Teaching 17 year olds, I find myself teaching not only writing but also life lessons. Whenever I address my students’ questions, I think of how my answers affect their values, beliefs, and view on life. Recently, one student asks me about what to wear during her presentation. At the end of the semester, my students write a research paper on the topic of their choice, and they give a short oral presentation on their work. My student Kayla emailed me to say that she would love to dress up for her presentation, but she has a gym class right before mine, and she would not have time to change for her presentation. Would she lose her points for wearing sweatpants, she asked. I immediately wrote back to her: “insofar as you don’t show up naked, I don’t care. I care about what you have to say in your presentation, though. Good luck.”
As soon as I pressed the send button, however, I began to rethink my response. Did I send her a wrong message? Perhaps I should have allowed her to wear sweatpants for her presentation day, but at the same time, I should have coupled my permission with an emphasis on the general rule that wearing proper clothing is a way of showing respect and she is normally expected to look professional during her presentation. But wait, do I really think that? And what do I mean by “proper” clothing or looking “professional?”
Sometimes I see on the Internet advices on what college professors should wear. They vary from “don’t wear anything that you purchased prior to the 90s” to “black blazers are your best friends.” Some are kind enough to include a visual example.
I know that in reality, people are treated differently, depending on what they wear. So, the pressure to look professionally is quite intense for teachers, more intense for women teacher, and pretty intense for young women teachers. Given that young women teachers should put forth more effort to be taken seriously than, for example, middle aged male teachers, I understand the importance of a professional wardrobe. I have certain lessons to teach in the classroom, and if what I wear helps to get my message across to the students, why not look professionally?
Nevertheless, I have deep-rooted qualms about yielding to this pressure for professional looks. Despite multiple years of teaching, I don’t own a pair of dress pants. When I go to school, I just wear jeans. What I wear may be considered professional by some and not so much by others. There are multiple reasons why I don’t invest in a professional wardrobe. First, I am lazy. Second, I don’t have extra money to buy tons of new clothing. Third, I feel strongly in revolt against the “buy more” culture. I already have a closetful of clothing, so why do I need more? Fourth, I want to indulge in my particular tastes in clothing. I personally find the staple professional look, the white blouse with a black suit and mid-heel black pumps, very, very stifling.
But most importantly, I do have a modest philosophy behind my sartorial choices. I want my students and my children to grow to become strong and free thinkers who can look past people’s looks. By wearing a crisp, flawlessly ironed white blouse under a black suit myself and teaching my kids to look smart and sharp, I feel that I send the message that one’s look is important and it is okay to judge people based on their looks. I don’t see much difference between this way of thinking and high schoolers’ bullying a kid who look “weird.” Instead, I want my students to enhance the ability not to be distracted by my shoes and hair-dos but focus on what I have to say.
So, I issue an apology for teachers’ unprofessional looks. Rather, we do have an obligation to look quirky.