Classy in the Classroom

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How to dress like the professional you are

By Celeste Behe

Miss Apple had quite a week. On Monday afternoon, the low heel of one of her shoes caught in a crack in the floor of the school cafeteria, causing her to trip in front of 75 sixth-graders, one assistant principal, and a brood of tittering lunch ladies. On Tuesday, a recklessly exuberant student wielding a Sharpie inadvertently stained Miss Apple’s tailored dress. On Wednesday, a lock of hair at the nape of Miss Apple’s neck somehow wound itself firmly around a small embellishment on the teacher’s tasteful scarf, so she had to duck into the bathroom and snip at the lock with nail clippers until the scarf disengaged. On Thursday morning, Miss Apple brushed against the plywood base of a science fair project and snagged her pantyhose on a splinter, forcing her to conduct afternoon classes with a very noticeable hole in her stocking.

On Friday, as Miss Apple walked past the school gymnasium, she spotted the gym teacher striding back and forth in her running shoes and sweats while animatedly giving instruction to her students. The gym teacher looked so comfortable in her easy-care athleisure that Miss Apple had to fight back a wave of envy. Miss Apple ran a finger around the rim of her buttoned-up collar and wondered if she should rethink her work wardrobe. After all, did it really matter what clothes she chose to wear, as long as she was doing her job?

Three spheres of influence

Miss Apple might be surprised to learn that her wardrobe choices do indeed matter. In fact, her effectiveness as an educator could be influenced by the clothes she wears in the classroom. A growing body of research suggests that a teacher’s attire can make a difference in how she functions on a cognitive level, how she feels about herself, and how her students perceive her.

Look smart, think smart

“Clothing is more than just fashion, or a means to protect you from the weather,” commented Colleen Hammond, author, speaker, and founder of the Total Image Institute. “Clothing has power over your mind, too!”

Hammond cited a 2015 report published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, which showed that wearing formal clothing enhances abstract cognitive processing. This phenomenon, known as enclothed cognition, was borne out by a study in which participants donned white coats before tackling cognitive tasks. Those who believed themselves to be wearing doctors’ lab coats performed the tasks more successfully than those who thought they were wearing artists’ smocks. The perception of more formal business attire actually resulted in improved abstract thinking and greater focus.

“What you wear changes the way you think,” Hammond noted. “Depending on what you believe your clothing represents, your brain will respond differently. Even wearing a pair of glasses improves test scores.”

Former public-school educator Mary Sheehan Warren agreed. Warren, whose early teaching experience encompassed several grade levels including nursery school, now teaches Fashion Marketing and Consumer Behavior at the Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business.

“My own experience has proven this theory of ‘enclothed cognition’ to be a very real phenomenon,” she stated. “Even if I’m on a conference call, I must be dressed well or I don’t think clearly and creatively.”

Warren confided that her undergraduate students “recently complained about having to dress ‘business casual’ for class presentations, but in the very next breath, they grudgingly admitted that doing so made them perform better.”

“Of course, our grandmothers told us about this!” Warren continued. “However, as with a lot of other kinds of age-old wisdom, science had to prove it for us to pay any attention.”

You got the power

In her former position as meteorologist for The Weather Channel, Colleen Hammond would spend four hours a day on air. For Hammond, dressing well was a must, not only because her image was being broadcast to thousands of viewers, but because a polished appearance made for a more professional presentation.

The reason?

“How we dress,” Hammond observed, “affects how we behave.”

This influence of clothing on one’s performance is so widely acknowledged that it has even acquired its own tagline: dressing for success.
It’s a concept with which former stylist Warren is thoroughly familiar. The founder of Success in Style, a nonprofit organization dedicated to professional presence training, Warren said, “Through the years, many clients of mine have remarked upon how, at some point in their careers, they realized that they just couldn’t get around the ‘dress for success’ concept because they could feel the difference between the days they tried to look, and, in turn, be professional and those days when they didn’t.

“That is probably the biggest reason why, over the years, so many men and women have paid me good money to help them.”

