The new teacher orientation week at my new school went pretty much as expected. We were introduced to various policies, systems and schemes of work; and informed about the usual array of Special Educational Needs documents, grading rubrics and behaviour management strategies. We all received a copy of the standard Staff Handbook: a lengthy document often bound together in a blue ring binder which is hastily read and then used for the rest of the year as a bookend to prop up my ever expanding row of teaching texts, occasionally being referred to in emergencies such as checking a friend’s timetable to see if they might be free to have a gossip in the staff room, or that sort of thing.
Briefly skimming through my handbook this year, there was one document that was very conspicuous by its absence. I checked through again to see if I had missed it but, no, it was not there. The item in question was the ‘Staff Dress Code’. Most schools in the UK have a specially designed uniform for students. School uniform is strictly enforced with students facing penalties for missing items or incorrect uniform. My own school uniform was bottle green. Even our hair bands had to be bottle green: not lime green, jade or emerald but bottle green. School uniforms have a unique design; in winter they retain no heat and in summer they have no cooling system, they have been especially designed to be as uncomfortable as it is possible for an outfit to be. School uniforms have become a source of conflict between staff and students for many years – students hate to wear them, and staff hate to enforce them.
The reasons for school uniform are often put forward as follows: they provide a sense of unity and pride in the school, they promote equality for all and eliminate bullying, students look smart and professional and are thus able to work more efficiently. Just look at what proud, respectful and smart children we have in our schools today!
Students may not realise it but staff have a school uniform too. It always makes me smile when a student whinges “it’s not fair, you can wear what you want” as they reluctantly scrub away at their chipped black nail polish during morning registration. “If I could really wear what I want do you think I would be wearing this?” I want to say but have to make do with “that’s because I’m a teacher, and you are not”.
Yes children that is right, we too have a school uniform, which I admit is far more lenient for women than men (a source of conflict between male and female staff). In my previous school a male teacher with his top button left undone could result in a sharp rebuke from the Principal, an unshaved beard could mean a trip back home to shave. It was even written into the dress code policy that a teacher should not wear sunglasses on their head within the school grounds. A colleague of mine once worked in a school where even the type of knot worn on the man’s tie was strictly regulated (I did not even know that there are different ways to wear a tie!).
This seems to be a very British thing. Not many other European countries enforce uniform for either staff or students in school, unless they are a private school or have a British persuasion. At IESE there is no formal dress code but the expectation is that staff are presentable, with many people opting to go smart. As staff nationality at the school is pretty varied; Swedish, English, Irish, Scottish, Spanish, French, Australian, American and maybe some more (I haven’t met everybody yet) everybody has a different idea of what the dress code should be, which I find pretty fascinating. The Institutionalised British teachers stick to shirt & tie, or smart skirt & blouse, as do the Australians and Americans, whereas the other Europeans have a more practical, comfortable and much more stylish approach. Items that would never be acceptable in a UK school are worn as a matter of course: jeans, leggings, trainers, shirt with no tie (shocking!!). And guess what? They do not look scruffy, and the students do not respect them any less. Maybe it’s time that the British modernise their ideas somewhat?
This is something that I have to get used to. Firstly, it is an odd sensation to teach students daily who are sporting blue hair, jeans with the crotch half-way down their legs, or the worrying Swedish tendency of wearing normal tights as if they were leggings (please wear a longer top with that girls). On the whole though, the kids look great – not like Britain’s slutty fashion show that you get on a mufti-day. The only rule that we really have to enforce is not allowing them to wear studded belts (they damage the chairs) and to regulate the use of “I love marijuana” t-shirts. Neither of those have I had to do yet. It is amazing what a difference it makes to teaching the students when you don’t have to constantly fight the “please tuck in your shirt” battle of wills with every boy you pass in the corridor. When the students wear their own clothes you can see a little of their personality too, they seem more real. They are definitely happier; well wouldn’t you be miserable if you were forced to wear a starchy, poor quality, ugly outfit every day of your life – at the time of your life when you already have the most insecurities about yourself? Surely it’s much better for both staff and students to feel comfortable?
As for me, I’m already beginning to compromise; I wore my black knee-high boots with buckles to school today. Next week I’m going to try jeans 🙂