Dress Codes and/or the Elephant in the Room

Back in the day, children’s schools were set up as part of the industrial machine. Like ‘learning factories’, they were designed to pick up, mold, and spit out complacent, competent workers.  The ‘empty vessel’ concept – where kids’ minds were seen as containers waiting to be filled with ‘Knowledge’ – was key in justifying this particular model of education. Of course I’m oversimplifying, but suffice it to say, the notions of ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem-solving’ were not high on the educational list. Being mathematically and linguistically literate mattered, but fitting in and being a solid, reliable addition to the workforce were key considerations when forming curriculum. Convention was the main dictum.

The purpose of school was not to give kids a strong sense of agency, but instead to push them into submission under authoritarian rule. My father has spoken quite candidly of the use of corporal punishment (bunsen burner tubes, broomsticks, canes, backs of hands) in his high school years, and even people my age (~40) who grew up in Toronto can remember feeling scared of teachers – verbal rage was terrifying enough, though there were definitely adults in schools who crossed the line in terms of physical, emotional and intellectual violence. In my decade of teaching I knew of a teacher who was ultimately fired from the Board because of their outbursts of anger and physical aggression that terrified kids – and staff.

We’re at a crossroads now. Culturally, kids in Toronto have a greater sense of agency than they ever have. I’ve often though about my students’ sense of their rights and their ability to stand up to capital-A Authority (though they don’t always do it effectively – but they do it nonetheless). I wouldn’t have dreamt of confronting a teacher when I was a student. Now, teachers who yell a lot will inevitably come up against kids who’ll call them out on it.  Incidentally, I’ve found that talking with kids, with compassion, is the best way to foster a positive relationship. Teachers who rule with an iron fist are generally seen as boring, antiquated and angry.

I’ve had fellow teachers tell me: never let the kid ‘win’. Don’t get into a dispute with a student where you’re not guaranteed to come out ‘on top’. It took me a long time to realize that this attitude would get me nowhere. Instead, I choose not to see differences of opinion or conflict as situations needing to be ‘won’. I’m just not into the us-and-them mentality. As far as I can tell, my job is to work with kids and to create a shared community. I have adult responsibilities to that community of young people, but I don’t ‘make them do things’ or inject bullying into the scenario of how I run my part of the show. Most of them time, the kids should feel like they’re playing a key part in how the show is run. You have to swallow your pride and recognize that kids aren’t actually empty vessels – they come to school with a vast amount of pre-existing knowledge and experience, and that deserves to be recognized. And even if they do come seeming completely naïve, they still deserve the same kind of respect and support as anyone else – the same kind of respect or support you and I would want.  I should add that I almost never have problems with poor classroom behavior. For many years I’ve had students go out of their way to say how much they appreciate the fact that I’m ‘human’ and ‘real’ with them, and not an authoritarian automaton. It’s not complicated, it’s just the ‘do unto others’ rule. To that end, we don’t have to do things the way they were done to us. We just don’t.

In the present moment, the daughter of a friend of mine has been confronted by her school for breaking the rules of the dress code. She’s in grade 8. Hearing of her story through facebook – her mom posted a photo of the ‘offending’ outfit and asked friends for a response – brought memories of my own feelings about enforcing the dress code at the school where I’ve worked for the past nine years.  The short version is: I hated enforcing it and eventually stopped.

I won’t come right out and say I think a dress code is dumb. What I do think is ridiculous, though, is a dress code that has come about without any community input, and/or that is relatively arbitrarily chosen. In fact, if you ask most kids, many will support the notion of a dresscode or are at least open to the prospect of discussing it – they may not agree with the one that exists though. Deciding to limit what kids can wear to school requires a tremendous amount of thought, as it can be seen as infringing on a person’s rights (bad!), and families’ choices about what their kids can wear, among other things. There need to be very strong arguments in favour of limiting choice in order to justify it. No one has to think too hard about why bringing controlled substances to school is a problem – but wearing a particular shirt? It could be a problem, but if you think it is, you’re going to have to be able to be pretty clear about why. In the case of my friends’ daughter, the spaghetti straps on her shirt that revealed her bra straps were considered too ‘distracting’ and sexualized – though no one can come right out and explain, with any kind of deep insight and honesty, about what exactly is so problematic with girls’ bodies in schools. A detailed discussion about the policing of girls’ and women’s bodies would make up an entire post. Thankfully, many people have taken up that task already.

I visited an elementary school recently that is modeled after the Waldorf pedagogy. One of the school’s policies is that students can’t wear clothes with logos on them. To some this might sound strange – but to me it’s pretty brilliant. Clearly that rule represents or mirrors something I value. The school is an alternative public school, meaning I can choose whether or not to send my kid there (though ultimately entry is by lottery, as space is limited). It’s not a regular ‘community school’ in that sense, and it’s expected that if my kid goes there, we will ascribe to the rules and guidelines set out by the school, or work constructively with the school to address them. Essentially, the rules are connected to the school’s overall philosophy and are integral to it.

When it comes to a local junior high, though, the notion of an ‘overall philosophy’ is somewhat laughable. Most schools merely echo the general mandate of the school board, with local flavour thrown in. Things like dress codes largely go unconsidered, as they are just part of the general workings of the (somewhat anachronistic) education machine, and don’t necessarily represent anyone’s values. Keep in mind that, despite our social and cultural changes of the past 100 or so years, we continue to operate our schools based on the industrial model. A model that expects kids to conform when confronted with authoritarian rule. Um, good luck with that.

Here’s a peek at the dress code at my friend’s daughter’s school:

Screen Shot 2014-05-25 at 8.49.16 AM

Many of us may feel that this dress code is perfectly reasonable. It may even look familiar, as it probably reads more or less the same as the dress codes at our schools back in the day. That right there should signal a problem.  The liberal use of the word ‘appropriate’ should also send up a red flag.

