Why I Chose a Uniform this Year

This year has brought with it a number of new challenges and new opportunities, which I hope to trace here in LOL, but one challenge that I chose for myself came after reading an op-ed in the New York Times last spring, "How to Perfect the Art of a Work Uniform."

The author, Brian Moylan, describes how he created his own work uniform. He ordered three of the same suits in the same color & fabric from J Crew, then arrayed a collection of white shirts to wear with them. He now has a "uniform" of his own design to wear to work every day.

He seems to like it:
Simply put, the decision to go all uniform all the time is one of the best I’ve ever made. I had joined the ranks of very successful people who dress the same every day — Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Barack Obama — and I appreciated that I could so easily communicate who I am.

I had seen President Obama talk about how simplifying his wardrobe had freed up his mind to make the tough decisions required in the presidency, and everyone recognizes the "uniforms" of Mark Zuckerberg and the late Steve Jobs (I find myself using quotes because I have always associated the word, uniform, with jobs that had ranks, as in the military, police or fire fighters).

As I thought more about uniforms, I thought of other professions that use them. My wife is a physician's assistant. When she walks into a room to talk to a patient, she wears a simple white coat. That's a uniform. It isn't much, but it gives a patient instant recognition of her role, and breaks down a possible barrier of trust.

Why do people treat policemen with the deference they do? Part of it is the important job they do for our community, but a big part of it is the uniform--especially here in the South. Our JROTC students dress in uniform every Thursday. They stand out. Here it is quite common for military personnel to wear their uniforms off base. They get a lot of respect that way.

I'm a public school teacher because I want to serve my community. I appreciate my firefighters, ambulance drivers and policemen, but I see myself as serving my community, my state, and my country in a similar way to them, yet....

Dress: a Teaching History

One of the things that makes teaching so hard is a general lack of respect. I come to school prepared to teach a lesson every day, but often I must explain to students why they are in school in the first place. This year I have two eleventh-graders who throw paper wads. They think they are in a romper room.

During my first four years teaching in Arizona, I dressed professionally for school: slacks, a polo or button-up with an open collar. I wasn't one to wear shorts or icky-looking jeans. I wanted to distinguish myself from my students.

My first job returning to teaching in Sumner County was teaching 6th grade at Shafer Middle School the last two months of the school year, filling in for a teacher on maternity leave. I dressed there the same way I had in Arizona, and I struggled with many of the same discipline issues that middle-school teachers might expect.

One day I had a job interview after school at Gallatin High School. Since I would go directly to the interview after school, I wore an oxford shirt and red tie. What surprised me was the behavior of the 6th-graders. They were better somehow. In 7th period, I told them, "You all did great today." Then asked, "Was anything different?"

One kid raised his hand. He didn't throw anything. He told me, "You just look like a real teacher." The kids laughed. The bell rang. I went to the interview and didn't get the job.

When I did find a position the next school year here at Station Camp High School, I showed up to work the first day in a shirt and tie, and I wore one nearly every day to school for the next 13 years (on Fridays, of course, I joined my colleagues in the school uniform of jeans and a shirt in school colors).

I can't certify that dressing like I did made my kids act any different. Only one or two other male teachers wore a shirt & tie, and I certainly didn't wear what I did to impress any of them. For me, it was about how seriously I took my job. I wanted to show my students the minute they saw me that I was serious--I was here to work.

Moving to a new Uniform

Last spring something shifted for me--something deep. Part of it was the grueling challenge of getting approval for a first-in-the-district school-to-school exchange. A big share was watching my youngest son finish 8th grade and plan to move to my school as a freshman. The future became clearer to me. I wanted to adopt some big ideas, and scuttle a lot of the small stuff.

Moylan's article met me when I was looking for something really, really new. I spent the summer thinking about it. I thought about my wife's white coat, and I thought about buying several vests or suit jackets of the same color. Perhaps I could wear the same-colored tie every day.

The first element of the uniform to come into place was slacks. I was going to move to khakis every day. It was easy. I had a few pairs of blue or olive pants, but at least half of my slacks were already khaki-colored. I already bought all my shirts and slacks from Eddie Bauer anyway, so it was easy to adopt an oxford for the shirt--and I decided to focus on blue shirts, since they match almost everything.

Last spring for our anniversary, my wife took me to the new Bavarian Bierhaus at Opry Mills. When she mentioned that I was a German teacher, one of the owners came out and talked with me. I asked him where they found the costumes for the wait staff, and he gave me the web site, Stockerpoint.de.

That led me to the trachten Jacke. "Tracht" is a German word that I would translate as "folk" or "traditional," and the trachten Jacket is worn in Bavaria and Austria, particularly during festivals like Oktoberfest. Here in America it is hardly worn at all.

I liked the look of the trachten jackets, but I was worried about the cost. At almost $200, it would be tough to buy one, much less three. Also, I was worried about spending all that money, only to find that the jacket didn't fit, or that the style was a dud.

Then I found eBay. I searched for trachten jackets there, and came up with several hits. They were used, but I wouldn't end up spending too much money on a case of failure. Sizing was a challenge, since the jackets are listed in European sizes. I finally settled on a used, blue trachten jacket for around $60. It was made of linen, not wool, which is pretty important, considering that temperatures would be in the 80s and 90s the first month of school.

How Do I Look?

My "uniform" this week.
It was the first First Day of School I had ever attended without wearing a tie. Response was positive. No one rolled their eyes--at least until they were behind my back. I hope it conveyed the exotic nature of being a German teacher.

It wasn't until the 2nd and 3rd days of school when it sank in to students and colleagues that I was serious about pulling this off. A few students remarked upon it--especially on Friday when I showed up to school without the jacket. I tried to downplay things. I didn't ask for people's opinion--because I wasn't wearing the jacket for that reason. I just called it "a uniform," two words that have the power to nullify people's interest, I've discovered.

I also tried to make sure that I was wearing the jacket for teaching & students. When I'm on my planning period, I leave the jacket draped over a chair and do most of my business with administrators and colleagues in shirt & slacks.

Moving to a teaching uniform has made getting up in the morning simpler for me. I don't really have to choose an outfit. I basically chose the outfits last summer. Personally, I like the way I look. This is a year that I have pivoted to focus on German teaching and building the German-American exchange, so this shows my new focus and my renewed commitment to teaching excellence.

I have ordered a second, gray/green linen trachten jacket from eBay. I think I'd eventually like to have three or four, with the same khaki pants and blue oxford shirt underneath. It's a uniform of sorts, but it's also a look that's all my own, and I'm satisfied with that.

A Final, Funny Story

A week or so ago, I had a video chat with my colleagues in Germany, the English teachers at the school that my students & I will visit next June. After we had gone over the important things about our exchange, I modeled the jacket for them. Their response was hilarious--and a little embarrassing. One teacher just gaped at the screen, trying to figure out what the heck I was trying to do. The other couldn't stop laughing.

Looking back, I probably looked to them as if someone had come onto my screen wearing a buffalo robe or a Santa Claus jacket. Our exchange school is in the Rhineland-Palatinate, on the other side of the country from the trachten jacket's alpine home.

Embarrassed at first, I eventually came to laugh, too. I spend so much time in my own head, laying out plans for silly things like "a school uniform," putting my dreams into lessons, striving--ever striving--sometimes I forget how weird I must seem to other people.

Is it at all surprising that I don't just own my weirdness every day? I wear it, too. It has become--one might say--my true school uniform.