Bringing class to the classroom

With limited budgets and few guidelines, young teachers have their own dress code issues

September 23, 2010|By John-John Williams IV, The Baltimore Sun

Heather Burt knows that above-the-knee skirts, the flash of a midriff or cleavage, and jeans are no-nos while she is working as a fourth-grade teacher at Meade Heights Elementary School in Anne Arundel County. She has never been warned against wearing these clothes because she understands the unspoken rule.

"That is the rule of thumb," Burt said. "You want to look professional My [students] wear uniforms. It is not very professional if you wear jeans if the kids can't. Dressing professionally, the kids take you more seriously."

Today's battle in the classroom is more than just high test scores, student safety and healthful lunches. There is a style war being waged in many schools across the country.

The older guard of educators expects a certain level of professional decorum, while younger teachers — often fresh from the tank-top realities of college — don't know the rules, or sometime try to push the envelope in the name of personal style.

Around the state, many school systems leave the decision up to individual school administrators. Nationally, school systems have struggled with the issue. In Jefferson Parish, which neighbors New Orleans, the school system's superintendent received a prickly response several years ago when she proposed a dress code that teachers complained was too vague and unfairly enforced.

But Howard County school officials now put on an annual fashion show during new teacher orientation where they model the right and wrong way to dress. Howard County officials think that modeling the fashion do's and don'ts during the annual show is the right approach.

Appropriate classroom attire "has become an issue across the country," said Mamie Perkins, Howard County's chief of staff. " We want to give them a visual. We want them to remember this day. We're not talking down to them. Our goal is success for them. I'm not looking for one-year employees."

Although many top-ranking area school system officials shy away from the topic, there is a genuine concern — especially with new, younger hires — about making sure they appear to be in roles of authority. The historical complaint among younger teachers has been that appropriate dress attire is nonfashionable, dowdy and oftentimes too expensive for their starting salaries.

"I think that regardless of age, you can still be stylish and classroom-appropriate," said Kim Mahle, a specialist in the human resources office of Howard County public schools.

Mahle, a former classroom teacher, loves the latest fashions but knows that many are not appropriate for the classroom.

"They are great for the weekend, and great for when you go home," she said. "We are asking for teachers to be leaders. If they dress appropriate, the students treat them with respect."

Classroom-appropriate attire is extremely important for new teachers who are often recent college graduates, according to Robin Beck, an administrative secretary in the human resources office for Howard County Schools.

"Their dress has kind of changed," she said. "Now the younger teachers are more casual and relaxed."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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