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Teacher Fashion: The Importance of Dressing Professionally

Jordan Catapano

I used to have a friend on my soccer team who bought the nicest, newest soccer gear he could find. When I asked him why, he swore by the following mantra: “The better you look, the better you feel. The better you feel, the better you play.” I laughed at him, of course, thinking that he had a horrible excuse for spending too much money on his cleats.

But now, I’m buying into his mantra in an odd sort of way. I don’t think a teacher needs to spend an exorbitant amount of money on clothes just to “Feel” good. Yet there is a connection between the way one looks and the way one thinks and acts. According to a study published in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, the type of clothing and teacher fashion one wears “Influences cognition broadly, impacting the processing style that changes how objects, people, and events are construed.”

If teachers haven’t given much thought to what they wear to work and teacher fashion, it might be time to consider just how much what you wear might make a difference for you and the people around you.

Teacher Fashion: Who Are You Dressing For?

Sometimes teachers just wear what they wear because it’s comfortable or just what they happen to own. But the implications for what you wear may impact you, your colleagues, and your students.

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First, the above study on clothing suggests that the more formally an individual dresses for any occasion, the more likely they are to have higher cognitive and abstract thinking. The researchers conclude that formal attire – such as a suit – makes one literally feel more important and powerful, leading their thinking in a similar direction. Also, if an individual just thinks they look good in their more professional dress, then this belief in improved appearance leads to an overall better mood.

We’ve likely experienced this ourselves. We feel a bounce in our step when we wear those new shoes or walk with just a little more swagger with that new shirt or haircut. Appearance affects how we feel about ourselves. And if we feel good about ourselves, then that’s likely to trickle into how we think and act as a teacher throughout our day.

In addition to influencing us, our dress influences our students as well. Without a doubt, teachers are role models for their students, so when teachers dress professionally it sends important messages to students. We teach our students not just about the academic subject, but also how an adult professional looks and behaves.

As Forbes reminds us, “You can’t not communicate. Everything you do makes some kind of statement.” By dressing professionally for our students to see, we are giving them an implicit message about how we see ourselves and our task. The more professionally we dress, the more we tell our students they are important.

This might seem like a stretch to some, but the connection between our appearance and the significance of an occasion rings true in so many places. We wear suits and dresses to weddings. We get a haircut and dress attractively for a first date. We wear sweats and slouch when crashing alone on our couch. We even dress up our gifts in fancy paper and packaging to make it seem more special. Our character doesn’t change in these settings, but our appearance does, which communicates how we are assigning significance to any given setting.

The degree of our professionalism when we dress at school sends the implicit message to students, “I take this seriously. I care about you.”

And as our students will one day become professionals themselves, we are not only modeling for them the way a professional behaves, but also how one looks. They say that we ought to “Dress for success,” but the success that we dress for is that of our students.

What Is “Dressing Professionally?”

While we talk about dressing professionally, we must confess that this is a relative term. What’s considered professional for some might be overdressed or underdressed for others. While we definitely want to dress appropriately, this might change depending on a number of influences.

Kevin Jarret at Edutopia knows we must consider factors ranging from “Formal district dress code policies, personal taste and preference, teaching assignment, community norms, individual income levels and even climate concerns.” I can’t tell you what may be appropriate or not for your specific assignment. An administrator may need to appear more formal, an English teacher more professorial, and a gym teacher ready to be on the move. An art teacher needs his smock and a science teacher her safety goggles.

When trying to identify what it is that you’d like to wear to dress professionally, one place to start is to consider the norms of the school environment, your personal budget and style, and what you know will make the best possible influence on your students. Ask yourself, “What will help me to look and feel professional?” Don’t settle for “What will make me look mediocre?”

Also, dressing professionally does not mean busting your wallet every school year. Shop within your budget and purchase clothing that will last. If you buy something new, spread out those new purchases and get only what you need. We don’t need to become fashion models for our students; we just need to communicate to them through our appearance that we care.

So consider how you dress, consider how your appearance impacts both you and your students, and consider what you might change to maximize the impact of the way you look. As master communicators, teachers also want to embrace the power of the subtle cues their manner of dress sends.

What is considered as “Dressing professionally” for you? Share your thoughts with our community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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