Yo, mister, where you going after school? You going to a party or something?
That’s what one of my students asked me when he walked into fifth period recently. His comment was a reference to what I was wearing that day. I had some nice slacks on, a tailored navy blazer, a crisp white button up, and clean white sneakers to bring it all together. Noticing my stylistic efforts, his initial reaction was that I had to be dressed so well because of an after school event that required me to look the part. I had to be going to a party or somewhere similar. Otherwise, why look so nice?
The truth is, I wasn’t going anywhere after school. I had nothing particularly interesting going on that day. His remarks flattered me, but my attempt to look fresh was nothing more than an effort to look and feel good while teaching my students. They were my party.
That said, it was a conscious act. I say this because we teachers often forget that content and pedagogy emerge from and are enacted by a body. As the leaders in the classroom, how we function in educational spaces with students is not purely intellectual or academic enterprise. Personal aesthetic matters, too. We must remember that we are thoroughly seen by the young people we teach. We are walking visuals of our personality, of our beliefs. Whether it’s a Star Wars t-shirt or a pair of Timberlands, our attire is major part of how we communicate who we are and what we value. We are more than what we wear, but our bodies and the clothing that adorn them can’t be downplayed as insignificant in the learning process.
Teachers respect students in a lot of different ways and I think how we present ourselves aesthetically is one of them. I believe that, without saying a single word, how I dress signals to my students how I feel about being with them in the classroom. When I take the time to coordinate colors or make sure my shoes or belt or socks play well off each other, I’m saying that my students are worth that extra attention to detail. For me, this also means that I have to go beyond a shirt, tie, and dress shoes. No offense, but they’re vanilla and just not me. I’d rather show up in a hoodie under a blazer or a pair of cherry red pumas or some patterned trousers — items that show more of my personality. I find that being authentic through what I wear holds artistic and emotional significance for students. They easily pick up on my authenticity which in turn helps them determine not only the type of relationship we will have, but also what and how learning will look like in our class.
Of course, this respect lands in different ways amongst my students, resonating more with some than with others. But given my urban context and the esteem that this form personal expression often holds with youth of color, I’m convinced that my personal aesthetic makes a considerable difference in my relatedness and the effectiveness of my pedagogy.
In For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, Christopher Emdin captures the importance of aesthetics in the classroom perfectly in a chapter called “Clean.” I could quote the entire chapter because it’s so damn on point, but I’ll settle for this passage that gets to the heart of the matter:
While many may not see what style has to do with teaching and learning, I argue that the art of teaching the neoindigenous requires a consideration of the power of art, dress, and other dimensions of their aesthetic. Teachers often fail to understand that the bleak realities of urban youth and the drab physical spaces they are often confined to contribute to an insatiable desire to engage in, and with, artistically stimulating objects and environments. The wearing of the matching outfits and the euphoria that comes with being recognized for one’s self-presentation serve as an escape from a harsh reality. (p. 167)
Framed this way, how I choose to express myself stylistically means more than blindly covering my body and arriving at school. It adds another dimension to my practice that will never show up in a lesson plan or observation report, but makes a huge difference in how I reach my students.
This is even more true at my school because my students wear uniforms. Aside from my bias against uniforms, or at least the uniform policies that I’ve witnessed, my interest in looking good is a way of showing students that one can thrive in academic spaces while simultaneously embracing personal aesthetic. School isn’t intellect or bust. You can look fresh, authentically express yourself, and thrive in academic spaces all at the same time. Unfortunately, because of uniform, my students don’t have these privileges. Their individuality has been erased and substituted with a bland polo shirt with a school logo on it. But, unlike my students, I have the freedom to decide how I clothe my body. And, for me, exercising this liberty is intentional. In a small way, I like to think that it serves as a kind of model for not sacrificing yourself while in the pursuit of academic success. You can be professional and look good doing it. You can keep your cool (read: swag) while bettering yourself and those around you.
In thinking back on my student from fifth period, I’m reminded of remote learning and how, for the most part, none of this mattered. I could don my Panama hat from time to time, but I was largely reduced to a profile picture and virtual background as my primary forms of personal expression. Thankfully, our physical appearance and the weight it holds in the classroom has returned. I heavily rely on this dynamic to connect with students and help learning take hold. It’s yet another reason why I’m glad I escaped the torturous grip of remote learning and why I never want to go back.