Friday, November 30, 2012

The School District of Janesville Standards of Professional Behavior

As state and national policies in education continue to be examined, many issues that were once thought untouchable are coming to the forefront.  We are seeing this in statewide achievement testing and in national common core standards, as well as global literacy, post-secondary and career readiness, teacher effectiveness, and technology use in classrooms.  Included in this reexamination of education in America are standards of professional behavior.  Within these standards is an increased focus on staff dress codes. We are no different than other leading school districts across the country that are raising the standard of professionalism in their schools. 

The School District of Janesville has had, and continues to use, a jointly developed “Standards of Professional Behavior” document with all staff.  It is a guiding document, calling us to be our best at all times.  However, it is vague regarding dress code.  The Standards of Professional Behavior is the only document in the SDJ that addresses employee dress by stating “Employees will dress appropriately.”   The Janesville Education Association has not endorsed this document.

We are not alone in our focus on dress code.  Other leading school systems are defining dress codes for their faculty and staff as well.  Here is a sample of what I found in Wisconsin newspapers and across the country regarding Dress Code Policy for teachers.

Like many employers, the Litchfield district is trying to maintain a professional work atmosphere in changing times.  District leaders created the policy because the organization didn't have a written policy and thought it was time to create one, said Shawn Watt, governing board president.  Sara Griffin, a Litchfield governing board member, drafted most of the regulations for hair color, piercings, tattoos and clothing in the new policy. Griffin said tattoos, especially tattoos that cover the entire arm, could appear unprofessional, offensive or distracting.  The rules include prohibitions common in many workplaces. That includes rubber flip-flops, visible undergarments, visible cleavage and bare midriffs.  Employees also can't wear clothes that are too tight, loose or transparent, short skirts or exercise pants. Tops may not bare shoulders.  (Litchfield, Arizona - The Republic 7/21/12)

The Wichita School District is just one of a growing number in the nation cracking down on teacher apparel, and jeans are banned in at least one elementary school in New York City. A school district in Phoenix is requiring teachers to cover up tattoos and excessive piercings. And several Arizona schools are strictly defining business casual.  (USA Today 7/30/12)

The new rules are nowhere near as prescriptive as defining appropriate length of hair or skirt, but the policies on professional attire adopted recently by districts such as Nicolet, New Berlin and Hamilton outlaw jeans and define the acceptable dress as "business casual."  The changes have caused much chatter, but little outrage. Most employees working under new dress codes said they thought it was acceptable to expect staff to dress nicely and that it was probably good for their district's image overall.  (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 10/1/11)
As we reflect on appropriate attire for all of our employees, which is just one of many topics the Employee Handbook will cover, it is important to examine the course the SDJ is on in its Journey to Excellence.

The School District of Janesville has chosen an evidence-based leadership model.  These are not idle words; we begin each of our Board of Education meetings with examples of evidence-based leadership, and we practice each day in our interactions with one another, with our students, and when talking with parents and community members.   How we dress and present ourselves is an extension of evidence-based leadership practices. 

Evidence-based leadership practices embrace standardization of workplace practices to promote efficiency, alignment, and quality.  Part of the standardization of practices is having uniform policies that we all can abide by and embrace.  It is also about communicating clear messages and defining expectations; I believe all employees have a right to know what appropriate dress looks like, but that’s a difficult target to hit, so writing a dress code policy as a portion of the Handbook is an attempt to define “appropriate” for all of us.  

This is no small task as we have 1,300 employees, 10,308 children, and many more parents.  Without a common understanding of “appropriate dress,” we might define it differently from one school to another; or from one staff member to another.  This is in conflict of our evidence-based leadership practices that we have defined as a foundation for ourselves. 

While a dress code standard may be difficult for some staff, I have already heard from one principal that because of our discussion on the DRAFT document, her school staff has already begun to be more mindful of their attire.  

