Secrets for Secondary School Teachers: How to Succeed in Your First Year (2004)

Chapter 4. Dressing for Success

Teaching is a performance profession, not unlike that of acting on a stage. Our audiences study our costumes and decide, based on these appearances, whether we are convincing in our roles, or whether we are even worth listening to. Parents, colleagues, and staff, as well, form strong impressions of our skills and professional competence based on the ways we present ourselves.

In the beginning of the school year, it is particularly important to establish yourself as a person worthy of respect. You will want to create an image for the students of someone who is a responsible adult mentor, yet someone who is also “with it” in terms of being able to relate to contemporary fashion styles.

You would only have to go back into your own memories to recall teachers who wore strange shoes, or out-of-style clothing, or inappropriate outfits to realize just how important it is to dress for success. Your clothes tell a story about you, especially to impressionable youth whose identities are so tied up in their clothing.


First impressions convey strong messages. As you glance around the room and check out each of your students, note your own personal reactions to each of them. The girl with the three nose rings and studs through her tongue. The guy with the purple hair. The guy next to him wearing all black. The girl who looks like she just walked out of a fashion magazine. In each case, you automatically form a distinct impression and make some preliminary predictions about who you will like and who will be trouble.

Of course, many of these first impressions are inaccurate and misleading. Nevertheless, they do set up certain expectations that are often difficult to alter. For this reason, you will want to give considerable thought to the ways you present yourself to students and staff.


It is important to dress comfortably, especially with regard to shoes, because you will be on your feet most of the day. Although high heels might be in fashion for women, a low-heeled shoe will be more practical. Although a flip-flop may be comfortable, it does not offer the same protection as a shoe or a sandal with leather straps across the front and a sling in the back.

Another consideration is the temperature of the room. If you are in a room that seems cold to you all day long, you may need additional layers. You may decide to keep a sweater in your room for when you get chilled. If you go inside and outside of buildings during the day, you will want to have a jacket or coat handy. In rainy climates, you will want to have a raincoat and/or umbrella handy.

Standards of dress continue to change, even in the business world, where more informal dress is becoming commonplace. You may notice experienced teachers around the school who appear perfectly at ease in their jeans and T-shirts. Someday soon, you, too, may reach a point where you can dress exactly how you prefer. As a beginning, probationary teacher, however, you would be smart to dress the part of the consummate professional: stylish, casual, and conservative rather than flashy. Dress codes vary from district to district and school to school. Look up the policies for your district. Is there a policy regarding pantyhose for women? Are teachers allowed to wear shorts? Check with your administration if you have questions.

Women will be comfortable wearing suits, dresses, skirts with sweaters, skirts and blouses, and dress pants with suit jackets, blouses, or sweaters. Men will feel comfortable wearing suits, slacks and sports coat, and dress pants with collared shirt or button-down shirt with sweaters if it is cold. Clothing should be clean and neat.

One of my (Ellen’s) favorite stories is of a principal who walked into a secondary classroom and could not find the teacher she was seeking because the teacher looked like one of the students, wearing jeans and a T-shirt—an awkward moment for both principal and teacher. It’s important for an administrator to be able to quickly locate the teacher in the classroom. Dressing more formally rather than informally will help avoid such situations.

Remember the age of your audience. Students develop crushes very easily on their teachers. I (Ellen) remember one boy who was cutting out paper dolls at the back of the room. I asked him what he was doing. He told me, with more explanation than I wanted to hear: “I’m cutting out paper dolls to dance all over your body.” Hopefully, your students will concentrate on your words, not on your appearance. We suggest that you not wear clothing that is too tight or too revealing.

Certain disciplines will have alternate dress codes. For example, P.E. teachers usually wear shorts and collared shirts, often with the school emblem. But this type of dress may be restricted to the gyms and the fields. An interesting case in point is a social studies teacher and after-school coach who was informed he had to wear pants, rather than shorts, during the school day and would have to change after school to his alternate attire. This type of policy is, of course, up to the school or district to dictate. Teachers who have laboratory situations, such as biology, chemistry, art, and consumer and family sciences, may choose to wear lab coats to cover their street clothes while in their classrooms.


Many schools have “spirit days” on which school colors are worn. Some schools have collared shirts or T-shirts with the school logo printed on them. Since people in general tend to wear T-shirts with jeans, figuring out what to wear on spirit days can be a problem. The challenge is to dress “casual” and show school spirit, but still appear “professional” and command respect.

On spirit days, female teachers might decide to wear the T-shirt with a jean skirt rather than jean pants. For either male or female teachers, black denim (if denim is allowed) or khaki-colored pants, rather than blue jeans, could also be considered. If you do decide to wear jeans, make sure that they are clean and in good condition. You never know when the yearbook staff will be around to take your picture!


Whatever you do, you don’t want your clothes to be distracting. Students will talk about what you are wearing rather than what you are saying. If you dress like an older brother or sister, you may be treated like one. If your dress is too formal, the students will comment on it. Clothing is a visual cue for middle school and high school students; it signals where they are and what purpose is at hand. It tells them what behavior is expected. Be aware that this is part of what your attire will convey.

It’s important to look nice and take pride in how you look.

I (Cary) remember a teacher I had who constantly wore the same two dresses. It seemed like she just switched off every other day. This did not speak well of her personal hygiene. I’m not saying you need a different outfit for each day of the month, but it is good to make sure you avoid wearing the same thing all of the time.

Another teacher I had was extremely outrageous in her appearance, even distracting. She was weird. It was hard to listen to her because of the outfits she would wear. One day, she came to school with a red dot on her forehead like that of an Indian woman. We thought she was making fun of Indian people. We all wondered why she did that, but she never explained herself. Sometimes, she came to school with so much makeup on her face that she looked like a clown. Another time, she wore a red jacket with the Playboy bunny emblem on it. You can tell that we all spent a lot of time talking about stuff she was wearing.

I would advise teachers to definitely have your own style, but to make sure your appearance isn’t going to detract from the task at hand. Because, believe me, it’s a long year, and we students will be studying every part of you.


Clothing can also be used to emphasize points you wish to make in teaching. A Spanish teacher may wear a Cinco de Mayo shirt when he introduces Mexican holidays. A humanities or art teacher may like to wear a shirt with an impressionist painting on the front. A geometry teacher could wear a shirt with an Escher design. Even more inventive, an English or history teacher may dress up in period costume to attract student interest in a subject. A geography teacher may wear the dress of a particular culture being studied.

The clothing you wear becomes an extension of your whole classroom environment, as well as an expression of your personality. Give serious consideration to the kind of impression you wish to convey, and make thoughtful decisions about your wardrobe.

As we have mentioned, teaching could quite easily be included in a drama department as well as in education. Unless you are able to capture student interest, beguile your audience, entertain and delight them, pique their curiosity, and stimulate all of their senses, they are going to be paying far more attention to their friends and inner needs than anything you want to present them. Just as performers spend a lot of time thinking about their lines, their props, and their wardrobe, so too should you select clothes that reflect the kind of professional but accessible image you wish to communicate.