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Dressing the Part

Once upon a time I watched a young girl who had been finger-painting with pudding look up from her paper to see her teacher walking into the room. This teacher had been gone on vacation for two weeks and was returning back to class … the little girl stopped painting and ran with open arms to welcome her back only to be stopped with an abrupt, “Don’t touch me!” as the teacher backed away from her small painty hands.

Just as we fight the good fight for children to come to school dressed in play clothes, you too must dress for creative play. Save the fancy clothes, the nightclub clothes and the designer clothes for locations where they are appropriate, not the preschool. Go buy three pairs of pants you don’t care about and a whole bunch of shirts from the Goodwill. I think overalls are the best for preschool teachers – all those pockets come in handy for tape, scissors, band aids, markers, tissues … .No one is here for a fashion contest, we are here to be with children. Regardless of how “into” your teaching you are, if you are overdressed you are going to be worried about your clothes. Dressy clothes have no place in an early childhood environment. Now maybe you are the front office receptionist – by all means – dress up if you would like! But let us not make the mistake of forgetting that what goes on in the front office is much different than what is happening in the art area, sand box and playground! Different jobs, different needs. If you are dressed in clothes that you are worried about you will shy away from engaging interactions and explorations. If you back away from the art table for fear of “getting dirty” guess what the children in your class are going to do?

The issue of dress codes for teachers comes up often. Many pages of employee handbooks are used to define, regulate and otherwise enforce the attire of the staff. No this, no that, no jeans, no overalls, no shorts, no T-shirts (except on Fridays) etc etc. I expect my staff to be clean, fresh smelling and dressed – meaning: body parts covered, no boobs or butts hanging out. Other than that my rule is as follows: Clothes, accessories, shoes, hair, nails and jewelry should not interfere with your interactions with the children.

I have seen some teachers who do just fine with long acrylic nails and some who can no longer zip zippers, open a thermos, change a diaper or tie shoes. I might need to inform the teacher who is no

longer able to function that it might be best for her to remove her acrylic nails. I would not however, create a policy, circulate a memo, create a new “rule” or otherwise require all teachers to remove their long pretty, brightly painted nails simply out of superficial “fairness”. It would be inappropriate for me to have one size fits all policies for my teachers just as I resist one size fits all policies for children. We deal with things as they come up. We do not enforce gross generalizations in order to ease management duties or responsibilities. If someone needs to have a meeting about not covering all their parts or wearing too much perfume, sit them down and talk with them. We are loosing our ability to communicate. We have become fearful of conflict, so to keep things “nice,” and in the name of fairness, we establish knee-jerk policies that are not fair to anyone.

My former co-teacher wore (and I bet still does at her new school in North Carolina) tall, wedge sandals that were so high they would make your nose bleed. I did not “not allow” her to wear her big shoes simply because she “might” trip. If however, they had inhibited her running, jumping or otherwise interacting with the children that would have been another story and we would have dealt with it at that time. She is an amazing teacher. And guess what? Her shoes did not change her amazing-ness! I am usually in jeans. Am I “less professional” than a counterpart who might wear a suit? If we put Laminated Lady in heels and a dress would she all of a sudden become a better teacher?

Please know that I am aware of and respect the fact that certain religious belief systems dictate and regulate the clothing worn by its members. These religious requirement and choices are not what I am talking about here. What I am being faced with lately are recent mandates of khaki pants, collared shirts, ties, heels, skirts and nylons being worn by providers and teachers in infant, toddler and preschool classrooms. I ask, “Why?” They say “Professionalism!” Yet I wonder aloud how folks that are barely paid a livable wage are expected to spend such a large percentage of their money on clothing. I wonder if their organizations are now providing a clothing allowance for required items. Are they reimbursed for dry cleaning? But mostly, I wonder if it is a way of cleverly circumventing the necessity of providing of meaningful, creative, messy, artistic, child-centered play.

I think it goes deep. It is, like most things, a bigger issue. It’s not that they don’t want you in jeans. It’s that we look more like a “teacher” when we are wearing something else. Like a tie and pressed pants. Yet do I stop being a teacher if I’m in clean overalls, a nice pink t-shirt and sneakers? We were

at a post workshop dinner break with a group in Indiana and the waitress asked what we were in town for. “Teacher training!” we enthusiastically replied. “What grade?” she asked. “Preschool!” “Oh … ” she said, “So you’re not really teachers … ” I looked at our waitress and then looked around the table. Who did I see? A family child care provider of 15 years, a former preschool teacher now program director, myself, and a woman who has a Ph.D. and teaches child development at the local college. But somehow we are not really “teachers” because we work with young children. So I guess the logic goes that if we aren’t really teachers because we work with young children, and we are only really teachers if we teach a “grade,” then if we dress and look the way the grade school teachers do, then we can be considered teachers. Is that it?

I am told that these clothing requirements are designed to promote professionalism thus encouraging parents to treat the teachers with respect. Yes it is true that folks dressed up for a night on the town will get a nicer table, possibly faster seating and more than likely better service. If you have a nice car (and it’s washed) it will get staged when you valet. And I doubt that anyone would question the authority of a red power tie. But we are talking about folks who are working with babies! With toddlers! How can you dart after a runaway preschooler if you are in heels? Teachers need to be able to move around, clean up spills, change diapers, be burped on, be thrown up on, run after children, roll on the floor, play in the mud and water and provide creative art experiences each and every day. Dress codes and clothing requirements MUST take these things into consideration!

You do not become professional by wearing certain clothes. Respect for the self translates into respect for others. Pride and professionalism comes from within. If a teacher really is a “professional,” his or her “professionalism” will present itself daily during interactions with colleagues, parents, directors and children whether they are in jeans, a skirt, coat and tie, sneakers or high heels.

If we think we can create good teachers with “nice” clothes, does it follow that we disguise bad teaching with the same?

“Sit down! Be quiet!”

“Stop that! I will call your mother!”

“Don’t make me come over there! NO! NO! NO!”

But boy she looks good!

I guarantee that when you are presented the opportunity to observe a true professional, you will be able to identify him or her by their love and laughter, their dedication to their career and their passion and commitment to the children regardless of what they are wearing.

© Lisa Murphy, Ooey Gooey Inc. Rochester, New York.

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