Do the clothes make the teacher? This certainly appears to be the attitude of NSW education minister Adrian Piccoli who released details of a new dress code starting in term two for the state’s 70,000 teachers.
While much in the report is little more than common sense, there is a strange inconsistency in a government that wants to give more power to principals yet does not trust them to manage the dress standards of their staff. Whatever the intention, the decision is demeaning, laden with negative connotations about the profession and unnecessary micro-management with an undertone of sexism.
What do our clothes say?
The clothes we wear are undoubtedly imbued with social cues and cultural significance. Teachers understand this. At university they are taught that professional attire sends a powerful unspoken message and can increase what Robert Tauber calls “referent power”.
Educators require a range of different clothes for different settings, and a teacher of physical education, industrial design, woodwork, horticulture or dance would be inappropriately dressed in a suit and tie. Similarly, primary teachers have to factor in that many hours of their day are spent on the floor. Teaching is a dynamic profession and this is reflected in clothing.
The dress code
Strategically released on Sunday afternoon, the NSW dress code is conspicuous for its very pointlessness. There has been no noted concern over the standard of teacher’s dress, so perhaps the move simply represents a minister eager to seem relevant and proactive. Piccoli has insisted that:
Employees must not wear inappropriate clothes such as singlets, T-shirts, tracksuits or rubber thongs, ripped or dirty clothes, or clothes with inappropriate slogans.
While the minister argues he is helping teachers “maintain respect and credibility”, he achieves the opposite with the inference that teachers are turning up to work in such a shabby state. As one bemused tweeter put it, “I’ve worked as a teacher for over 30 years and I’ve yet to see a teacher in thongs.”
For anyone involved in education, it is very difficult to imagine a teacher turning up to work in clothes that display alcohol and cigarette branding; another new breach of the dress code. If under some bizarre circumstance it did happen, it is certainly impossible to imagine the principal not stepping in. For others, however, the prospect must seem more plausible and the code has served the (presumably) unintended purpose of discrediting the profession.
Having addressed the clearly feared but as-yet-unsighted teacher who explains Pythagoras’ Theorem with a cigarette in his mouth while wearing thongs, footy shorts and a VB singlet, the dress code takes a disturbingly gendered detour. While “male employees are required to wear a collared shirt”, female employees are warned not to “wear revealing clothes such as those exposing bare midriffs, strapless tops or dresses, or clothes that may be construed as suggestive and/or offensive”.
While the dress code simply requires male employees to dress neatly, female employees are implicitly told they are responsible for male reactions to their bodies and must not provoke a sexual response. Seemingly this is not an issue for male teachers, who are not warned against wearing tight trousers or shirts. It is only the female staff who can be guilty of being “revealing” or “suggestive”.
The inference is that female bodies are the common property of the male gaze and must be regulated and suitably covered up. In this regard, the dress code is not all that far removed from the teachers’ contract of Sacramento in 1915, which punished female staff who dyed their hair, adorned bright colours or failed to wear at least two petticoats.
If female teachers are trusted to guide our young people through to adulthood, they can probably be trusted to dress themselves.
Has Piccoli done more harm than good?
If Piccoli was attempting to raise the status of teachers, he may have achieved the opposite. When Linda Silmalis reported the new standards in the Daily Telegraph, many commentators clearly felt the dress code was in response to a legitimate problem.
“How can they command respect by looking like another student?” asked one outraged reader.
“There’s no way in hell kids nowadays are going to respect teachers who turn up looking like they’re going to stop for nine holes on the way home,” offered another.
The comments did eventually diversify and some objected to the “teacher-bashing”, but the entire premise was laden with negative connotations. This has again placed teachers on the back foot, forced to defend their dedication and professionalism.
A lack of respect and social status is a problem teachers face, and one that requires a collaborative, community-focused approach.
Perhaps Adrian Piccoli had good intentions, but the former farmer and lawyer seems not to understand the major issues facing the teaching profession. Teachers already know how to dress themselves. What they need from their minister is not a dress code but an attentive ear, professional support and a commitment to social justice.