Dressing to impress

What should teachers wear in the classroom? Is it acceptable to sport jeans, crop-tops or visible bras? Steve McCormack looks at the wardrobe you need for your first term in school

There are one or two more important considerations for new teachers than putting themselves forward for the full Trinny and Susannah treatment, but a little thought and preparation in the wardrobe department will certainly not be wasted time. Once you start out in your new job, the last thing you'll need is to have any mental and emotional energy taken up by clothing-related niggles. So it's well worth doing a bit of planning and making a few judicious purchases so that, once term starts, you can concentrate on the really important part of the job.

There are one or two more important considerations for new teachers than putting themselves forward for the full Trinny and Susannah treatment, but a little thought and preparation in the wardrobe department will certainly not be wasted time. Once you start out in your new job, the last thing you'll need is to have any mental and emotional energy taken up by clothing-related niggles. So it's well worth doing a bit of planning and making a few judicious purchases so that, once term starts, you can concentrate on the really important part of the job.

First, you need to find out if there's a formal, or informal, dress code for teachers at your new school. In some places, it'll be glaringly obvious that suits are the order of the day. The atmosphere, for example, inside the staff room at Walsall Academy, now in its second year of existence, has more in common with a smart city law firm or blue chip multinational than what you might expect as a workplace for teachers. But this isn't the result of any formal or written policy.

"When I speak to new staff, even before they're interviewed," says the head teacher, Jean Hickman, "I ask them to open their eyes and look for the systems and expectations in the school.

"That's when they probably realise they're expected to dress for the office."

Written dress codes are rare these days, but, looking round many staff rooms, it is clear that something is producing conformity. So it's always worth asking a future colleague if there are any underlying conventions.

Richard Taylor, a Science NQT at Fullbrook School, near Woking in Surrey, remembers the advice he got at training college, which amounted to: go and look at the teachers at your new school and copy them. When he saw all the men wearing suits, he was reassured.

"I feel comfortable in a suit and feel it gives me a certain moral authority in the school,' he explains. But Taylor, 55, a former airline pilot, with a chemistry degree, would not advise future NQTs to break the bank in assembling their first term wardrobe.

"I buy £70 suits from Asda, so it doesn't matter if they get dirty or have acid spilt on them in the science labs."

Another advantage of looking smart - an ever present factor in secondary schools - is that it helps teachers to be taken seriously when they're telling kids to tuck their shirts in or do their ties up.

That certainly contributes to the thinking of another Fullbrook NQT, Sarah Morgan, who went into language teaching after a few years working for a London PR firm. "I probably dress more smartly now than when I was in my previous job," explains Morgan, 27. She took the decision, when she started at Fullbrook, to wear a suit every day, so that the pupils would, in effect, see it as her uniform.

She always has her suit jacket on when classes enter her room, but will often take it off to write on the board when the lesson starts. Her school wardrobe consists of four or five suits (skirts or trousers), plus "loads of different tops." They're all from the cheaper end of shop rails, and machine washable.

She's also acutely aware of how the "modesty factor" applies, particularly to women teachers.

"I always do a blouse check in the morning, and never wear anything remotely see-through, or where there's any risk of a button coming undone."

But, in the shoe department, where she favours flat soles in modern styles, Morgan reckons there are advantages of attracting a student's eye. "It can break the ice if someone says, "Nice shoes, Miss" at the start of a lesson."

In many secondaries, a range of styles and degrees of smartness will be on display in the staff room, but, in primary schools, the norms generally allow for a slightly more casual approach. This reflects the fact that primary teachers can find themselves doing painting, PE, a bit of drama, as well as maths and English all within the same day - not to mention giving a hug to tearful child who may have just fallen over in the playground.

In some primaries I know, teachers accept this latitude with open arms and wear jeans. But, in most places, denim is still regarded as a relaxation too far.

Sue Graville, Head teacher at Owler Brook Nursery and Infants School, in Sheffield, does not impose the skirts-at-all-times rule that applied when she trained as a teacher, but does, nevertheless, expect her staff to be smart.

"If a parent is met by someone in jeans and a T-shirt, or PE kit when they're not teaching PE, that gives the wrong impression,' she argues.

She doesn't insist on suits, but says teachers should dress to set a professional example - 'No short crop-tops, visible bras or stomachs showing!'

However, even keeping within guidelines and head teachers' likes and dislikes, there's plenty of scope for individuality. There are few jobs where you are on display as much as teaching, so your dress will quickly become part of your identity. And it's an identity that will be scrutinised, and commented upon, by hundreds of junior fashion commentators every day. So there is a compromise to be made.

The essential aim for every new teacher is comfort, literally and metaphorically. You must be physically comfortable with what you're wearing, which means loose enough for waving arms around, writing on the board or clambering on a chair to try to get the blinds down, but not too loose, when you're bending over children's desks right in front of their eyes.

But you need to be psychologically comfortable as well. The last thing a new teacher needs is to come across as feeling awkward or forced in their clothes. For some teachers this will mean neutral colours and conservative styles, while others go for splashes of bright colours. Zany ties are often used by men, and commented on by kids, with the result that a little bit of humanity enters the classroom.

In the first couple of weeks, though, while you're establishing a style that works, you may want to err on the more formal side, rather than to dress down and attract critical glances.

That's certainly the advice given by Bill Benge, the head teacher of Midhurst Grammar School in West Sussex.

"You'll never lose out by over-dressing," he says. "It says that you care about the job and the school."

BASIC RULES

Choose

Comfortable shoes

Machine washable styles

Clothes that allow movement

Versatile colours

Avoid

Visible underwear

Odd socks

Accusations of scruffiness

Looking too flashy

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