Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Many Wardrobes of Teaching

I have never been extremely fashion-savvy.  Though I no longer think that wild pink floral matches blue and green plaid, an outfit I picked to wear one day in Kindergarten, I still do not have many designer clothes in my closet.  It's an area where I constantly struggle between the self who wants badly to be accepted and admired and the self that just doesn't care.

This morning, as I stared at my closet, thinking about my morning ahead as a full-fledged substitute for the 3-year-old class, it struck me that I do not have much of a wardrobe for teaching preschool.  I skipped over the row of skirts and dresses, knowing they were completely impractical for sitting on the floor or the small chairs in the preschool room.  Glancing through my dress slacks, and thinking about the blouses that went with them, I thought of the painting projects that the children would do today.  An image of myself struggling with a fully covered, dripping wet, easel-sized bear had me pushing the slacks aside.  Like many days as I stand in front of my closet, I announced loudly, "Ugh, I have nothing to wear."

The dueling nature of my fashion personality has put me in this predicament since I began student teaching.  As a young teacher, one who was often asked for her hall pass by veteran faculty, I wanted to set myself apart from my students.  It was important for me to dress professionally, and after I graduated college, I began to develop a professional wardrobe, one that might not have been considered the most fashionable.  As I grew in my tenure and my confidence in the classroom, I wanted the teenagers in my charge to relate to me.  I didn't want them to see me as a geeky English teacher, and I knew my appearance mattered.  My wardrobe, with the help of one of my fashion-savvy colleagues, shifted to something more hip, more age- and geography-appropriate.

As a university professor, I walk the line between professional and comfortable.  Early each semester I step up the game, setting the tone for professional interactions.  At most school and departmental meetings, I select from the professional side of my wardrobe.  When I visit teachers in schools, I typically revert to my "hipper" outfits, wanting the teens I interact with to see me as approachable and not as "the professor."  When I am in my office with no meetings scheduled, I wear jeans - without fail.

On my first day of preschool, I selected an outfit that would allow me to move around with the children, but it was professional in nature.  I wore dress shoes, flats, and a comfortable sweater with my oldest pair of slacks.  The next day I wore my "dressy" sneakers, and I haven't veered from them since.  Moving, on my feet, is a constant in the preschool classroom.  Painting threatens to stain any article of clothing I wear, and I have not yet developed the skill for keeping the paint completely away from my body.  This talent must come with practice because my mentor teachers wear beautiful sweaters, and some of them wear lovely slacks - and I have not yet seen a drop of paint on any of them. 

So comfortable and practical is the wardrobe I need for teaching preschool, yet the professional me, the one who for six years had to pay to wear jeans on "jeans day" and who feels guilty when the dean catches her in the office in jeans, has a hard time picking jeans off the shelf for her preschool attire.  Luckily, this morning I found my brown corduroys hanging on the far end of the rack, and I smiled as I noticed that I matched my mentor teacher, who had also worn her brown cords. Perhaps we were both thinking about bears, our focus for the week. Regardless, as I worked with the children on tracing Bs and sponge painting them with brown paint, I thought that I had chosen wisely.  And as I read them the story of Goldilocks while they sat rapt with attention, giggling at my "very big" Papa-bear-voice, I knew that my comfortable look was perfectly acceptable to these young students.


  1. I like your considerations on wardrobe - I too struggle with trying to be fashionable and break out of my Eddie Bauer/Lands End/LL Bean-rut. Hard to believe I once lived in NYC. My sister helps me look 'hip' :) I think your challenges in not getting wet while giving the twins an after swim shower will transfer well to being paint-free at the end of a pre-k teaching day!

  2. It's so true - it's very difficult to dress for the classroom. My classroom is freezing in the winter and sweltering in spring and fall, so that's a major consideration. I also must walk up and down stairs all day so appropriate footwear is essential. And because I'm always jumping around, moving between overcrowded rows, climbing on heat registers to open and close windows, etc., skirts and dresses aren't always functional but dress pants require a trip to the tailor because I'm short. Nice clothes always end up stained or ripped or sweat stained, which is why, I hate to admit, I'm most often found in a pair of very nice yoga pants that could pass for real pants when worn with the right tops and sweaters, trouser jeans (dressed up with accessories designed to obscure the fact that I'm wearing denim) or leggings and boots.

    It's always an effort and never easy!

    Therefore, I ha