January 19, 2008

Bring back school uniforms — for teachers

Five or six years ago, young new teachers, most of them grad students, started coming to school wearing items of clothing that set them apart from older teachers. For the women, these items included flip-flops and bodice-type shirts held up by spaghetti straps, and there was often little attempt to conceal the fasteners, color, or fabric of the underwear worn underneath (if any).

For the men, it was a shirt, frequently unbuttoned, and maybe a tie, however loosely it was knotted below the collar; more likely than not, these were complemented by blue jeans, not always in good repair.

There are cultural norms for attire in the workplace, and we don’t help students much when clothing that is overly “cool,” “phat” or trendy is worn by teachers. This stuff is often provocative and distracting, and in some cases it gives way more information about the wearer than any student should be in a position to know. Besides, if we ask the kids not to wear tank-tops, halters, low-slung jeans, and other revealing apparel, it speaks to a general consensus that appropriate school clothing should be somewhat conservative.

I’m not suggesting that teachers should submit to a dress code. Far from it.

What I am proposing is that it might be time to consider what a specific uniform — a black robe — could do for our profession. It's been around for eight centuries and is arguably the most enduring symbol of scholarship and academic achievement ever designed. I’m not advocating wearing robes like they do in the English grammar schools, where all the instructors sport them as a collective sign of mastery and dominance. I think they should be worn here selectively, by any teacher who is tenured and fully certified.
Note: And not worn zipped up like in the picture below, but casually, open at the front, like a cardigan — as if we were actually born wearing these things
Before you blast me for things I am not, consider this:
BloomKlein’s Board of Education has been destabilizing the teaching profession for many years now. They’ve encroached on our contractual right to autonomy, dangled free tuition for grad school in front of college graduates (many of whom have no intention of being classroom teachers in the long run but who accept the gift anyway), bashed the union, and pressured expensive veteran teachers to leave altogether. Since it becomes more difficult to stay in the job and more difficult to recruit the “keepers,” the percentage of untenured and not fully certified teachers is substantial. (I’m going on what I’m seeing and hearing when I say this: I’d like to see some real figures on these percentages if anyone knows where to get them.)

As this diminishment of teaching continues, we have to look for ways to give this issue some visibility.

When you want to tell the difference between things that look alike, you use colors or labels. If we do this with robes, several things happen, not least of which is that we would actually get to see what percentage of the workforce — in each school, in each district, in each borough, and in fact citywide — has gone all the way to teacherhood. I think it's politically in our interest to do this.

Remember, I’m not talking quality teaching here, nor giving any extra status to the “lead” teacher, which as a position is meaningless (except for the perks) and subject to favoritism. There are, after all, great teachers in every school who are not lead teachers, and there are lead teachers in our schools who are not actually the best teachers in the system.

Let's try putting black robes on all of the teachers who are fully tenured and fully certified, regardless of how well they teach or play the system, and see what happens.

Some might consider this proposition to be reactionary, iconoclastic, or even unconstitutional, but I think it’s worth looking into.

There would definitely be a psychological change in the classroom. Students would learn that the teachers with robes achieved something more than a college degree, even though they may not fully understand at first what that something is. They’d come to understand that the robe means these particular instructors have worked long and hard to achieve their professional goals. They’ve set standards for themselves, and they’ve met them. As one graduate put the kind of thing I'm talking about on a recent blog:
Looking at the computer science doctorates around me during the commencement ceremony, I felt very envious. I want an advanced degree. And despite how silly the robes are in comparison to modern attire, they come with the territory of earning a doctoral degree, so my desire transfers over into wanting to wear those robes as well.
I made a comment to one of my professors that he should show up to the first day of class next semester wearing full academic regalia, just to throw off the students. I would love to see those reactions. After all, professors used to wear these robes all the time, so why not try to bring that tradition back? (June 07)
I suspect that putting robes on fully certified teachers would not only have an effect on the kids but on the provisional instructors as well, people who now make up a good chunk of the workforce. Teaching fellows, for example, would in a bipartite environment such as this be identified for a while as transitional instructors; they'd be making the choice during this period whether they plan to stay in the profession once they graduate and get tenure or opt out, and any outsider would know they're still in training and thinking about it. No robes either for anyone who gets tenure but drags out their graduate studies over many years.

One could make an argument that students, parents, and staff even have a right to see how many teachers and specifically which ones are not yet full members of the profession.

It is in BloomKlein’s interest to paint teachers in this system as an amorphous group of less than adequate know-nothings. They want to be able to hire and fire us at will, move us around, script us, and silence us. They want us to come cheap and leave soon.

If we as a society want fully certified teachers in the classrooms, let’s actually see how many of us are already in place, and let’s see how the percentages fall and rise when the political winds blow.

If we want to see the disproportionate numbers of fully certified teachers in our disadvantaged neighborhoods, let’s actually see how many of them work in these sites, school by school and district by district.

If we want principals to stop hiring two-for-the-price of one, put robes on the fully certified and tenured teachers and let those principals show off a schoolful of non-robed staff. They may want to think twice about hiring on the cheap if the percentages of provisional teachers are out there for the world to see.

If we want to try and restore some of that respect that used to come with the job, have the fully qualified ones wear that well-established symbol of scholarship instead of those inane armbands the UFT proposed a few years ago in one fleeting moment of protest.
And if we want to stop BloomKlein from portraying us as somehow unworthy and perpetually unfinished, let us stand up to their brutalization and marginalization wearing the mantle of scholars and degree-holders.

Black robes have always been a political statement.

It might be worth wearing them again to change the dynamic in the current state of siege.


  1. Whatever you're smoking...pass it.

  2. Woodlass, you're brilliant!!

    Black is my favorite color.

    There must also be an appropriate anachronistic title to go along with with the robe. I respectfully submit that the title simply be "Master [Subject] Teacher [Surname]."

    For example, if one's Name is Adrian Finch, and the subject Mr. Finch teaches is Social Studies, then his title would be "Master Social Studies Teacher Finch."

    Of course after teaching for twenty years, then one's title would be Grand Master [Subject] Teacher [Surname]. Grand Master's robes would have gold trim.

    The permissible, less formal versions would be
    Master [Surname], and
    Grand Master [Surname].

    I think the kids would really relate to the nomenclature, too!

    Also, it would be required that new administrators have no robes for five years, and then as they progress begin with red robes after the firth year and work their way up to dark maroon.

  3. Grumble grumble! Not fair!
    What about us sciencey teachery people? We can harldy wear a big flappy robe while doing experiments, and everyone will think we iz stoopid!

  4. Love the dark maroon robes for administrators — dark brown even better. But that's a whole other fight. The political statement in the post must have gone right over the heads of the other two.

  5. I don't want to think about what you would have us special ed teachers wear! LOL

  6. As the husband of a fully certified and tenured teacher with a masters degree. I strongly agree that this is needed. She took a year off to take care of our baby for her first year and is returning to teaching this year. Unfortunately the teachers in her grade at her new school are treating her as a first year teacher and marginalizing her experience (possibly due to her youthful looks and unfaltering enthusiasm). If there were such a standard it would be plainly clear to them that she is as qualified (more in many cases) as they are. It may also reduce the time and money that she spends shopping for professional attire.

  7. Nice to get this comment a couple of years later after I wrote this post. The teacher-bashing has got all out of control, with Bushbama thinking that grad students with newly minted BAs are "teachers" and the experienced people have to be pushed out and marginalized. I think it's time to update this post — which I took seriously at the time (though my union buddies thought I was joking around) — and publish it again in light of Ed Deform. Now we have a real reason to wear our credentials on our sleeves.