May 25, 2008

Setting boundaries, or do we

I have found it secretly pleasurable upon occasion to see that NYC Educator reacts to peripheral issues in the real ed world in the same few days I have found myself musing over similar things. Some people believe in synchronicity.

It happened again this morning when I came across his Necktie vignette, which deals not only with the way teachers dress, but with the insistence it takes to get one's point across. At least that’s what I took from the story.

I had been planning to write a follow-up piece this week relating to something I had written last January, in which I described the “look” of many of the newest teachers in the profession:
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.

Well, spring has sprung, and so have all those naked little toes, as flip-flops once again seem to have made the acceptable teacher get-up list in New York City classrooms. Acceptable to some, at least, the grad students who got provisional certification from the state to man NYC classrooms and who make up such a large percentage of the teaching force these days.

I am trying to figure out why naked toes have irritated me so much these past few years, because I do have an unconventional past, in which bellydancing and tango have played a significant part.

Only some of my annoyance comes from my conservative take on what constitutes appropriate dress for schoolteachers: that it’s important to conceal all body parts associated with bathrooms, boudoirs, and beach. No one has to know what your feet look like. Toes is too much information. Think of it: three inches higher at the heel and you’d be wearing “F...k-me” shoes, the kind some women keep on hand for a hot night out, but whom few would think of sporting in front of a class.

I think what’s probably irritating me more than the “gear” that’s associated with today’s youth culture — the flimsy shoes and bits of clothing, the iPods with wires all over the place, the cellphones in easy reach — is a problem of boundaries. We are having trouble these days figuring out what they are and how they should be set.

Andrew Bierce (d. 1914) defined a geo-political boundary as "an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other." I think we're talking about pretty much the same kind of imaginary lines defining imaginary rights when we discuss boundaries for any aspect of teenage behavior.

Clothing, appearance, and electronics are all part of the boundaries issue. We want kids to dress appropriately (and modestly) for school, yet a segment of the teacher population dresses like the models in Teen Vogue. We ask kids not to bring their cells or iPods into the building, yet some teachers can’t be without these. When men come to school unshaven, obviously thinking it’s okay or even cool to show off a day’s growth, does it help the teenage boy define his own school appearance? Or when a teacher wears an iPod going into school and shows he can’t be without his music, does it help a student understand the pull of immediate gratification or show that it’s possible to go about one’s business without the help of a primal beat?

None of these are neutral activities. They are part of a cultural phenomenon marked by a tolerance for mixed messages and blurred boundaries.

A certain “youth culture” dominates the profession now, and that’s because young adults, perhaps just a few years older than the students they’re teaching, make up a significant sector of the workforce. What we expect teachers to look like and how we expect them to behave has radically changed, and I’m not sure this shift is helping kids just plain grow up.

Talking about synchronicity!

"60 Minutes" on CBS this evening just aired a segment on "The Millennials," the generation of young workers I've just been talking about up above. The show pointed to the flip-flops, the electronics, growing up differently than the way we did, and a whole lot more about this inscrutable group of people.

Take a look here, it's fascinating.


  1. Just watched it. Explains a lot.

  2. I seriously under dress for work. I am usually found in jeans and sneakers or slacks and crocks with a very casual shirt.

    However, I do notice that RUNWAY fashion and CLUB fashion is and has been redefining "business casual" for some time. Stiletto heels, low-cut shirts, and high-cut skirts are standard when it comes to business attire. Even on television, female lawyers and doctors are fitted in clothing that most of us would reserve for a night on the town.

    It is no wonder that my female students have no problem wearing low-rise jeans that expose their brightly colored thongs to the world.

  3. Do you know how many young, female teachers I have had to speak with privately because their thong was showing or because the students could see their derriere?
    I don't think that they understand that they are supposed to be adults. On the other hand, maybe it is a reflection of the lack of professionalism that is perceived to be associated with the educational professional.

  4. Nice dressup style... !! Like your suggestions for men's clothing.