Teacher Dress Codes May Be Styled

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Damon Hill, who teaches algebra at Estancia High School in Costa Mesa, noticed an immediate change two years ago when he started dressing up for class.

"I found that the parents and the students treated me with more respect when I wore a tie," said Hill, who gave up casual garb as an experiment at the suggestion of a student.

Now he's a believer.

"People are influenced by costume," he said. "As a teacher, you are a professional, and I feel you should dress like a professional."

Few Orange County school districts take a position on how faculty members should dress. In some districts, standard business attire is customary for teachers. In others, casual shirts, jeans, sneakers and sporty skirts are acceptable.

Hill is not alone, though, in his view that formal dress can affect students' demeanor in the classroom. Trustees of Santa Ana Unified School District, the county's biggest, are set to discuss Tuesday whether to institute a dress code for teachers.

"What I want to see is how the teachers dressed for their interviews," said Aida Espinoza, a member of the Santa Ana school board. "That's how they should present themselves at work."

The notion of dictating what adults should wear to work does not sit well with everyone, and leaders of Santa Ana's teachers union say they will be alert to see how the issue develops.

Gladys Hall-Kessler, director of the Santa Ana Educators' Assn., said she is generally opposed to the idea of the district setting dress standards for faculty.

"I've been teaching in the district for over 25 years, and by and large, teachers are professionally dressed and want to look good for the students," she said. "If a teacher wears a halter top and shorts to school, the site administrator will discuss it with them."

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For other educators, setting a casual tone in the classroom is part of their style. They point out that the look known as "business casual"--casual cotton slacks and open-necked shirts for men, short or long skirts, sweaters and open-toed shoes for women--is now common among professionals in industries such as advertising, architecture, computing and the news media.

Rick Meyers, a U.S. history teacher at Estancia, said the jeans and "nice" tennis shoes he wears to school reflect his personality.

"I think in a way the kids do relate a little more to you, but that's not the reason I do it," he said. "I don't think dress makes a disciplined classroom."

Santa Ana's Espinoza is clear in her mind, though, on what constitutes appropriate professional attire: for men, dress slacks and shoes, and collared shirts; and for women, pantsuits or business-length dresses and skirts, and shoes with closed toes.

Though many teachers do dress professionally, she said, she is irked by those who wear shorts, T-shirts and jeans on campus.

Santa Ana enforces strict dress codes for students to eliminate gang attire and overtly sexy or unsafe garments. If clothing can affect students' deportment, she asked, why not extend the rules to cover teachers as well?

"In our district, it's the next natural step," Espinoza said. "The children already are wearing uniforms."

Dale Junior High School in Anaheim is working out a student dress code, and several teachers have expressed a willingness to live by the same rules.

"Some said they think that if the students wear uniforms then the teachers should also wear uniforms, but that's an individual preference," said John Douglas, Dale principal.

When Douglas began teaching in the Anaheim Unified School District in 1967, he said, he was required to wear a coat and tie in the classroom. The rules gradually eased in the 1970s, he said.

"I've always maintained that the kids act differently if you dress up," he said. "I think there's something to that, though I've also seen teachers who dress in business casual and they run very good classrooms and the kids respect them."

Other teachers say they are concerned that school boards might set dress standards that are beyond their means. Teachers typically earn less than professionals in many other fields, they say, and cannot afford elaborate wardrobes.

But Bob Hassay, who teaches English at Estancia, calls that "a very weak excuse."

"There's nobody who cannot find clothes that are going to look more than decent," he said. "They can go to Bullock's or Nordstrom on sale days and find outstanding clothes."

Times librarian Sheila A. Kern contributed to this report.

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