Creating rules that rely on subjective judgment through the use of words like ‘appropriate’ are, frankly, unfair. You can’t make a rule, say, that reads ‘don’t get too close to the _____’ and not specify what ‘too close’ is. I know, for me, that the stepping out onto a high-rise balcony is already ‘too close’ to the edge. Others will gleefully peer right over the railing (while I barf in the background) and feel that this is not ‘too close’. The rule becomes useless – unless your goal is to create a muddy grey area that puts people in the position of having to guess at what’s OK. In a school, this approach is even worse, as kids are learning about inferencing – which requires critical thought. Vague rules without real justification combined with kids’ exploration and emerging questioning of supposed ‘truths’ makes no sense. And if you’re into that whole ‘winning’ thing with kids in schools, you’ll never ‘win’ in the dress code fight if what you’ve got penned down is as clear as a set of BBQ assembly instructions. The kids’ll see right through that shit.

Another trigger for me in the dress code listed above is the notion of the ‘business of learning’. Really? I don’t know about youse guys, but I seriously do some of my best learning in my jams. It’s my fave studying outfit! I also like to sit up in bed and work – kind of like I am right now, writing my little heart out – but last time I checked, they didn’t have beds in schools for me to work at/in. Because that, I suppose, would be inappropriate… <eyes mist over, dreaming of cozy ‘learning sofas’, recliners and ottomans…>

Our collective inability to rethink how we manage the ‘business of learning’ brings me back to the deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic analogy. We put kids at desks in rows, but a quick look into models of contemporary office design will show you spaces that look nothing like the Mad-Men notion of ‘office’. Entrepreneurs and business people now – not even in the future, friends – are working in spaces that make our classrooms look like some kind of a virtual reality game set in the past. Kids know it. They know it better than we do because they go there every day and they feel it. They feel the irrelevance of a lot of it. They notice when something is actually interesting and engaging and important-feeling. It stands out because it’s not what they feel a lot of the time.

Instead they regularly feel things like the top-down oppression of being humiliated and shamed by administrators and teachers for breaking the school dress code. Time and energy is spent confronting a kid because her tank top reveals her bra straps. This is deemed an important factor in keeping things ‘under control’. I knew of a student not too long ago who prepared a compelling presentation for his school’s admin on the topic of hats, justifying – with historical examples and contemporary supporting evidence – why they should be permitted at his school. This kid – a struggling student with a lot of street cred – took it upon himself to respectfully engage his principals in a discussion. After he left the room so the admin could discuss their decision, they acknowledged that the argument was convincing. Ultimately, though, they decided to maintain the rule – because they didn’t want the kid to feel like he’d ‘won’.

What they lost there was an incredible opportunity. The kid in school with arguably the most social clout took the ‘high road’ and modeled incredible citizenship in his attempt to address an outdated and irrelevant rule. What he got in response was, “We don’t trust you,” and “We don’t want to empower you.” What the admin missed was the fact that this empowerment could have been life-changing for this student (one of the few times he ‘faced the system’ with poise and a pre-meditated plan) and incredibly empowering for the admin. They could have worked together, even. Showing kids humility and vulnerability is one of the best things we can do as adults, don’t you think? Showing kids that we are fallible, flexible and thoughtful – willing to look at issues with an open mind, righting wrongs, and giving kids the opportunity to share their views – is a huge part of building a caring, empathic and powerful community.

Adults chastising or reprimanding girls for what they wear to school will never create community. It’s divisive, and a whole lot of other things.

Let’s throw in a curve-ball: you’re a grade 8 student, and you want to wear a shirt with spaghetti straps. Your classmate holds a strong religious perspective that encourages covering of the body. It’s fair to say that for some people, revealing a lot of skin is shocking or uncomfortable. You’re both in the same school, and you’re both equally entitled to be there. Now what?

This brings me back to the idea of working together to develop a dress code – it’s called ‘participatory design‘, if you want to get all technical. If you have students working together with adults – preferably someone skilled in facilitating with empathy – then a mutually agreeable code can be developed. The girl I know who wore spaghetti straps that showed bra straps is not someone who would want to deliberately offend or upset anyone else for the sake of it, without reason. I suspect that if she were given the chance to work with others to explore, discuss, and debate a range of dress code possibilities, she would jump at the chance.

She might even feel empowered by her school.


  One thought on “Dress Codes and/or the Elephant in the Room

  1. May 24, 2014 at 11:02 pm

    About the idea that a kid should have to dress “professionally”:

    There are a lot of different kind of workplaces. When these kids grow up they might have a job where they can wear spaghetti straps and a bra. They might be poets or volleyball players or radio hosts or house cleaners or models or make-up artists or freelance writers or researchers or editors. Not everyone is going to get a job as a lawyer wearing suits in front of a judge.

    I reject the idea that this is a workplace for the kids that requires they dress “professionally”. They are not professionals. They are not being paid by the school, so the school has no business telling them how to dress. Besides, if they are allowed to wear One Direction T-shirts or a giant neon pink sweatshirt with a kitten on it or ripped jeans or dirty sneakers or a million jelly bracelets then really the school doesn’t expect them to dress professionally. They say they have to dress like a workplace but they don’t treat the kids like they are in a workplace.

    Also in a REAL work environment employees should be able to negotiate, challenge sexist dress codes, and have a union rep or HR personnel present for meetings with management. Calling her out of class in front of people and dragging her into the office isn’t professional either.

    I liked 14 year old T’s response when they pulled her out of class for wearing a tank top and said to her “This is a work environment.”. She said “So let me work.”


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