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We want to believe that how we look on the outside should not be a direct reflection of who we are… However, I would argue that looks mean a hell of a lot.
Awhile back, a friend of mine said, “Dress for the job you want, not the one you have.” Although this line is cliche, and I’ve heard it before, she was trying to make a point at the time. You see, I worked for a few schools in the United States where the teacher dress-code was semi-casual at best, but when I began my first teaching job in north-England, I soon learned that my dress style was way off from the expected norm, and I wasn’t being taken as seriously as I could have been.
We want to believe that how we look on the outside should not be a direct reflection of who we are. Read any minimalist blog, or writings from people who tend to focus more on self-help, and you’ll likely encounter the sentiment that looks are not everything. I partially agree with this idea – looks are not everything. However, I would argue that looks mean a hell of a lot. In fact, studies looking at the topic of first impressions have shown that people make judgements within the first minutes of meeting another person. This even bares out in studies of mating habits of animals, especially birds. We DO judge people by how they look.
Going back to the first school I worked at in England, I learned over time that how I dressed told the parents, and more importantly, my students how seriously I took my role as a classroom teacher. Let me say it again – How I dressed told the parents and my students how seriously I took my role as a classroom teacher.
Let’s take for instance the United States Marine Corps. This is a group of men and women who don’t take shit for a living. They work hard at what they do, and that usually means getting dirty in many respects. While at work, they tend to dress in Battle Dress Uniforms (BDUs). This is not a group we would initially expect to care about their dress. However, when they are not in the field, their uniform, whether BDUs, Alphas, Dress Blues, etc., are immaculate. Hell, just look at any off-duty Marine in black boots, and you’ll be able to see your face in the shine. This is because the United States Marine Corps prides itself on a sharp appearance because a sharp appearance equals a disciplined attitude towards all things.
I used to dress in baggy slacks and light blue jeans when I taught, I wore button-up shirts that were three sizes too big, and ties that were wacky and fun. I’m not necessarily saying the last item is bad as many male teachers enjoy fun ties, but I was only taken seriously after long hauls of demonstrating my knowledge base and skill set. Even then, I was not taken as seriously as when I began dressing well, and to my body type. The fact is, first impressions are important. We must be role models for our students, and we must demonstrate that an outward appearance is important, regardless of what idealists like to believe.
The following are style tips I’ve learned over the last few years which have genuinely opened opportunities for me, and has created the initial impression with families that I am a competent and trustworthy person (parents have actually said this to me). Please keep in mind that this post relates mostly to men.
Shirts and Jackets
A shirt and nice suit jacket/blazer is important, just as any other part of an outfit should be. As I stated before, I used to wear button up shirts that were three sizes too big. I’m not joking, I looked like I was swimming in my clothing.
Find a shirt that has limited patterns. A man is never wrong when going with a solid colour. I tend to go with white button-up shirts, and blue button-up shirts. Further, shirts should be form fitting. If you are a large man, make sure the shirt has a good waist to chest to neck ratio. If you are a smaller man like myself, find a shirt that fits tight, but not too tight – You need room to move your torso and arms freely, and you don’t want everyone to think you’re a playboy.
As for a suit jacket/blazer, find a form fitting blazer in blue and a form fitting blazer in black. If you want grey, this is also good to have in your arsenal of good looks, but not necessary. I have begun choosing jackets that are one colour, no pattern, and will go well with any of my trousers. If the jacket fits nicely, but is not form fitting, I take the jacket to my local tailor. They are great at tightening the waist of the jacket, producing a very polished look.
Trousers and Belt
Trousers were my worst area of style. The friend I mentioned earlier said I looked like a hip-hop star, without the appeal. Ouch! So she helped me find the right style and fit.
First, trouser legs should not go below the heal. Ideally they should ride at, or slightly below the ankle line. Second, trousers should fit at the hip, or slightly above, and they should fit without a belt to hold them up. Third, trousers should highlight the shape of your legs. I wear tailored trousers from NEXT that highlight my “running legs”, and a larger friend of mine (he could honestly be a rugby player) wears trousers that have a straight fit. Both look good because they compliment our bodies. Finally, trousers should be of one style/pattern. I’m not a fan of pin-striped trousers. Go for colours that compliment your suit jacket; blue, black, or grey.
As for the belt, this should be more of an accessory than a necessity if your trousers fit correctly. The two main rules for a belt are this: 1) Nothing too flashy – one colour with a simple buckle is best, and 2) The colour of your belt should match the colour of your shoes – if your shoes are black, have a black belt, if your shoes are brown, have a brown belt, and if you have both shoe colours, have two belts of different colours.
To be candid, I discovered my shoe style independent of my friend and any other fashion guru I know, so take this point with a grain of salt.
I like black dress shoes more than anything else, and I don’t like to have a lot of shoes. With this in mind, and knowing that as a teacher I will be on my feet most of the working day, I like to choose expensive shoes that fit me well and will last over time. Hence, I shop at Clark’s Shoes. They have a great variety of shoes, many of which are tough but stylish. Every summer I go to Clark’s and purchase a new pair of black dress shoes with a leather sole, wood bottoms, and tough leather exterior. Further, I polish my shoes at least once a week to make them look good, and to ensure their lasting power.
This part is short and sweet – DON’T wear a lot of accessories. It just doesn’t look professional. The only accessories I have are my wedding ring (which I don’t necessarily consider an accessory), my watch, and cuff-links. No necklaces, no additional rings, no bracelets, etc. Simple equals sophisticated.
I left this one last because I feel it’s important, yet I’ve talked with many men who debate it’s relevance.
I feel the neck tie not only looks professional, but it’s overarching message to families is that I am a serious teacher. I’m not at a day at the beach, and I’m certainly not out for a night on the town. I’m here, at school, ready to teach their children how to be successful in life.
A Headteacher of mine said awhile back that he liked how I dressed, but questioned the fact that I tend to roll up my sleeves during lessons. He wasn’t wearing a necktie. I was feeling cheeky that day, so in response I asked why he didn’t wear a necktie. He shared that it was too uncomfortable, and too hot, so he normally didn’t wear one. I responded that I wanted to maintain professionalism, but that I wanted to get my hands dirty with some serious classroom work, that’s why I kept my necktie on and rolled up my sleeves. He laughed and agreed to my premise.
As for style of necktie, I maintain simplicity. I wear neckties with simple patterns that will match more than one shirt, and long enough so I can tie them with a Windsor knot. Many business professionals say that big and tidy knots on neckties demonstrate confidence. I agree.
In short – wear a necktie, it looks better!
The Completed Look
The following pictures show a completed look for my body type, or similar. Remember to adjust and adapt to your body type. This was the greatest piece of advice my friend gave me.
I could go on regarding what I’ve learned thus far about dressing for success in the classroom. However, I’m still learning. There are many other elements, such as my cold weather jacket, which I haven’t sorted yet. This is okay. Part of learning style is experimentation. I suggest you reach out to a style-savvy friend who can help you on this journey.
As a final note, I feel that it’s not only important you look good in the classroom, but that your students look good as well. We need to teach students the hard reality that style and dress do matter. We don’t have to go overboard, and cost doesn’t need to be great, but students need to be prepared for success, and how we dress is one element of this. As Samuel L. Jackson’s character Coach Carter said, “There’s a Goodwill down the corner with ties in a box, fifty cents a piece. [A]re we too good to shop at Goodwill?”
Until next time!