As the new school year approaches, I’ve been thinking about the guidelines for the teachers and assistants in the small apostolate I help run. A topic I didn’t broach last year but will this time around: Clothes.
I’m not a fashion person. No one looks to me for wardrobe advice, except maybe if they’re required to do a character sketch of frumpy middle-aged absent-minded housewives. But even I know that what we wear when we teach matters. If someone like me gives serious thought to clothing before I teach, that means it must be important.
Why Do Clothes Matter?
It is absolutely true that outward appearances can be deceptive, and that the most important parts of catechesis happen on our insides, in our hearts, minds, and souls. But humans are both body and soul, physical beings, and we use our bodies to express ourselves, relate to others, and accomplish our work. Our clothing matters for very practical reasons, because we need to be able to move around and do our jobs. It also matters in that what we wear teaches our students something about us. It tells our students what we value, and what kind of message we have for them.
First Things: Clothing Suited to the Job at Hand
Sometimes I joke that the cover art on my book is aspirational: Catechists have fantasies about being able to paint with preschoolers while keeping the white shirt impeccably clean. (Tip: Put on an apron.) In order to teach confidently, we need shoes and clothing that allow us to do our work. Comfortable shoes if you are on your feet a lot; clothing that lets you reach, bend, lift, walk, run, play; fabrics that can hold up to the rigors of teaching. If you know you’re going to have to get on your knees and scrub glitter glue off the floor after class, don’t wear delicates.
Professional Clothing Says You are Serious about Your Class
“Professional” is a broad category. My first job in college was at a whitewater outfitter. A well-chosen t-shirt and hiking shorts, paired with the right brand sport sandals, communicated credibility. “She really does this stuff. She knows what she’s talking about.” That was professional attire for that job. When I worked in a state government office several years later, business attire meant something completely different — I raided the local thrift store for good business-dress skirts and blouses.
There are catechists who rock the jeans-and-t-shirt look, and the message they send is one of confidence, enthusiasm, and competence. “I can fix your truck and your theology, too.” Some of us, though, just end up looking like we forgot to do the laundry. There are catechists who swear by coat-and-tie, and erring on the side of slightly overdressed is prudent in classes with older students and adults for whom the number one question is, “Is this instructor credible?” I would hazard the majority of us fall somewhere in between, on the vast spectrum that is “business casual”.
Two questions to ask are:
1. Does this outfit make me feel serious about my work? What I’m wearing should make me feel confident that I can get the job done. I should feel smart, competent, and ready to teach.
2. Does this outfit communicate the right message? “Pretty” “Elegant” “Handsome” “Youthful” “Mature” “Sporty” “Modern” or “Stylish” are all fair game. If my clothing evokes words like “Sassy” “Sexy” “Flirty” “Edgy” or “Slacker,” I need to change.
There’s nothing at all wrong with dressing fashionably, so long as the fashion is consistent with our Christian values and with our role as classroom teachers. Our clothing should express our unique personalities; we need to make sure, however, that we’re expressing those parts of our personality that make us good Christian leaders.
Modest Clothing Teaches Children Boundaries
Modesty is the whole range of attitudes and actions that we use to communicate our respect for ourselves and for others. How we dress is not the only aspect of modesty, but it is an important element. In the religious education classroom, dressing modestly also plays a significant role in teaching children about appropriate physical boundaries.
In sum: If we want children to understand and internalize the line between public and private body parts, we need to consistently demonstrate that distinction in our clothing.
Your parish or diocese may have a dress code, and in that case you’ll follow it, of course. For the rest of us, a simple rule is this:
Don’t put on display for your students any body part or undergarment that a priest should never be allowed to touch.
Your students are trying to figure out the line between appropriate and inappropriate touch. A mother breastfeeds her baby, that’s appropriate. The nursery staff change the baby’s diaper, the doctor has to do a physical exam, the gymnast wears form-fitting clothing so that the judges can see precise body movements. All of these are appropriate.
The classroom, the office, the sacristy: These are times and places when there is no appropriate reason for an adult (or fellow student) to be touching or looking at a school-age child’s private body parts.
If that sounds like blunt work, well yes, it is. Children don’t have a finely tuned sense of adult intentions, and predators take advantage of that ignorance. Dressing modestly on a consistent basis literally creates a boundary line, a do-not-cross line, that gives the child a sense of confidence about right and wrong actions.
Does it work? I know for a fact that when combined with all the other things that parents and teachers do to teach children personal safety and create a safe environment, yes, it does indeed work.
Bring Joy to Your Classroom
It is not necessary to spend a lot of money on new clothes for the new school year. Figuring out what to wear this year shouldn’t be a cause of agony and dread. Christianity is not a fashion show. Neat, clean, ready to do the job — that’s the essential. Dig through the closet and put together something that makes you feel confident, professional, and excited about the first day of class.
Photo: teachers in Parramatta Diocese in Australia