for hours just to talk about the fitness of jeans in the classroom. They came back to hash out rules about earrings, skirt length and other details.

The six-month process was worth it, believes Sultis, noting there hasn’t been much backlash since the school board approved the final three-page policy in May 2001.

“The whole process involving all the little guys was totally democratic,’’ she says. “You don’t have too many opportunities to do it right.’’

Differing Attitudes
Across the country, administrators are wondering how they can better regulate what teachers wear without provoking a labor war. Many say they have concerns about the styles worn by those just entering the profession. Jeans and T-shirts are just as likely as button-down shirts and Chinos to appear at the front of a classroom.

“The teachers graduating today have a different idea of what constitutes professional dress,’’ says John Griego, executive director of high schools in Colorado Springs, Colo., District 11.

“Twenty-five to 30 years ago, it was more coat and tie. Now, they’re Generation X and have a more laissez faire attitude,’’ says Andre Pettigrew, assistant superintendent in Denver, Colo.

Many say their current staff dress codes don’t give principals much help in dealing with questions that arise. Stipulations to dress “professionally’’ or “appropriately” are subjective and leave wide gaps for interpretation. Teachers complain principals have no right to tell them they can’t wear sandals when the code doesn’t ban them.

Without a more specific policy, “it becomes a teacher saying, ‘This is your opinion and not mine,’’’says Dennis Smith, superintendent of the Placentia-Yorba Linda, Calif., district.

But getting all parties to agree on terms for attire is often a battle of wills. Administrators see dress as a projection of image and an element of classroom control. Teachers may see any push to regulate their behavior as an infringement of their civil rights.

“Dress is very much freedom of expression,’’ says Mary Jo McGrath, a veteran school attorney based in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“There’s a majority that is mildly offended by the notion that teachers can’t decide for themselves what’s appropriate attire,’’ says Tom Harrison, president of the teachers union in Santa Ana, Calif.

Geographic Diversity
School culture also differs from place to place so it can be hard to translate policies across geographical borders. What’s acceptable workplace attire in suburban California isn’t necessarily the same as what communities expect in rural Kentucky or southern Virginia.

Administrators who have successfully negotiated teacher dress codes advise a short course in community mores and state regulations. Begin with a study of state law and dress codes in other districts, they say. In some states, dress codes must be negotiated as part of a union contract. In others, boards or superintendents can develop their own policies.

“If they can even have records of studies or places where codes have been implemented and behavior has improved, it will help it later if it ever does get scrutinized in court,’’ said McGrath, who has represented school districts in hundreds of legal cases involving school personnel over the years.

Once you’re ready to start developing a dress code, open the process to as many stakeholders as possible. Bring in teachers and community members. Let them state their preferences and be part of a compromise plan. Develop clear goals and reasonable expectations. Consider a policy that gives teachers and principals discretion in establishing dress interpretation at individual schools according to their classroom needs.

In Harford County, Md., 25 miles northeast of Baltimore, Superintendent Jackie Haas says she wished she had taken some of this advice. Last school year, as her school board developed a more stringent dress code for its 40,000 students, she employed what she thought was common sense and urged board members to add language indicating the district’s teachers were role models and should adhere to the same standards as students.

She soon found herself arguing with the teachers union, which perceived her statement as bullying. Even though Haas has agreed to sit down with union representatives to talk about the matter, it has been difficult to get past the hard feelings. The matter remains unresolved.

“In hindsight, we probably should have made sure there was a discussion with the teachers ahead of time,’’ she says.

Teachers in the 6,000-student Dodge City, Kan., schools and the Santa Ana, Calif., Unified School District, which enrolls 60,000 students, filed official complaints challenging administrative and board authority after being told they should dress more formally when they come to school. Relationships with teachers have been strained ever since.

In Dodge City, a teacher filed an unfair labor practices complaint. An independent arbitrator selected by the school board and union ruled a dress code had to be negotiated as part of the employment contract. But Richard McVay, a central-office administrator, admits getting together has been difficult. “We don’t usually get very far,’’ he says.

Kevin Scarrow, a former Dodge City teacher who now heads one of the state teachers union’s UniServe offices, says teachers have been skeptical about principals’ abilities to uniformly enforce a policy that should meet all classroom needs. “Teachers think they’re professional enough to decide what’s appropriate for their classroom,’’ he says.

In Santa Ana, one of southern California’s largest school districts, the union lost its challenge, though the school board voted last April to remove some of the previous stricter stipulations, such as requiring male teachers to wear ties.

“It’s all right,’’ says Harrison, head of the Santa Ana teachers union. But he says certain aspects of the code still bother many teachers, including a list of unacceptable clothing that includes shorts and open-toed shoes—items many teachers deem essential in a warm climate.

