School Clothes (when you’re the teacher)

In January, shortly after my last post here (wow, did this whole blogging thing get away from me!) I began teaching two sections of a Gen Ed gender course at AU. Two times a week (Monday and Thursday), 80 students expected me to know and to share what exactly was going on with all this sexism stuff. The class was amazing. I had no idea I was going to enjoy teaching so much. I’ve always been the research person –give me a book from 1850, an abstract theory, and a spot upon which to stand and I can move the world–but this real-world application stuff was kind of mind-blowing.

While I had advice available, one of the biggest problem that I faced as I was preparing for the semester is just that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know what questions to ask, and suddenly, in six weeks (the amount of time between signing the paperwork and starting the class) I was moving from behind the desk to the front of the classroom–a few short feet, in reality, ideologically, a huge span.

How do I prepare? How do I lead discussion? How do I manage time? How do you get students to talk? What if they aren’t prepared? What if I fall down or my fly is unzipped? What do I wear? Nothing I’ve seen on a professor looks like “me.” Do I really have to get that dressed up? How do I grade? Do I believe the excuses? Where do I draw the line? God.

A lot of those were the right questions. And all of them were completely up to me– others could give advice, but what I decided about my classroom persona or the amount of leeway I gave a student was ultimately all on me.

Not to be shallow (*insert entirely legitimate feminist rant about the ways that women are judged for their appearance, the ways that women have to prove authority in ways that men don’t, the difficulty of blending power and beauty in a way that is socially acceptable… and many others) but I was most concerned about what I was going to wear. I can fake academic pretty well (don’t we always feel like we’re faking it? No? Just me?) so I was relatively confident that I could figure out all the rest of it as I went along, as long as the students believed in me as a teacher and authority. So it mattered what I wore. It always matters, but it matters more when you’re in charge, it matters more when you’re teaching gender (or perhaps when you’re constantly analyzing your own gender performance), it just matters.

Your clothes are intensely personal (says the girl in liberal arts who hopes to never own a suit). I certainly didn’t revamp my entire style when I made the switch from grad student to adjunct faculty. But, in the words of that ridiculous Tampax commercial, it was time for an upgrade. My grad school style is this: hair in a bun, big earrings, scarf, long-sleeved t, skinny jeans, tall boots. I have enough iterations of that particular combination to wear that and nothing else for semesters at a time. And I have.

But. Sometimes that jeans and boots combo is a little too Jenny Cavilleri at Radcliffe. Sometimes your clothes need to say “adult.” So. At the beginning of the semester I bought a few shift-type dresses in comfortable, easy materials and colors (seriously, polyester blends, no wrinkling, good bit of stretch in there to make them fit well; colors: navy, black, brown.) (I haven’t ironed in a decade.) I bought two pairs of black pants that are cut just like my favorite skinny jeans (they can be tucked into my tall boots); I bought a blazer-y jacket that could be added to the long tee-shirt/scarf combo or thrown on over a sundress as I make the seasonal transition. I rarely step out of the house without a scarf wrapped around my neck or tied on my bag (to cover coffee stains, to use as a shawl if we go out after).

This worked perfectly for me, it kept me feeling like myself, not a suddenly corporate Stepford teacher. That said, I felt dreadfully silly the day I showed up in a shirt like one of my students–nothing quite as dreadful as feeling like you’re trying to be young just a little too hard (which I absolutely wasn’t! Everybody shops at Target, right?), so that made me evaluate where the more distinctive elements of my wardrobe came from, and move (most of) the sparkly bits to the weekend.  The one day I busted out the sandals with a bit of a wedge, I regretted it. Stepped right out of that sucker while I was making a point, and that point never really did get made. My students could probably pick the shoes out of a lineup, though.

That, perhaps, is the point. Looking cute, looking stylish, looking like yourself–nothing wrong with that. Don’t have to look like a drudge. But the wardrobe shouldn’t be speaking more loudly than we are.

I did occasionally break out the jeans. Honestly, it didn’t even seem to matter. I decided at the beginning that I’d spend a few weeks in “grown up” clothes first (which I apparently classify as everything in my closet except my jeans) I didn’t see that it made any difference to anyone when I finally wore them. I teach better when I’m comfortable, though. Nothing like wondering if you’re showing cleavage while waxing eloquent about intersectionality.

This is a super cute capsule teacher’s wardrobe. And this. And this.

Any questions? Send them my way! I don’t know everything, but I know more than I did!

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