Uniforms: An easy way out of character education?

Recently I had a pass-out-it-is-so-good pupusa lunch made by one of my dearest friends. Over lunch we talked about how four of her children are doing in school this fall. It was good reports all around but my soft-spoken friend talked about how difficult it was for the family to purchase a specific, and expensive, brand of kaki pants mandated by the school’s newly updated uniform policy. Because they could not buy the pants some of her children had been assigned detention in which they were required to pick up trash around campus. My friend was told requiring a particular brand of pants was a means of preventing bullying. I have known this family for a decade and asking the school for either charity or an exception from the rule is not an option. I imagined her respectful, hard-working children walking around the campus after school picking up garbage instead of doing homework or practicing volleyball. I imagined the jeers of their classmates, the inevitable jokes that come with public shame. Bullying prevention indeed.

I understand why schools implement uniforms: it builds culture, it is an equalizer, it eliminates some of the distractions of  teenage preening, it makes for a respectful looking student body, and it provides visual order that often translates into on-task behavior. I am currently reading How Children Succeed by Paul Tough (book review to come!) and it is making me think deeply about the ways we teach character to our students. Does wearing a uniform build the traits necessary for success Tough writes about like grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, and curiosity? I find the strictest uniform codes are at college preparatory campuses – both public charters and traditional private prep schools. However, prep schools often have uniforms like this:

Male students at Philips Exeter, the high school of Presidents . . . and don’t they look it!

Blazers and ties comprise the base of a uniform that actually prepares students for a real world job. Whereas in public charter schools, particularly those made up of predominately low-income minority students, uniforms often look more like this:

While certainly respectful and clean-cut, these students look more ready to take my order at Burger King than to be my future doctor or lawyer. Full discolosure: I have a good amount of cognitive dissonance around this issue. I have enforced and defended a dress code similar to the one depicted above. However, it was always unnerving when we would have “professional dress days” and girls would come to school looking ready for the club while boys would show up in the morning without a tie (there wasn’t a tie in their house) or unable to tie it if they had one. My colleagues and I would sigh in exasperation and cross our fingers they would figure it out before an important job interview. How authentically college-preparatory is a school that isn’t explicitly teaching and giving students the chance to practice dressing appropriately?

As for the cool-kids-wear-Abercrombie-and-Fitch-and-you-don’t-so-you-suck phenomenon it seems like uniforms are an inappropriately indirect way to teach tolerance and respect. It’s like the Kurt Vonnegut short story Harrison Bergeron about a distopian future where beautiful people are required to wear masks, athletic people to wear chains, and quick thinkers to wear earpieces filled with shrieking bells that interrupt their thoughts. Uniforms do not eliminate socioeconomic inequalities in our students. More importantly, students from low-income backgrounds who go to college will inevitably encounter peers who are expensively dressed and might even be dismissed for their own cheap clothing.

What can we do to address these touchy questions of income inequality, professional dress, and bullying in our own classrooms? Here are some ideas I use in my own classroom:

  • Model professional dress: My husband, the 8th grade science teacher, refuses to wear jeans and a t-shirt on Fridays (or if he must he wears a blazer over it). He wears a tie and slacks everyday and makes a point of telling his students he does so because he respects them. Lord knows I have certainly taught in jeans (and not just on Fridays . . . more like my entire last trimester both times I was pregnant) but I do try to put a little effort into dressing like the serious professional I hope to be (more tips on teacher dress here).
  • Provide opportunities to teach professional dress: Field trips, college visits, guest lectures, important class presentations all merit special attire. Teach students how to dress appropriately and then have them practice doing so. Make sure to give feedback when dress is both appropriate (“You look like a future president!”) and inappropriate (“The length of that skirt does not match the serious, intelligent woman you are and want to be perceived as.”) Even if you teach in a school with a strict non-preparatory dress code ask your principal if you can have an exception for professional dress a few times in a year (more if you teach seniors).
  • Speak openly about social inequality: Although we often tip-toe around the realities of poverty at school our students live with it in blunt, everyday ways. Find natural ways to talk about poverty and engineer situations (via readings or speakers or lessons) to teach students about the innate dignity of all people regardless of income.
  • Do not tolerate bullies: Immideiately assign consequences for any and all disrespectful behavior. Directly address clothing discrepancies. Make it known that you do not value your students for the price of their clothing but for the content of their minds and character. Tell stories about how what is fashionable will come and go. Compare a 2012 A&F hoodie to a 3 foot powdered wig from 1760.
  • Check out the gold mine that is Teaching Tolerance: This organization has so so many resources on exactly this topic and they are so power and so well-made. Check it out!

How do you teach tolerance in your classroom? What are your thoughts on uniforms?

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4 thoughts on “Uniforms: An easy way out of character education?

  1. Chrissy says:

    Well, I was student teaching my last trimester. I looked forward to casual Friday because I did not have to pull up my “maternity dress pants” every 5 seconds. (Yea, I’m sure that looked more professional than my tailored better fitting jeans!)

    I don’t think I really care either way about the dress code the school hands out. As a science person myself, I’m more concerned with safety in the classroom. Nothing billowing around, things tucked in, not too much exposed. My biggest gripe was the day the business students had to dress in “business attire”. Usually one of the girls would wear something crazy that had her feet bleeding by the end of the day.

    But I was sitting sensibly on my little wooden stool, in flats and my comfy jeans.

  2. Vic says:

    “How authentically college-preparatory is a school that isn’t explicitly teaching and giving students the chance to practice dressing appropriately?”

    I think this is a great line, and one that calls into question the idea of whose interpretation and definition we are using to define appropriate. Especially for Latino youth, schools and teachers need to explicitly bring dialogue about culture and culture clashes of all forms into the classroom: fashion included. We need to embrace cultural diversity and cultural plurality, and understand that what is “appropriate” for one group can be imprisoning and imperializing to another.

    As I write this, I’m at work wearing khakis with an untucked short sleeve button up shirt — the Dexter look if you will. As a youth, when someone tried to force a tie, or blazer, or sleeves on me, they were (hopefully intentionally) telling me that I was not good enough the way I was and that my culture was inferior to the upper class. Three degrees and many years later, I finally feel I am a place where I can dress like the cultural me and a professional at the same time. Kids ought to learn this at a much younger age.

    When I am on college campuses (I’m adjunct faculty at one), I don’t see either the “Fresh Prince of Bel Aire” blazer look, nor the “Welcome to Burger King” look Abby so wonderfully describes. The most successful students there dress in a way that expresses who they are as indoividuals as well as cultural beings, and makes them feel comfortable in their own skin. This is what we should be aiming for — not some behaviorist notion of “character education” via “professional” dress.

    Besides, the only people that wear suits in the west coast work at the suit department of Macy’s 🙂

    • Such great points Vic! This post was written on the heels of attending a season around the text “Subtractive Schooling” (thanks Nick Garcia!!) and you said what I was stilling mulling over.

      Also I am super flattered that you read my blog . . . Thanks!

  3. […] white (for a visual illustration of what I’m talking about, check out the contrast in uniforms between minority/low-income charters and white/wealthy private schools). At the same time all children need clear boundaries and students from underserved communities in […]

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