A Santa Ana elementary school principal (who asked not to be named) says some teachers have mocked the policy by wearing mismatched clothing obviously purchased at thrift stores.

“Anyone who knows anything about California knows we have a moderate sense of formality,’’ says Harrison, who no longer has a classroom assignment. “This was a control issue and it was very transparent.’’

Consensus Decisions
Sultis, the superintendent of the Goose Creek district, wanted to avoid these types of skirmishes. She organized her campaign to cover all the bases. “We basically started from dirt,’’ she says.

Sultis set up committees with ground rules, such as decision making through consensus and not interrupting. She polled teachers to establish expectations for the code itself and came up with guiding words such as “affordable,’’ “diverse” and “enforceable.’’ Committees were charged with detailed tasks.

“We put people in charge of general categories—men, women, physical education, transportation,’’ Sultis says. “We would walk through it very slowly. We had categories for jewelry, hair, dresses, skirts, capri pants, leggings, suits, shoes, hoisery. … We looked at dress codes from other businesses and read articles.’’

The superintendent created and distributed a newsletter detailing progress on the emotional issue.

“It was a hot topic,’’ she concedes. “[Teachers] would call my secretary. They would write comments. Some of them didn’t like even having a dress code. Some included pictures (of different types of dress). There was an issue about having all the piercings you want. They were worried we were going to make all the women wear hose in the hot summer and all that.’’

In the end, body piercings, other than earrings, would become taboo, and jeans would be banned most of the time. Pantyhose wouldn’t be required, but Goose Creek teachers would have detailed regulations spelling out how certain outfits, such as those with cropped pants, may be worn.

There was no rebellion over the dress code, though a few reprimands have followed. Sultis believes the widespread conformance is the result of using teachers to devise the rules. “It’s never gone past the second or third violation,’’ Sultis says, noting multiple infractions by the same teacher could lead to a one-day suspension without pay and possible termination.

In the Erlanger-Elsmere Independent School District in northern Kentucky, 10 miles south of Cincinnati, former Superintendent James Molley says changing times prompted his discussion with teachers, especially after a series of eyebrow-raising encounters.

“I once interviewed a speech therapist who came to the interview with his tongue pierced. He couldn’t even talk properly, and he’s out there seeking a job teaching people how to speak properly. There was no way we were going to hire him. We had a young lady come for an interview with a big tattoo on her arm and in shorts. And she wore thongs to the interview. If I’ve got one (teacher) in there with a tattoo, I’m going to end up with 15 seniors with a tattoo.’’

Molley, who retired last summer from the 2,500-student district after eight years in the job and 30 years with the district, says he would have preferred to impose a coat-and-tie policy. And he could have done so easily. Erlanger-Elsemere doesn’t have a teachers union. But Molley says he realized he would not get very far.

“We would never have done anything without consulting with the teachers,’’ he says. “If you impose the rule without them being part of it, you’re going to be fighting them.”

The process was constructive. He got to hear how teachers felt about their jobs. “Some of them felt like the teaching process has changed. And I agree,’’ Molley says. “I understand that kindergarten teachers get down on the floor when they’re interacting with students.’’

Teachers agreed to prohibit jeans and shorts, except in the hottest summer months. They agreed to ban culottes or pedal pushers or tight clothes and even suggested a compromise to spruce up their look.

“What a lot of the staff did was buy a lot of shirts and they put the school logos on them. So for special occasions they all come to school in the same uniform,’’ Molley says.

Mirroring Students
Reasonableness is often a key ingredient to a successful dress code—and administrators in Colorado Springs wanted to make sure their desire to align teacher dress codes with expectations for students would not cause a major dispute.

“We live in a very conservative community—highly Republican and somewhat anti-union in nature,’’ says Griego, who is responsible for the operation of Colorado Springs’ high schools.

Fortunately, they already had union cooperation. The teacher association president wanted to strengthen the code, too. She had noticed dress standards slipping. Griego was able to organize a cross-generational committee of men and women from all grade levels.

The policy, approved in 1994 and modified in 1997, mirrors elements of the student dress code, both of which prohibit sheer or tight clothing and the wearing of hats inside buildings. The teacher code recommends several types of professional dress, including dress slacks, shirts with collars and ties, yet it allows staff members to make judgments about whether they need to wear jeans.

In Sayreville, N.J., a school system of about 5,800 students, Superintendent Dennis Fyffe says word choice and flexibility are important, both to satisfy teachers’ needs and to prevent the board from having to renegotiate details of the policy every few years. Sayreville’s policy, approved in June, focuses on situations when teachers might have to divert from the rules. Inclement weather and special class activities are listed as circumstances when teachers might want to dress down, perhaps even wearing jeans and tennis shoes, both normally banned from the classroom.

