a dressing down


Unwashed hair and pokemon pyjamas not wanted here. Why? It isn’t professional and your students deserve better.

That’s the abbreviated version of a recent advice column in Insider Higher Education. The advice is directed to academics teaching online, academics working from home.

There’s been a lot of understandable heat about the piece on social media. Lots of people have pointed out that it’s really hard to combine home schooling, parenting and working “normal hours” and students need to cut their lecturers a bit of slack. Others have queried the idea that “professional” is something that relies on appearance and that it’s the quality of teaching that matters. The gendered nature of the article has also been noted – the disappointing appearances were highly feminised, as were many of the issues in the responses – women bear the brunt of additional parenting and domestic labour.

There was also a strong cry for evidence – what made the graduate student writer think that unwashed hair and PJs were even happening? Was there really a slip in standards as was alleged?  

But the mention of pyjamas in the article somehow made me think of times in schools where teachers don’t look as expected – and contra to this article – it is actually all OK. Better than OK in fact.

What I am thinking of? Well –

  • World Book Day. Teachers and leaders come to school dressed as their favorite book character. WBD is a chance to be a bit imaginative and show something about yourself that might not be obvious. It’s a chance to have a bit of fun, to play a part, to teach as if you are the Gruffalo, to run a staff meeting as Jo from Little Women.
  • Casual day. The kids come without uniform. Maybe the staff wear school uniform or they too adopt much more casual clothing than usual. Everyone’s a PE teacher in trackies. Well. It’s all a bit more relaxed isn’t it. We see each other as if we are not at school, but at home, on the weekend, at the supermarket.
  • Melbourne Cup Day. Typically a short day. Frocks and fascinators. Florals. Stappy high heels. A chance to dress up and reveal our glitzy selves. A bit of glam inserted in the usually business-like school. It’s OK to party now and then. (Ditto school socials.)
  • School camps. Yes the pokemon PJs and bedhead hair are on show at the school camp, as school becomes an everyday/everynight affair. And yes teachers and leaders wear slippers and no makeup too, just like grownups at home.

It’s not like these divergent clothes days happen all the time. They are exceptional and extraordinary – as well as welcome.

Contra to the chiding of the IHE article, I reckon school students really love seeing their teachers out of professional clothing now and then. Rather than seeing them as unprofessional, they see teachers as having personal as well as professional lives, teachers and leaders playing and working out, teachers and leaders as parents, teachers and leaders as ordinary.

And my hunch is that school students are likely to forgive the occasional online lapse in business like appearance during the pandemic, and be understanding about their teachers doing the best they can under extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps that is because they are exposed now and then to teachers and school leaders dressing differently. Perhaps also school students just have stronger relationships with their teachers than university students do with their lecturers. Whatever the reason, I find it hard to imagine the “unprofessional” critique coming from school students.

Perhaps I am just kidding myself. Perhaps not. What do you think?


Phot: Preston Manor staff: Brent and Kilburn Times March 7, 2019.




looking ‘professional’


We have started to analyse the women and wardrobe survey data. While the survey is still open for further responses, we have already downloaded the first 300 surveys or so worth of data.

One of the things that struck us immediately was how many respondents said that women leaders both wanted and needed to look professional.

So we have begun to think about what this term ‘professional’ means. And like good little researchers we ’ve been having a bit of a look at what other people have said.

There’s a distinct idea in the texts we’ve read of a managerialist professional. This is someone whose work is primarily about, well, management above all else.  So while all leaders have to ensure that their organisation runs smoothly, managerialist leaders are those who think and act as if management is all that counts.

Managerialism is often said to produce a ‘low trust’ organisational culture, through multiple forms of regulation via documentation and monitoring, regular auditing of various forms of performance measures, tight control of staff and a heavily hierarchical structure. Decision-making is carried out separate from staff who are expected to implement those decisions. Feedback is often through highly formal processes.

Managerialist professionalism is contrasted with democratic professionalism where a high trust culture is developed through flat organisational structures, ongoing discussion and collaborative decision-making. Activist professionalism goes further, suggesting a role and responsibility for the professional in advocating for the profession and its wider concerns.

Many books and papers about educational leaders suggest that the very idea of an educational professional has changed over time to now mean a managerialist. Where an educational leader was once thought about as a caring, knowledgeable teacher, they are now thought about as someone who manages, is entrepreneurial and business-like.

This view is challenged by other researchers who say that there is no sharp boundary between managerialism and management, and that life in schools is just messy and complicated. In this context, being a professional means managing the complexity without letting staff and students suffer the worst effects of externally imposed policies.

So what might this all mean for our survey and “looking professional” in schools? for wearing clothing that signifies the wearer is a professional?

Is “the jacket” the symbol of an expectation that today’s educational leaders are inevitably business like and managerialist?

That they are interchangeable with any other leader in any other occupation?

Is the jacket a managerialist mask that is taken off when the most judgmental observers are not looking?

Does wearing corporate clothing make a school leader become more managerialist – do the clothes begin to wear them and not the other way around?

Or something else entirely, none of the above.

Welcome to our ambiguous world of interpretation!

If you have any thoughts on what ‘professional’ means to you, we’d love to hear from you.


Some of our reading:

Gary Anderson and Michael Cohen 2018 The new democratic professional in education Teachers College Press

Kathleen Lynch, Bernie Grummell and Dymphna Devine 2012 New managerialism in education. Commercialisation, carelessness and gender. Palgrave Macmillan

Judyth Sachs 2003 The activist teaching profession Open University Press



Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash