A Teacher Talks Dress Codes

My hair is so amazing your kids will never learn chemistry!
My hair is so amazing your kids will never learn chemistry!

The start of the school year always begins with some dress code craziness. Stories are lighting up my Facebook feed about elementary students violating zero tolerance rules against “violent figures” by bringing a Wonder Woman lunchbox to school, and students wearing leggings and large t-shirts being sent home to change.  This year, a close friend had her 15-year-old son pulled out of class to shave his sideburns in the nurse’s office before he could go back to class.

Today it happened to me.  I have been a teacher for 8 years, and this is my first year of substitute teaching.  When I “retired” at the end of last year, I decided to celebrate my newfound freedom as a stay at home mom and get my hair dyed for my birthday.  My friend designed and dyed my hair with a beautiful blend of teal, blue, and emerald-green.  The results were really amazing and I was so proud of my hair.  It was shocking at first but over time I got used to it and it just became a part of my identity.

Fast forward to the beginning of the school year. I attended substitute teacher training, being careful to wear a headscarf to cover my offensive locks, but it kept slipping and was far more distracting to me to keep it on and make sure that I didn’t look like an idiot. I was so self-conscious that I was barely able to focus on the training and during the lunch break I was so happy to rip the sweaty, itchy, uncomfortable headband off and give my head a chance to breathe.

On the first day I got called in to substitute, one of my teacher friends was going to be out for surgery and she called me in and asked me to go over the scientific method.  I had a great idea on how to use my headscarf as a mystery problem (I normally use a mystery box with something like a feather duster in it).  To learn the tools of observational science, students were asked to gather as much data as possible to solve the problem of “Why is Mrs. Carr wearing a headscarf?”  Students came up with a stunning array of possibilities: maybe I had alopecia, or cancer, or a terrible head wound.  They asked if I had been treated for head lice, or had dandruff, or had changed my religion, or maybe I was Voldemort.  They thought I had become fashion conscious and offered feedback on how I had the scarf tied.  Two of the classes had more than 20 possible reasons I was wearing it.  Their curiosity was intense and they were excited to know and inquire about it.  My hypothesis is this, if I had come into the same class with my blue hair, would my students have had that many questions about it?  The headscarf was a mystery, hiding something that they wondered about, and obviously put thought into, which can be nothing but distracting.  If they had come into the room and seen my blue hair, would that have been as distracting, or would the response have been “Oh, blue hair, cool.” Or “Crazy hair, I hate it” and then gone about their lesson?

Last week I was having a very severe migraine headache before school and I took off my scarf while I made copies and when I got back to my classroom an administrator was waiting for me.  I was told that I needed to “fix the problem” and that I had to cover it, get rid of it, or go home.   My hair was very professionally styled into a tight french braid bun and it was far from the messy and lazy ponytails that I tended to sport when teaching full-time.  I was left embarrassed, frustrated and angry that my chosen style was so awful that they would rather have a class without a teacher than a teacher with my hair.  I can only imagine that students feel similarly, that we believe their style is so bad that it trumps the importance of their education and that we are justified in interrupting their education to deal with it.  Are our dress codes so important, or our education so unimportant, that this should ever be the case?

The list of rules for students (and even more so for teachers) is immense.  The student handbook for my campus alone is 42 pages long.  I will not challenge that many of those rules are in place for a reason, either to make the school day run more smoothly, or to ensure the students’ safety.  The presence of these important rules highlights the flaw in having draconian, unnecessary, or sexist dress codes.  If students don’t see the value in these rules, then they are more likely to ignore or fight against the rules that are in place for a clear reason.

Despite copious research, I could find no scientific studies to support that any hair color has any negative

How could she possibly be learning anything dressed like that?
How could she possibly be learning anything dressed like that?

impact on student learning, behavior, or memory retention.  Likewise there were no studies to support sleeveless shirt restrictions or facial hair restrictions.  Without clear data to support these rules, can we continue to alienate our students without a reason? Having rules that serve no demonstrable purpose undermines the rules that really matter and damages our relationship with students in the process.

If short skirts really caused young men to go insane with hormones, is it not hypocritical for schools to allow their cheerleaders to walk around in skirts far shorter than dress code generally allows?

As adults creating school policies, we need to be able to distinguish between policies put in place for clear, evidence based reasons, and policies put in place for outdated, personal aesthetic reasons. Our personal dislike of a style or fashion choice should not be reason enough to see it banned from the campuses.  In speaking with other teachers, I heard some of them say that “slutty clothes should definitely be banned”.  I’m shocked by the inherent sexualization of our teens and their clothing choices.

Our children, especially our teens, are in a very vital and vulnerable step in their journey to adulthood.  Their freedom of self-expression should be an important key to development of their identity, and instead of reaching out and allowing it, we are hell-bent on giving them reasons not to listen to us.  We are taking students out of class and labeling them as troublemakers for the length of their sideburns and the width of their shoulder straps.  We are wasting the precious time and resources of our teachers and administrators enforcing hair dye and skirt inches.

“We are teaching our children to become responsible adults”, comes the cry of the dress code police.  Responsibility is about more than having a boring hair color and shopping for less fashionable clothes.  If I cannot teach a class and keep their attention, if my hair color is so distracting that my students cannot learn, then my hair color is not the problem, my teaching is.

We cannot afford to take our focus off of the purpose we have as educators.  That purpose is not to burden the students with restrictions, but to encourage personal growth, both academically and psychologically.  It is too damaging to our cause to draw what appear to be arbitrary distinctions about what is fashionably acceptable.  It creates a divide between the “enforcers” and the “troublemakers” that is unnecessary.

We are always looking for more ways to communicate effectively with our students.  We are looking for ways to connect, to be part of their conversation, to open up dialogue with them about things.  In order to do that we need to listen to them.  Ask any reasonable group of high school students if there are problems with the dress code and what they think they are, and you will get an earful.  This feedback is not coming from the troubled teens who want to be disruptive, it is coming from respectable young people who are polite and brilliant.

I am not advocating the abolition of the dress code, but rather that we revisit existing dress codes and consider critically what is actually harming the school or the learning environment.  Work to identify what the real distractions are in the classroom, and talk to the teachers and students to get feedback on what to do about them.  Allow a team or committee to review and research the current rules and reasons why they are in place.

You can learn a lot just by letting them dress themselves.
You can learn a lot just by letting them dress themselves.

In the end, what we teach our children is so much more important than what we teach them to wear.  Respect for diversity and treating all people with dignity, not judging people for their appearance: these things are easier to teach when people are allowed to look different.  If we want to be on the cutting edge of new discoveries in education, let us be the exemplar.  Let us allow our children to speak and be heard, and be unique and be seen.