Are Dress Codes for Educators Simply Out of Fashion?
As the business and tech worlds move away from enforcing strict dress codes, it’s time to reevaluate what’s expected of educators.
It’s not unusual to see Alexis Neumann, the superintendent of Rapoport Academy Public Schools, wearing jeans to work, and the district head doesn’t bat an eye when she sees staff members dressed similarly.
As the leader of a small group of charter schools in Waco, Texas, serving predominantly low-income families, Neumann acknowledges that the work, though rewarding, is challenging—physically, emotionally, and cognitively. It’s important that her team feel comfortable while they do it.
“We require a lot of our teachers,” she says. “One of the things we expect is that they are with kids, on the ground with them, in community with them. That’s really hard to do in a suit or in heels.”
Though there are several nearby schools where educators are asked to dress more formally, a relaxed dress code policy has been a hallmark of school culture across all of the Rapoport Academy campuses since the schools were founded in 1998. And they haven’t seen any reasons to reconsider. Though the arguments for stricter dress codes are many—they reinforce school discipline, reduce classroom distractions, and mirror societal expectations, advocates say—Neumann reports no negative impact from Rapoport’s dress policies. In fact, it’s an approach they believe has paid off, something the district leads with and explicitly communicates when recruiting new talent.
In a candidates’ market, where schools are competing against each other for the best of the best, the difference between an educator taking one job over the next may come down to the details. Neumann sees relaxed dress code as a signal of a supportive culture and an incentive worth mentioning: “Putting that statement in the forefront lets us have follow-up conversations about what we really emphasize,” she explains. “We’re not worried about what you wear. We’re really only worried about the learning that’s happening in the classroom. We treat our staff as professionals, and they respond as such.”
A BONE OF CONTENTION
The subject of educator dress has long been a hot-button issue. While many would agree that clothing shouldn’t “distract from student learning, disrupt the school environment, or cause disharmony in the workplace,” as one typical policy puts it, what that means in practice is not only open for interpretation but often up for debate.
In 2008, a teachers’ union in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, expressed concerns to the school board over inequitable variances in dress code across the district: One school’s principal allowed educators to wear capri pants and blue jeans, another prohibited the same items, while yet another required an educator’s shoes to match their outfit. The Jefferson Federation of Teachers deemed this to be unfair. “We have this disparate treatment across the parish. We’re one school system, and all employees need to be treated the same,” said the union’s secretary-treasurer, Meladie Munch.
After noticing some staff straying from what he considered “professional attire,” a New York City elementary school principal banned jeans, flip-flops, and gym clothes in 2012; reactions were mixed. “I think we need to teach our children early on that there’s a certain way you dress to go to a ball game versus going to your job,” principal Marlon Hosang explained, undoubtedly speaking for many. But a parent in the community, Noemi Hernandez, found the policy too strict for an elementary school: “They’re dealing with paint and all kinds of things sitting on the floor,“ she said. “I don’t see anything wrong with jeans or even sneakers.”
Politics can find its way into wardrobes, too. In 2022, an administrator in Kershaw County, South Carolina, asked two teachers wearing Black History Month shirts to change them. Initially, he concluded that “no shirts with writing on them” other than the school’s name would be permitted but later changed course, permitting shirts commemorating birthdays or other holidays. Recently, the school district of Waukesha in Wisconsin adopted what they’re calling a “business casual” dress code, which explicitly excludes educators from wearing T-shirts, jeans, sweatshirts, sweatpants, “tight or ill-fitting clothing,” tennis shoes, and baseball caps, among other items. Their reasoning? Staff members, the policy suggests, must “set an example in dress and grooming for their students to follow.”
But many, like Erika Niles, principal of Green Trails Elementary School in Missouri, worry that dress codes for educators are an extension of other forms of professional micromanagement and control—ones that stifle identity and perpetuate the idea that “there is a dominant culture to which we all should adhere.” She adds she’s never had to address inappropriate educator dress in her two years as a school leader. “The pushback I’ve heard is… ‘Well, what if they wear a Speedo?’ Quite frankly, I trust my teachers to make those professional decisions,” she says. “Teachers are professionals. They should be given autonomy and trust unless they prove otherwise. And then, it’s a conversation and not a reprimand. We are in this together.”
