Students complain about a great number of things, and much of the time I can sympathise. Homework certainly can be annoying. A whole period without using your phone can be a challenge. The canteen food is mostly over-priced and the coffee-machine coffee definitely leaves much to be desired.
But I draw the line when it comes to uniforms. Who cares if the sock-length is preordained or the ties make them look like a backbencher in training? So what if shirts are baby-poo mustard and skirts are a tartan that would make Groundskeeper Willie proud?
Some mornings I dream of such things. Not the tartan per se, but the pre-determination of it all. The bliss of mindlessly opening the wardrobe and reflexively taking out a uniform (ideally perfectly cleaned and pressed by someone else) and simply putting it on, my thoughts already drifting somewhere more pleasant: lunch, perhaps, or my next holiday destination. I crave the sheer, effortless delight of not having to think, morning after morning, about what to wear and what my outfit says about me.
I arrived looking like a minor character from Picnic at Hanging Rock. “Where did you get those shoes?” students asked, their fascination tinged with pity.
Clothing means a lot – especially when you’re in front of hundreds of unforgiving young people every day. They may look disinterested, but do not be fooled. They are expert assessors and they miss nothing: your accessories (“Miss, you wore those earrings last Wednesday”); the unfashionable length and/or width of your trousers (why must trends keep changing!?); and all your failed attempts at mixing-and-matching.
I recall, as a teenager, being far more interested in my history teacher’s outfits than in the causes of World War One. She wore brand names – real, not fake; and purchased in Milan, no less! – with such pastel aplomb that teenage girls adored this teacher unequivocally. I submitted my assignments purely to please her.
When I first found myself in a classroom as part of my teacher training, aged 18, I didn’t have the money or know-how to replicate such sophistication. Styled instead by my mother – who insisted I wear my hair in a bun to ‘look the part’ – I arrived looking like a minor character from Picnic at Hanging Rock. “Where did you get those shoes?” students asked, their fascination tinged with pity. Some of the teachers assumed I’d dressed in costume for Children’s Book Week. It was a confusing time for all of us.
During my final placement, aged 20, what I really wished for was a large hessian sack. Having found myself placed at a boys’ school, I suddenly understood the meaning of ‘the male gaze’. Starved of females under 40, the pubescent boarders turned into juvenile Hannibal Lecters, carnivorous eyeballs tracking my every move. In self-defence, my outfits became increasingly solemn and ill-fitted, until finally I resembled a gender-neutral Charlie Chaplin. Even so, a senior boy asked me to accompany him to his formal. Again: a confusing time.
I’ve created a kind of uniform for myself – and I can tell I’m not the only one. Many of my colleagues have also fashioned their own ‘teacher brand’, whether it be a revolving door of subdued florals, dapper waistcoats or button-up cardigans.
Now that I’m in the over-40 category, the risk of distracting teenage boys has long since passed, yet I am still haunted by all the things that can go wrong when dressing for the workplace. There is a tightrope we must walk: professional yet practical, conservative yet relevant, smart but not too try-hard (lest those mean girls notice). Which means that exactly half of my wardrobe is filled with ‘teaching clothes’, in all their inoffensive, unexceptional forgettableness – with comfortable shoes to match. It’s a black and beige surrender: a ‘teaching uniform’ of least resistance. My very own cloak of invisibility.
In a way, I’ve created a kind of uniform for myself – and I can tell I’m not the only one. Many of my colleagues have also fashioned their own ‘teacher brand’, whether it be a revolving door of subdued florals, dapper waistcoats or button-up cardigans.
Some are more successful than others: doesn’t every school have that teacher (male or female) who is always impeccably turned-out in linen suits or silk scarves? The one putting the class back in classroom?
Yet, all of us – even the best of us – are somehow recognisable out there in the real world. Last weekend, I was ‘outed’ by a cabbie. “You’re a teacher, aren’t you?” he said as soon as I got in, clearly just to annoy me. Whether it’s our clothes or the way we wear them (or that frenzied look in our eyes as we clutch our piles of marking), something keeps giving us away.
And so I tell the students to enjoy the convenience of their uniform; to embrace the predictability and lack of decision-making. This way, they have so much extra mental energy for the important things. Perhaps even for achieving great things – just like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who proudly wore (and wear) the same clothes day after day.
“Who?” the students say with a roll of their eyes, before finding something else to complain about. And I’m left to think that, like so many things, uniforms are wasted on the young.