An Employee Handbook is an important document to codify and standardize our beliefs and a critical communication tool to share those beliefs with all of us – staff, parents, and community members. 

We are on the path to excellence.  We are aligning our efforts, defining our beliefs, and raising the achievement bar for all of us – students and staff alike.


  1. This is a thoughtful explanation regarding the dress code draft. I appreciate the time and consideration given to this matter.

    I realize we need to move beyond this discussion and focus more on the eight ball, but I would like to take one more stab at a teacher’s perspective on the proposed dress code and employee handbook development.

    I am confident the push to “codify and standardized” the dress code is part of the national trend to make public education more like the business world. The anecdotal accounts of other districts moving to standardized dress codes are not convincing that the proposed dress code will help students and my children learn better. Is there actual educational research that a prescriptive dress code for teachers promotes better teaching and learning?

    I understand why the external image is so important to those in market-driven fields. First impressions are essential for repeat business. Encounters with repeat customers and clients can be sporadic. Even in markets frequented often by repeat customers--like grocery stores or coffee shops--relationships with customers are often superficial with the focus on the exchange of goods. I recognize that in a money-goods/service exchange, the exterior image is essential to survival.

    In the teaching world, the external image matters little. The real challenge is helping those who have made a career in the market world to understand this difference. In the school world, teachers and students interact on a near daily basis in often-authentic ways. Schools are social constructs. The connections between teacher and learners are often powerful. Learning is one of life’s most intimate experiences. The external does not matter in the intimate teaching-learning exchange. In fact, the real value of such an exchange is in the process--which is beyond measure (and this discussion).

    Most students, teachers, and parents know that the charade of professional dress does not make for effective teaching and learning. Effective teachers are passionate, collaborative, organized, ongoing learners, and experienced. In the education world, authenticity matters most to students, teachers, and parents of students. I have yet to see a tribute to a high-achieving teacher that mentions how well dressed they were. Professional dress is a sidebar and should be treated as such in the employee handbook.

    Rules are most certainly a reflection of values. However, too many rules can undermine what we value. I am asking for a broader view of professionalism in your construction of the employee handbook. I challenge our school leaders to work side-by-side with our teacher leaders in creating a dress code and employee handbook that focus’ professionalism on student-centered learning environments. Like in learning, the process of respectful, ongoing collaboration holds the greatest value. The outcome is a sidebar.

  2. Thank you Steve. I also want to know of research-based studies which indicate improved student achievement / teacher dress code. A good study would include data from a variety of demographic groups, secondary and elementary schools, and whether or not the students were held to a dress code / uniform. Given information actually shared with employees, this point how we dress is as you described it - a "side bar" and not a core issue in raising student achievement. If there are studies that show teachers can raise student achievement by changing how they dress, then we need to know where the studies are and have opportunity to consider the validity of the study. Teachers could be eager to change if they find this simple restriction of how they dress for school would positively impact student learning. We all want the best for our learners. Wendy

  3. There are a number of studies that can be found. Those posting most likely know how to use search vehicles to find studies if they are interested. I have found research on both sides of the issue. Here is one study that was sent to me.
    A 2009 Southern Illinois University Carbondale study on the perceptions of teacher professionalism found research suggesting that "first impressions of teachers' professionalism are based on appearance (55%), voice (38%) and what they say (7%)."

    1. First-impression dress is very different than the dress code policy being discussed here that will govern daily professional dress for the entire school year.

      I agree that first impressions matter. You will see most teachers realize this as dress is usually different on the first days of the school year from the end of the year. First impressions are why exterior is so important to market-driven industry.

      In the school world, as teachers and students engage more and more, the facade matters less and less. Dress often becomes more lax as students respect teachers for deeper and more important reasons. Learning becomes the focus. Over the course of an entire school season, the external image matters little in enhancing learning.

      Experience, passion, organization, development, and collaboration are the traits that matter for educators. Our employee handbook should reflect strongly these values. The facade matters little.


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