Absent high-level direction from national educator groups or the U.S. Department of Education, school boards, superintendents, and principals are left to make decisions based on what they personally believe constitutes professional, appropriate dress. Educators occupy a uniquely precarious position, since many regard them as setting an example for how students should dress as adults—even if that‘s not the message they‘re trying to send with what they wear.
“What you don’t want to do is dress like your students,” says Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “You want to set a tone that you are a role model, and this is what a responsible adult looks like in today‘s world.”
But have we taken stock of what it means to dress appropriately in a rapidly evolving professional landscape? If one goal of educator dress codes is to model real-world career norms for students, then ironically, relaxing the policies may be the more logical decision.
WHAT DOES A PROFESSIONAL LOOK LIKE?
The trend toward more casual dress began as early as 10–15 years ago, workplace culture expert Jamie Notter told NPR in 2019, about the time millennials began entering the workforce. As the largest generation of adults living in the United States today, millennials have surpassed baby boomers in numbers, and the trend of employers moving away from more formal attire is growing to suit their new employees‘ needs.
Some of the largest, most profitable companies in the world, like Apple and Facebook (Meta)—where the same needs for productivity, focus, and self-control are germane as they are in schools—have shifted toward the new normal, allowing employees to wear T-shirts and casual tops, jeans, and sneakers like their respective founders, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. Hundreds of thousands of highly paid employees at these companies are regularly releasing world-changing products, from software you can talk with to self-driving cars. The companies think “that if employees are comfortable in what they are wearing, they can do their best work and feel more excited and included to come to work,” writes futurist Jacob Morgan for Inc.
The pandemic raised the ante yet again, transforming what people wore to work, and industries across the country adapted to the times to support it. Trend forecasters are calling it a transition from “business casual” to “business comfort,” according to Martine Paris for Bloomberg, with employees returning to their physical places of work dressed in some of the loungewear and athleisure they’d grown accustomed to.
Many companies have followed suit without apparent repercussions to employee performance. In 2019, investment banking behemoth Goldman Sachs loosened guidelines to welcome what they called a more “flexible” dress sense; female flight attendants on airline Virgin Atlantic can now wear pants whenever they fly and work without wearing makeup; and department store Target began allowing employees to wear blue jeans—a significant shift from their signature red shirts and khakis, NPR’s Janhvi Bhojwani reports.
For a lot of schools, meanwhile, the transition has been much more slow-moving and fraught. Some view trends away from more formal dress as unprofessional, at times bordering on inappropriate. Others think of educator dress codes as a thin veil separating order and chaos inside classrooms—a factor that significantly impacts whether educators are respected and how easy classes are to manage, as well as student productivity levels and academic outcomes.
But there’s not a lot of evidence for it. Meanwhile, in Missouri’s Boonville School District, assistant superintendent Fred Smith has observed similar positive benefits of relaxing dress codes, as in the business world. “We wanted to minimize stress on our teachers,” he says. “Educators have thanked administrators many times for the ‘comfortable’ work environment and less stress during the pandemic.” Smith and the superintendent agree that there have been no negative reactions or repercussions—no spikes in misbehavior, significant dips in academic performance, or general complaints. Rather, he’s noticed that students feel more confident speaking and building relationships with their teachers.
Amid more relaxed dress guidelines, Smith has every bit of faith that his staff will continue to bridge the gap between comfort and professionalism, stating emphatically that “our teachers are true professionals and dress appropriately for the occasion.”
A WAY FORWARD
The controversy surrounding educator dress code may appear to some like a trivial tug of war—especially in context with pressing systemic issues like student and staff mental health or inadequate school funding—but these policies remain an important background condition for many employees.