Like our hapless Miss Apple, a teacher may be tempted to select her clothing on the basis of comfort or convenience. But she would do well to consider the impact of said clothing before donning a pair of distressed jeans and heading out to homeroom. That’s because “there is something biological happening” at the confluence of wardrobe and self-image that shapes one’s performance,” according to the 2016 Scientific American article “Dress for Success.”

Silent Communication

Perhaps you’re thinking that, while there may be a few adults who tend to notice your clothing, your students neither know nor care what you’re wearing on any given day. But a 2017 report in the Journal of Education and Human Development states otherwise, citing several studies that show a correlation between teachers’ professional attire and the level of respect, authority, and career identity attributed to the teachers by students. This led some researchers to suggest that a teacher’s attire might “lead to a more positive learning climate in the classroom.”

Hammond noted, “Any time we stand in front of another person, our appearance is sending a message. Over 90 percent of communication is nonverbal. What message do we want to send?”

Certainly, teachers want to convey the message that their job is important, and therefore, the students themselves are important.

“If you went into a key meeting with top business professionals who showed up wearing sweatpants, t-shirts, and baseball caps hiding dirty hair, how would you feel?” asks Hammond.

If you would feel less than flattered, it’s because specific items of clothing convey certain meanings in our culture.

Explains Mary Sheehan Warren, “Despite current trends among what anthropologists call ‘Style Tribes’ to wear ripped jeans for dressy affairs or athleisure to the office, those jeans or leggings or fleece jackets each convey an aesthetic which persists long past the life of the fad in which it’s become ‘cool.’”

The enduring truth is that T-shirts are weekend wear, baseball caps suggest a day at the diamond, and sweatpants are associated with a workout at the gym … even if business pros are wearing them in the boardroom.

“By dressing in a dignified and professional manner,” Hammond stated, “we send nonverbal messages to everyone who sees us that we care enough about others to offer our best.”

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Golf shirts to suits: the menswear spectrum

Anthony Cook, EdD, Superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Rochester, observed:

Teachers are some of the most important role models for their students. Therefore, it is important that teachers value this role and consistently provide a professional example. A good rule of thumb is to always dress equal to or above the expectations for the students. For example, if students wear polos, the teacher should consider a shirt and tie. If the student dress code is shirt and tie, a suit should be considered. Teachers should observe school spirit by observing special spirit-day dress codes.

For more about professional dress for male teachers, check out Classy in the Classroom: Menswear edition.”

Think about this in your own life: Aren’t you flattered when your spouse dresses up wonderfully for a casual date? Dressing for the other is, at its best, an act of love.
In the field of teaching, professional attire has the additional burden of needing to convey a higher level of credibility, education, and nobility — if truth be told.
The goal for the educator is to “tell” students through his or her physical presentation that education is exciting, teaching is noble, and, most important, that the student is of the highest priority.
The Thoughtful Girl’s Guide to Fashion, Communication, and Friendship

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  • Although low-heeled pumps are a sensible choice for a professional, a pair of practical but stylish wedges can be an excellent alternative. Hot Tip: When Miss Apple goes shopping for shoes and finds a pair that she likes, she does not swiftly reach for her credit card. Instead, she asks herself, “Could I wear these shoes while running to catch the bus on field trip day?”
  • Tailored dress? Good! Tailored dress bearing tag that reads “dry clean only”? Bad. Any article of classroom-bound clothing that isn’t machine washable gets an automatic “F.” Hot Tip: Don’t wait to have your own unfortunate run-in with a Sharpie. Miss Apple learned the hard way that it’s a good idea for teachers to keep an on-the-go stain remover in their desks at school.
  • The hair-grabbing embellishment on Miss Apple’s scarf may have been a sequin, but we’re not telling. Hot Tip: Scarves trimmed with subtle embroidery and conservative fringe are safe to wear to class.
  • It isn’t a stretch to say that a sleek pair of pants, woven with a touch of Spandex, is a welcome alternative to the dress, which is not only more restrictive of movement but also exposes run-prone stockings to the hazards of the classroom. Hot Tip: No matter what she’s wearing, Miss Apple always makes sure she has an extra pair of pantyhose compressed into a sandwich bag and tucked into her purse.

Celeste Behe is a blogger, speaker, and ardent Toastmaster. She lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with her husband Mike and eight of their nine children.

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