A couple of years ago, I sat quietly through an honest discussion in the social studies office of a large, suburban high school.
“I have natural advantage because I’m a guy,” a colleague said to the group. “It’s harder for women. I walk into the room and they know to be quiet.”
I did not disagree. The ability to project authority remains an underexplored aspect of teaching, That little Greek woman I wrote about a few posts back? No one would have stuck gum in her hair — certainly not two or three times — if she had been a 6′ 2″ guy. Not that being a guy necessarily provides protection. My graduate school teaching cohort had two older men in it, both imposing in terms of size. I remember a discussion with one of the two. We were talking about the fact that our third cohort member appeared to be having trouble finding his place in the educational world.
“I hear he has trouble controlling his classes,” my colleague said, voice whispery and low, as if he were imparting a disgraceful secret.
My colleague was working and coaching in one of the toughest schools in the area. Classroom management came easily to him. Being the patriarch of a large, Irish Catholic family had prepared him to take control of his classes and he did not seem to understand why his graduate-school classmate might be struggling.
So much goes into projecting authority. Small women as a group may be at a disadvantage, but many learn to manage classes with little difficulty. Some are obvious naturals. Physical appearance has much less to do with projecting authority than attitude. A 100 pound woman can hush students by walking into a room if she knows in her bones that she has the conn.
Eduhonesty: YOUR classroom, your rules. Internalizing that fact will make life much easier.
Having made these observations, I’m going to go out on a slightly controversial limb here. If you are not that big guy who naturally knows what to do, not a patriarch or matriarch, and are feeling some lack of respect in the classroom, then you might want to pay attention to your wardrobe. Fair or not, looking sloppy can undercut authority. More tailored clothing helps to create an authoritative image. One of the best teachers I know stands only a little over 5′ 2″, but you might never realize that. In addition to a tendency to automatically try to take command of just about any situation, she dresses up in coordinated casual wear, often with a tailored jacket, and wears shoes that add three or more inches to her height. If you wear can those heels gracefully, you might benefit by adding a few pairs to your wardrobe. Extra inches never hurt, at least if you can wear them without wobbling. I’d advise men to ditch the t-shirts and keep facial hair trimmed, but not fussy.
I’ll end with a short list of clothing that should mostly be avoided, although these aren’t rules as much as guidelines. If you are wearing skinny jeans to class and your classes seem to be going great, then I personally can’t see a reason to change out of those jeans and your My Little Pony t-shirt, assuming no one in administration has complained. This post is for new teachers who are finding the classroom management piece daunting. How you look will affect how your students see you.
I suggest you save the following for the week-end:
♦ Jeans with glitter or holes in them — no matter how artfully the fabric may have been ripped
♦ Super tight skinny jeans, even if they fit
♦ Low V-necks
♦ T-shirts with sayings across the chest
♦ See-through fabrics
♦ Super-short skirts