Though schools are not businesses, working to provide a high-quality education is not wholly unlike working to create and sustain high-quality products and services. Both environments require employees to be trustworthy, innovative, dedicated, and adaptable—and recent developments in the business world indicate that productivity, professionalism, and more relaxed dress codes can coexist. One way to think about it: Why shouldn’t schools be open to adapting, embracing, and incorporating what other industries have seamlessly and successfully adopted without adverse effects—particularly if it means that school environments will feel more inclusive and that educators will be happier or even perform better?
In a 2019 survey of 2,000 employed Americans conducted by One Poll, 82 percent said that feeling comfortable in their clothes at work allowed them to be more productive, while 56 percent said that comfortable clothes were a major contributor to their work confidence. Seventy-one percent said that working in casual clothes allowed them to focus on their work, rather than their outfits.
Determining what feels balanced and equitable for one set of educators doesn’t necessarily translate throughout the school, let alone the district or state. Well-meaning incentives like charging educators a fee for the ability to dress more casually can come off as demeaning or arbitrary, says high school English teacher Kelly Scott. In many districts, jeans particularly seem to be “the one touch point that administrators want to control over everything else,” but Scott isn‘t quite sure of why: “I [sometimes] wonder if this is just another way to show that there is someone in control, to kind of keep us feeling like we can’t just go rogue.”
After years of paying $25 to purchase a “jeans pass,” which allows staff to wear jeans on Mondays, Scott decided she was done spending her hard-earned money. “If educators can survive a pandemic and teach at the level that they were teaching with all of these different extenuating circumstances, then obviously what we wear doesn’t have much or any bearing on an educator’s ability to teach inside the classroom,” she says.
Having no dress code at all can lead to all sorts of unexpected challenges—providing educators who may be looking for guidance with more questions than answers. But increasingly, strict dress codes can feel like a jarring disconnect from the way other professional fields are treated, and they run the risk of leaving staff feeling micromanaged, restricted, and diminished.
Executive director of the Association of American Educators Colin Sharkey believes that working together to cocreate dress code policies can prevent misunderstandings and confusion. Intentional conversations between school board members, school leaders, staff, and parents about expectations and how to meet them can help all groups come to a common understanding.
“Members of Congress have to wear suits when they’re on the floor of Congress, but when they’re campaigning, they wear something different,” Sharkey explains. “There’s different attire for different circumstances. If there’s buy-in from the staff, they’ve agreed to a certain dress code, and it’s written clearly and fairly, there’s far fewer opportunities for frustration and discomfort. Everything depends on the type of educator environment that you teach in and what the community has come up with.”
Some schools, like Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, New Jersey, despite largely suspending the educator dress code during online instruction, have gradually made their way back to their prepandemic expectations. Teacher dress mirrors student dress: Oxford-style button-down shirt, dress pants, and tie. Women on the faculty are expected to dress similarly, business casual or better. Humanities teacher Henry Seton acknowledges that what works for them may not work for other schools, and that’s OK. “Just as with students, school leaders have the right to set a dress code for adults with the school’s mission in mind, but ideally it should also be as minimally restrictive as possible so as not to limit teacher expression and identity,” he says.
Meanwhile, back in Missouri at Green Trails Elementary School, Principal Niles has a lot of other things on her mind outside of dress codes. She says that if asked, she wouldn’t be able to recall what her staff wore that day because she was busy focusing on more important matters, like the way educators interacted with kids and one another. “There’s not a whole lot I love more in this world than teachers,” she says. “They are the hardest-working people I know. And I think my greatest responsibility as a leader is to eliminate distractions that get in the way of meeting the needs of students. To me, that’s what a dress code is. It’s a distraction.”
As for the educator whose recent Tweet drew attention on Twitter when she shared that she was dress-coded for wearing bell-bottom jeans to school on a ’70s dress day, violating the school’s denim policy, Niles had a few words for her. “That brilliant woman in her bell-bottom jeans would be welcome in our school any day,” she said. “And the only thing I might ask is where she got them.”