For substitute teachers, each new assignment begins by making a first impression. Each introduction sets the tone for the relationship established between substitutes and their students for the day. What we wear affects how others see us, but it also determines how we view ourselves and can influence our demeanor and productivity. Let’s consider some guidelines for substitute teacher dress codes, something every school district should keep in mind when hiring substitute employees.
A Series of First Impressions
The life of a substitute teacher is an endless stream of initial impressions. Each day starts out with a check-in at the school office where the first impression is formed by clerical and administrative staff. Ideally, it says, “punctual, professional, and capable.”
The next first impression occurs as the substitute teacher greets other staff members. When teachers meet an assertive substitute who appears competent and attentive, they often make note of the name and file it away for future use.
Arguably, the most important first impression happens as the substitute teacher greets students at the classroom door. As they size up their teacher for the day, it is important that they see a calm and confident, professional educator ready and willing to facilitate learning. In order to earn students’ respect, the substitute teacher must look and act the part.
The final first impression occurs when the absent teacher returns the next morning to find the note that the substitute has left summarizing the day. This is the only first impression that is not heavily influenced by the substitute teacher’s appearance and attire.
A Professional Dress Code
Dressing appropriately makes us look and feel more professional, and as such, school districts typically adopt a dress code for employees. To establish authority and garner respect, teachers are expected to wear business-like attire. Since substitute teachers are professional educators, they must dress for the role they wish to play and the tone they wish to set. It is, therefore, appropriate for them to follow the dress code guidelines established for teachers in the districts in which they serve.
There is a strong link between clothing and perception. Tailored pants, skirts, and jackets are generally considered appropriate, as are collared shirts and blouses. These convey a business-like demeanor that sets a serious tone. Tight and revealing clothes are prohibited, as is footwear such as open-toed shoes and sandals that could pose a risk for injury.
An important note for substitute teachers, especially those who are young, involves drawing a distinction between themselves and their students. While they should not be dressed so formally that they are unapproachable or unrelatable, they also should not be dressed in such a way that they may be confused or mistaken for a student. For this reason, dress codes typically require the removal of facial piercings and the covering of visible tattoos. This, too, is where the question of wearing jeans becomes most relevant. Since they are frequently and commonly worn by students, teachers avoid wearing jeans to support that line of distinction and establish a boundary for respect.
Exceptions to the Rule
Despite the prevalence of dress codes for professional educators, there are differences in dress codes from district to district, and sometimes an exception to the general dress code is required. For example:
- When covering a physical education assignment, it is appropriate to dress for the gym and/or the outdoors. In this case, athletic wear including tracksuits, t-shirts, joggers, and gym shoes are acceptable attire.
- In a science class or art room placement, it is prudent to protect the clothing with a clean lab coat or smock over professional attire. Likewise, a food science or wood shop assignment may necessitate the use of an apron.
- Substitutes should use their discretion and plan accordingly when spending the day in an early childhood classroom, as there will likely be sticky fingers and possibly the need to sit on the floor.
- In some schools, the dress code may be relaxed on Fridays or other specific dress-down or “school spirit” days. On these occasions, the staff is encouraged to wear school polo or t-shirts with khakis or blue jeans. A substitute who is aware of this policy in advance may follow suit but should err on the professional and conservative end of the spectrum.
- Occasionally schools allow the wearing of jeans as a fundraiser. Students and staff make a small contribution for the opportunity to wear jeans on the designated day. Once again, substitute teachers who are aware of this special occasion can appropriately participate with the knowledge that they are supporting a school community fundraiser.
An Ounce of Prevention
Perhaps conventional wisdom wins out in this case. When we dress the part, we set ourselves up to succeed in the chosen role. By following the guidelines for professional educators, substitute teachers show others, and themselves, that they are up to the task. By establishing clear boundaries between themselves and students right from the start, substitutes set the stage for success in their teaching assignment. When the first impression is one of professionalism and authority, substitute teachers set a serious tone for effective classroom management and continuity of instruction.
Contact ESS to prepare your substitute teachers for outstanding professional service. Through face-to-face orientation training and opportunities for ongoing professional development, we acclimate your substitute staff to support the district’s policies and procedures.
Phil has been supporting school districts across the country for more than 12 years. He works hands-on with districts implementing customized solutions to improve their substitute teacher and support staff programs. When he’s not increasing districts’ fill rates, Phil can be found swinging his clubs on a golf course.