The Myth of the Disrupted Classroom
When I was a Junior in high school, my girlfriend was sent home from school for wearing inappropriate clothing. She was wearing layers of slips on top of each other that, together, broke no established rule of our dress code. She was told by our principal, formerly the principal of a parochial girl’s school, that her dress was more appropriate “for a garden party,” and therefore inappropriate for learning. She sat in the principal’s office and told the principal that she was being singled out because her clothes were weird, and because her clothes didn’t cost a lot of money. She was offered a sweater to cover her arms and go back to class. She refused. She got into her gold Cadillac and drove home for the day.
I married that girl. People should marry those kinds of girls when they find them, and if they can get those kinds of girls to fall for them.
Now I am a teacher. I went into teaching to, of all things, teach. I’m not sure I went into teaching to be a Teacher. Being a Teacher feels like teaching, plus all the other stuff. I learned a lot from great educators and mentors in my life. I remember hating most of my Teachers. I remember Teachers discussing the clothing of students and scoffing and “oh my god did you see”ing. I say I don’t care what kids wear. I remember Teachers talking about a disruption to learning.
I can’t tell you how much I don’t care what anyone wears to school.
I can’t tell you how few times I’ve ever seen clothing of any kind disrupt class in any way. In fact, let me say this: I have never seen clothing of any kind disrupt class in any way.
I’ve certainly seen disruption, pretty massive disruption, caused by enforcing dress codes. Students often, and understandably, react poorly to being told that clothes they have on or body parts they have make them inappropriate for school that day. There are melt-downs, to be sure, and indignation. There is yelling and arguing and many things that are massive disruptions to learning. Sometimes kids go home for the whole day, which is a whole lot of learning not happening.
I’ve seen administrators enter active classrooms, walk around the room sticking their heads under desks to look at the length of skirts and shorts. Really, in the real world, I’ve seen this. I’ve seen girls asked to stand up in front of classes, looked up and down and then told, “yeah, I guess you’re ok. Sit back down.” I’ve watched administrators leave, and then cared for embarrassed, shamed, angry students. I’ve seen whole hours and whole days of learning disrupted by enforcing dress codes, and that doesn’t take in to account the emotional damage done to students by a system that should be protecting them.
I’m certainly uncomfortable with the message we are sending. Kids are self-conscious enough. Girls especially have enough people commenting on how they look and holding them to an often impossible and moving target of appropriateness, attractiveness, and self expression. I don’t like the message of a school telling someone that the clothes they put on their own bodies made them a problem for the whole school they attend, so much so that they need to go home, or cover up. So much so that they need to feel shame. Shame disrupts learning more than skirts. I promise.
We’re more comfortable confronting the girl wearing the thing, and not the boys who say the things about her. We are comfortable putting the blame for the actions of boys onto the girls around them.
We are no one to say what is right or wrong, appropriate or not. We are no one to say how kids should act or dress or what jobs they should wish for or what friends they should have. We should give them all the information we have, any information that will help keep them safe and successful and sane, and then we should let them make their own choices.
Schools are not moral authorities. When we create judgement calls about things like appropriate or not, acceptable or not, we leave room for each teacher and administrator to judge a student against their own moral code. When we enforce dress codes, we leave room for every staff member to address students that make them feel uncomfortable.
To be honest, I’m not sure why we act as authorities at all. As a school, we offer something so precious and so valuable. We offer the skills and ideas, we offer a path to success. So why do we spend so much time tracking tardies, enforcing behavior and dress codes, demanding silence and a level of respect that is reverential at best and fear-based at worst.
Anyone who knows enough teenagers knows that the more rules you give them that don’t make sense, the happier they will be doing the opposite of what you tell them. The more you shake your head and act stern, the more they will see you as someone to disobey.
We have this phenomenal power as teachers, as workers in schools. We control this massive amount of time students are required to be with us. We control their grades, their access to opportunities, the experience of many years of their lives. We control great portions of their self image, of their confidence, of their skill levels.
We don’t need to grab any more power than we already have. We don’t need to feel like we have to control every single thing to maintain the power we already have. We have important things to do all day. We don’t need to spend time on other stuff.