If I’m going to be honest, I have to say that there are days when I spend more time thinking about what I’m going to wear to teach class than about my lesson plan for the day. Does this make me a bad teacher or maybe just a superficial person? Some might say yes. But what I wear is important to me, not only as a teacher, but also as a person. It’s not strictly about the clothes, but about finding that perfect combination for that specific day.
Worrying or thinking about fashion is often viewed as a silly or an elite thing to do. Fashion can easily be connected to social-economic status and class. But this is mostly true when you look at fashion in a narrow or label-fueled way. It doesn’t simply have to be about buying expensive clothes or walking down a runway (not that there is anything wrong with these things).
When I speak of fashion, I’m discussing the everyday experience of standing in front of my closet full of clothes (yes, I buy a lot of clothes) and deciding what pieces will make me feel good that day. These are decisions we all have to make no matter our status or class. For me, it is about empowerment and about making a statement that is mine. There are many things we can’t control about our appearance (at least not without the help of plastic surgeons), but what we wear is in our power. I buy lots of clothes, but I don’t spend tons of money on each item. I’m a good shopper. I buy things on sale. I go to stores often. I focus more on the fit and style of the clothing and less on labels (with a few exceptions). I did recently purchase a Jack Spade bag partly because it was a Jack Spade bag, and I was jealous of the other cute gay boys running around the city with them. The bag, however, is a great fashion piece and is really practical and useful, so it balances out.
As a teacher, there are a lot of considerations one has to make when deciding what to wear. Some schools enforce or strongly suggest a dress code for instructors. For men this leaves few options. When men are given a dress code it typically means you have to wear dress pants and button-up dress shirt (don’t get me started on the unfair gender bias when it comes to dress codes). You also want to consider how what you wear might affect the students in your classroom.
When I started as a teaching assistant in graduate school, it was suggested (not enforced) that we, as TAs, dress a little more professional to help create a separation between the instructor and the students. This makes sense on some levels. Many of us were fresh out of college and were only going to be about four to five years older than our students. Some of us, myself included, looked very young (even at nearly 31, I still get asked if I’m student). I followed this advice at first, but I’ve never been one for dressing “professional,” at least not in the traditional sense of the word. As my teaching style began to develop, so did my sense of what to wear in the classroom.
Over the years, I’ve realized that my teaching style is to breakdown the barriers between myself and the students and to come at them from a place of mutual respect. I ask them to be themselves in the classroom and to share with me their own experiences and skills. To do that, I need to be myself as well (at least to a certain degree) and for me that means wearing clothes that fit my personal sense of style. I don’t feel comfortable in certain kinds of clothes and that discomfort can be directly tied to how well I teach.
As teachers we are constantly fighting an uphill battle. We have to battle the changing times, the crumbling education system, the fact that many students don’t know what they should when they enter college, and the often-scattered attention span of our students. If I’m standing in front of them in something that catches their attention or makes them watch me a little longer, I see that as a win.
Currently, I teach English Composition courses at a career college in New York City. Most of my students are there to earn a medical assistant certificate or an associates degree in nursing. Some of them don’t have their GEDs and are working on those as well. These are not “traditional” college students. Most are in their twenties or older, and a good portion of them have children (many were teen-mothers). About 95% percent of the students are female and nearly all are Hispanic or black. When I enter the classroom, I’m a minority on all levels. I’m male, white, and gay.
In this environment, I’ve found that my clothing has proved useful. In my ten months at this job, I’ve gotten more compliments and comments about my clothes than anywhere I have ever taught. One girl recently complimented me on never wearing the same outfit twice to class (which is something I often try to do, especially with my classes that meet once a week). With this comment, I was mostly impressed at how observant she was, which is a necessity in writing.
Perhaps they’ve noticed my clothes more because my students are required to wear scrubs, so I’m the only one in street clothes. Maybe it’s because I’m one of the youngest people working there, and I do dress distinctively different from my co-workers. Maybe it is because it’s New York City and people pay more attention to fashion. Or maybe it’s because I’m not what they expected and my clothes are just one aspect of what makes me break the expectation of a college English professor.
I don’t have the answer, but I can say my clothing is a way to connect with the students and that connection leads to a better classroom environment. I don’t believe there is one way to teach. I believe that people must find their own style. Much like the choices we make in fashion every day.
Stephen S. Mills holds an MFA from Florida State University. He’s taught college English courses for eight years. His work as a writer has appeared in The Antioch Review, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, PANK, The New York Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, Knockout, Assaracus, The Rumpus, and others. He is also the winner of the 2008 Gival Press Oscar Wilde Poetry Award. His first book, He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices, is available from Sibling Rivalry Press and was a finalist for the Thom Gunn Poetry Award and won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. He currently lives in New York City. Website: http://www.stephensmills.com/