Fyffe put considerable emphasis on the wording of the district’s policy on attire. It spells out the categories of dress, banning, for example, “torn or dirty clothing” and “dungarees or jeans made of denim,” but it doesn’t name brands or styles that are likely to fade from fashion and become obscure quickly. Sayreville’s policy indicates some attire is merely recommended by referring to it as “strongly encouraged but not required.”

Attorney Elizabeth F. Murphy, who has represented more than a dozen school boards in northern and central New Jersey, says one of the biggest problems with dress codes is clarity. “Dress code problems arise when what is prohibited is not clear,’’ she says. “If you’re going to allow your gym teachers to wear sweatpants or workout pants, you need to specifically say ‘phys-ed teachers can wear specific types of clothing,’ but make it clear that it’s not acceptable for others to wear.’’

If a policy isn’t written with clarity, she asks, “What do you do when your teachers start showing up in warm up suits?”

Pressuring Principals
In Santa Ana, Calif., administrators found that listing a sports coat and tie as the “expected” form of male dress created such ambiguity. Harrison, the union president, says he knows of at least one argument that erupted almost as soon as the policy took effect—after a principal told a teacher to put on a tie.

Teachers union representatives subsequently met with administrators to clarify that the language meant such attire wasn’t required.

“If it means we would like you to wear this, but we’re not going to punish you, that’s fine,’’ Harrison says.

Ambiguity puts pressure on principals, says Murphy, who has seen teacher dress issues surface in most of the districts she has represented—and seen it crop up across the state. “It’s a very common issue,’’ she says.

Murphy believes being too specific can create hassles by turning principals into fashion police.

“You don’t want to be so specific that you get yourself into a situation where administrators are having to assess what the teachers are wearing to the point of ridiculousness.”

Attorney Julie Underwood, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, says a lean policy with carefully worded goals is the least complicated approach. If the goals are clear, teachers will understand them without needing an itemized list of acceptable and unacceptable clothing styles.

“Times change,’’ she says. “The more narrow your definition, the more you’re going to have to write about it. It’s a lot easier to say, ‘You must wear shoes that cover your feet’ than ‘No open-toed sandals, no flip-flops,’ because one day someone is going to come with dental floss wrapped around their feet and they’ll say, ‘Well it doesn’t say ‘No dental floss.’ People’s imaginations are probably a whole lot bigger than those of us who write policy.’’

In Colorado Springs, district leaders have had to retool their eight-year-old policy to accommodate new styles and trends—even one nobody could have anticipated.

“A female teacher was out on the playground, and a senior teacher come in outraged that this person didn’t have underpants on,’’ says Greigo, the administrator overseeing high schools. “She had on a mini-skirt, but was wearing a thong-type panty.’’

Discretion by Site
Some districts circumvent the need to revise periodically by framing policy language with general goals, then giving principals and teachers leeway to decide what’s right for their buildings.

Wake County, N.C., officials ended up producing a dress code that was short and spelled out the principals’ discretion. The one-paragraph guideline was a matter of practicality in a district with 7,000 teachers, says Walt Sherlin, associate superintendent for operational services. But he also believes, “It’s important that you assume professionalism on the part of the teachers and not set a lot of little rules.”

In Denver, a 1999 policy adopted for teachers, then expanded in 2001 to non-teaching staff, takes the same approach. It spells out some prohibited items—shorts, sunglasses, tight or backless clothing and anything with sexually suggestive words or symbols—but the language is vague enough to give principals discretion.

For example, what constitutes “disruptive’’ jewelry or clothing is up to the building administrator.

“One of things we are emphasizing is trying to not let our dress be distraction from our learning,’’ says Andre Pettigrew, Denver’s assistant superintendent for administrative services, adding, “Principals are delegated the authority for ensuring compliance.”

Principal Mario Williams of George Washington High School in Denver, appreciates the latitude to set the tone and to handle violations by considering the situation.

“I’ve seen some things that are questionable. I’ve seen jeans that were raggedy looking or T-shirts that were just kind of sloppy or a teacher that had some personal hygiene issues,’’ he says, noting he usually talks privately with the teacher in question to determine the circumstances.

Pettigrew says Denver, with more than 4,000 teachers, just wanted something clear and flexible—and manageable.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It is truly a site-based decision. We know one size does not fit all.’’

Ruth Sternberg is an education reporter for The Dispatch in Columbus, Ohio. E-mail: ruthestern@aol.com