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Dress codes for teachers battle 'too casual' culture

Students aren't the only ones who have to deal with school dress codes. Teachers do, too.

Monessen School District in Westmoreland County recently updated its dress code for teachers after an administrator said visitors had a hard time distinguishing between teachers and students. Many other district forbid teachers from wearing jeans, ball caps and revealing clothes to work.

"There are 501 school districts in Pennsylvania. I think there might be 501 policies on dress for teachers," said Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Monessen Superintendent Dr. Cynthia Chelen said the school board maintained a longtime ban on flip-flops and sneakers but also ruled out golf shirts for men and sleeveless clothing for women.

"Things were starting to get a little too casual," she said.

Union president Rebecca Claycomb, a middle school teacher, disagreed, saying teachers dressed appropriately.

Although fashions come and go, Chelen said there should be one constant: Teachers should dress more formally than students.

Yet, "our culture is changing," noted Dr. Bart Rocco, Elizabeth-Forward superintendent. "Professors in Merry Old England used to wear robes. We don't wear robes anymore. There are no uniforms for teachers."

Pittsburgh Public Schools is among the districts with no written dress codes for teachers. "There is an expectation that teachers understand what is expected of them," spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said.

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said the contract stipulates "appropriate teacher dress" that will set "a positive example to students and a constructive influence on the general comportment of students."

Pugh and Esposito-Visgitis noted that "appropriate dress" can vary. Esposito-Visgitis said expectations can't be the same for first-grade teachers and those teaching high school.

Younger children frequently require teachers to be down on the floor with them, on an art project, for instance. In that case, clothes should be casual and comfortable, said Esposito-Visgitis, a former speech teacher.

Many districts allow shop teachers to wear jeans.

"The bottom line is, we don't want what we wear to become a distraction from learning, a distraction for students," said Superintendent Roberta McCahan of Derry Area School District, a Westmoreland County district that has no written policy for its teachers.

"If I saw something inappropriate, I would discuss it with a teacher," McCahan said. "I've been with the district since 1996, and I've never seen inappropriate clothing."

Elizabeth-Forward's written code states that teachers should be "physically clean, neat, well-groomed and dressed in a manner consistent with assigned job responsibilities."

"I'm kind of old school," Rocco said. "I had a professor who insisted I wear a tie to class every day. But I wouldn't insist on that today."

Few teachers wear jeans to work at Elizabeth-Forward, he said.

"Some jeans cost more than some slacks," Rocco noted. "What can you say?"

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