Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free [On dress code]

John, Edutopia has blessed me with a spot on their blog as a guest writer, joining the likes of Elena Aguilar and Heather Wolpern-Gawron, both teacher leaders at the Teacher Leaders Network. I gotta say, I’m pretty excited considering most of my posts either focus on edu-wonk / policy or a specific article / trend […]


Edutopia has blessed me with a spot on their blog as a guest writer, joining the likes of Elena Aguilar and Heather Wolpern-Gawron. I gotta say, I’m pretty excited considering most of my posts either focus on edu-wonk/policy or a specific article/trend of the day. In a way, Edutopia has offered me a way to pull myself out of the box I’ve voluntarily put myself in.

The back-to-school article that they’ve posted (100+ shares in the first day!) focused on strategies that teachers can implement right from the get-go. Things like creating a slogan for expectations for students, transparency in grading policy, and scheduling time to reflect really matters when you’re trying to grow as a professional. Words like creativity and honesty matter, but if we as teachers don’t set routines for themselves, how can they expect students to follow the ones made for them?

I almost forgot, however, that there’s absolutely one thing that I end up whispering to myself when I see students in the morning: dress codes stink. [suck is a strong word]

Having a dress code matters in far too many schools. I know of schools where, on dress down days, kids wear strictly primary colors depending on their affiliations, or look down on one another for inexpensive wardrobe. It also sets a tone, teaching students early that coming to school is like coming to work in a way where looks matters, so dress appropriately. At least these are some of the arguments people use for dress code. In fact, the middle and high schools I went to as a student had strict guidelines for everything from summer dress to facial hair.

As a teacher, however, I just don’t think this needs to take precedence over my students’ learning.

I have a firm belief that we as teachers, especially those of us in high need schools, serve an elevated purpose:

… “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

– excerpt from “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

You might also recognize those as the words engraved in the Statue of Liberty, but they mean much more to me. Students so high in need may need high expectations, but they also need people to understand their priorities. I’ve spoken non-stop on the deleterious effects of poverty, so I often wonder why any educator would ask another educator to turn away a child from their classroom for not having met specific dress code.

Obviously, we have degrees of violation, but, frankly, unless it’s an egregious case, I rather not judge. Instead, to de-escalate the situation, I would ask the student to explain why they didn’t come in proper dress code, and, if the dean inquires, fully cooperate. I don’t get why a student needs to miss any time in my classroom for having the wrong pants or a sweater over their shirts.

Then again, I respect the rules. I just don’t think the rules matter as much as the students.

image c/o:

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