By Otis Kriegel, author of Everything a New Elementary School Teacher REALLY Needs to Know (But Didn’t Learn in College)
Not sure what to wear to work? Think back to one or two of your own teachers who looked like they raided a sale rack, mixing and matching anything that seemed to fit—or didn’t. That doesn’t need to be you. Teachers don’t really have an “outfit,” but there are a few reasons to consider what you wear before you step into your classroom.
Do I have a “teaching outfit”? Yup. Sure do. I have a few. I keep a few sets of pants, shirts, socks, undershirts, a sweater or two, and shoes (yep, that’s right, shoes!) for use in the classroom only. These are clothes I like. They are not from a free box, and they do not include that collared shirt with only a few buttons. They aren’t clothes I would wear on a date, but I feel good in them, and they represent me professionally.
It’s my uniform. I put it on to teach. The classroom is my stage to inspire, captivate, and empower the audience: my students. So getting into that role makes sense. And a uniform of sorts can help. A chef puts on an apron, firefighters and police officers put on their uniforms, and superheroes duck into phone booths and come out in their uniforms, ready to save the world. Putting on a uniform gets you prepared for the day and for the job. I go to school, change when I get there, and change my clothes again when I leave. And I bring them home every Friday (or every other) to wash them and then back the following Monday.
Things can get mighty dirty in the classroom.
I don’t want to wear my favorite pair of jeans to work when I know I might be on the floor reading with a first grader, or a seventh grader might bump into me while looking the other way, spilling his lunch all over my clothes. No chance. If that happens, I have extra clothes at work I can change into during the workday and my out-of-school clothes to return to when it’s time to go. No stress, and no teaching all day with a swath of ketchup all over a crisp white shirt or stuck to the bottom of my shoes.
It pays to be comfortable. It pays to feel good.
The classroom is your home away from home and should be a place where you want to be. The same goes for what you wear at work. You need to feel good in what you have on. Yes, the classroom is not the fashion runway, and teachers are regularly teased for not being “fashion forward.” Put that aside and consider what clothes you feel good in. You need to feel confident when you’re teaching. You’re a role model. You’re onstage. You’re standing in front of a group of 30, or possibly 250, different kids. If you’re feeling schlumpy, you’re going to act that way too! And who wants a schlump as a teacher? Nobody.
Teachers are on their feet all day long.
If you aren’t moving around on your feet for most of the day, then you are not actively engaged with your students! Get a pair of shoes that are supportive and professional and feel good. I wear sneakers. Since I only wear them in the classroom, they last almost the entire year. I also have an older pair that I leave at school if I am teaching something that might get messy, such as art or a field trip to a park. Imagine leaving work and your nice new flats are covered in mud or paint? Makes for a fun story. Once.
You are what you wear to school.
Lastly, I am sensitive to what I promote via what I wear. I refrain from any political statements or religious paraphernalia. Why? Every little comment you make or item you wear has an impact. I have been open about marching for teachers’ rights, gun control, protecting the environment, and other political issues that affect schools and that I can explain to my students. Discussions are one thing. But wearing a statement without a conversation is propaganda. I don’t think that is fair when teaching.
So stop wearing that old sweater with holes in it. Get something you like, something that can take the wear and tear, and leave it at work. Make sure you feel good in it. Change into that uniform at school, and when the bell rings (or after you’ve done your prep for the next day), take off that “teacher outfit” and enjoy your evening.
Otis Kriegel is a 15-year veteran teacher, having taught in dual language (Spanish/English), monolingual, and integrated co-teaching (ICT) classrooms. He received his M.S.Ed. in bilingual education from the Bank Street College of Education and has taught at the Steinhardt School at New York University. Otis has also been a guest lecturer at the Bank Street College of Education, City College of New York, and Touro College. He created the workshop, “How to Survive Your First Years Teaching & Have a Life,” which was the impetus for his book. An experienced presenter, Otis has conducted this workshop with hundreds of preservice and new teachers and continues to present in universities and teacher education programs. Otis now resides with his family in Berlin, Germany, where he teaches at an American international school.
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