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Educating with style 

More than just "dressing the part"

click to enlarge Jennifer Scherer, an Exploris Middle School teacher, pairs a short blue dress with a longer skirt for a layered look. Scherer mixes less expensive pieces from Marshalls with unique purchases, such as her bird earrings from local boutique Firefly. - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS
  • Photo by Lissa Gotwals
  • Jennifer Scherer, an Exploris Middle School teacher, pairs a short blue dress with a longer skirt for a layered look. Scherer mixes less expensive pieces from Marshalls with unique purchases, such as her bird earrings from local boutique Firefly.

School kicks back in and students everywhere, of every age, think about what to wear on their first days of classes. Ads in magazines let you know what's expected of your wardrobe this fall, and back-to-school sales rage like forest fires throughout shopping malls all over America. To the core, figuring out what to wear to school is one of the most media-covered events, as if it's a national fashion holiday, but it does encourage students to think about how they will visually introduce their personality.

As a new student in a big school my junior year of high school, I'm pretty sure I went all out to be sure that other students knew I was there. Granted, in the early '90s, army boots and little dresses were all the rage, but I took it further, carrying a plastic lunchbox covered in stickers and wearing eyeliner, pigtails and knee socks. Not particularly subtle. I probably immediately turned some students away, and attracted others.

Now, many, many years later, as an arts teacher at a high school, I do find that even still, my clothing can have a polarizing effect. Some days when I walk in with a frilly pink dress on, I get feedback from a certain crowd. Other days, band T-shirts and jeans will elicit a reaction from another group. I don't exactly have a blue mohawk, but as an arts teacher and artist, I do find that being myself helps the students relax and open up creatively in the studio classroom. I asked three other teachers to discuss what they wear to school to introduce themselves as creative leaders, and whether they think that what they wear can influence how the students interpret their enthusiasm for creativity and free expression.


Jennifer Scherer teaches in a 7th grade team at Exploris Middle School in Raleigh.

Before I became a teacher, I worked at Spin magazine for a few years and also for the launch of Jane magazine. Especially while at Spin, I would tend to wear lots of vintage stuff and put together as fabulous outfits as I could on my budget. The environment encouraged that, and people were very irreverent there in terms of style. When I worked at Jane I wore more of a polished, professional-yet-up-to-date kind of style. I had to ride in the elevators with women from Women's Wear Daily and W--it was very The Devil Wears Prada, and I really couldn't keep up, though I enjoyed trying.

When I became a teacher, it was important to communicate approachability and to be comfortable and un-fussy. We move around a lot, get messy and covered in ink and dry erase marker, and you can't dress for school like you're going to a party or out on the town. There is definitely a sort of "teacherly" mode of dress that, while maintaining professionalism, I generally avoid. Our school recently changed our dress code to allow flip-flops, which makes the kids very happy. I, however, will never wear flip-flops to school because I feel that how I dress communicates not only enthusiasm for creativity but a respect for what's happening at school. It's not a place where we're kickin' it by the pool or dashing into the grocery store; students and teachers alike are working very hard! I keep my clothing reflective of my respect for the environment.

I don't feel like myself if I'm wearing something totally boring. That said, I am in the public eye so I don't dress in order to get undue attention. When I was a kid (and young adult) I would delight in wearing the wackiest stuff I could find, but those days are long gone. Now, I absolutely do think that how I dress is a clear indication to the students that I appreciate creativity and expression, and that goes beyond the display of labels. I have a pretty strict no-label policy for myself, hopefully influencing middle school students who can get pretty wound up about labels and designer names. Of course, when some of the students performed two Bruce Springsteen songs I taught them, I did wear a sleeveless black Springsteen T-shirt with a green and yellow polka-dotted skirt, white enamel buckled belt, and black summer-weight cardigan for the occasion. Also, when the students recite poetry and sell poetry-grams to raise money for the Red Wolf Coalition on Valentine's Day, I honor their hard work by getting dressed up; last year I wore a black dress, bright red tights, and black cowboy boots. The year before I wore a pink dress and some pink high heels (it was a tough day for my feet!).


Anne Bruton was a fashion designer for 10 years before becoming an art teacher at Jordan High School in Durham.

There are some art teachers who are known for how they dress. One elementary school teacher in Durham is fondly known as "Ms. Purple" because she wears all shades of that hue. Her former students vow that her car and house are purple, too. They love it. Another elementary art teacher has been known to don scuba-diving equipment to introduce a project on underwater life. I admit that's a good way to spark some interest in your class, but that's further than I'm willing to go.

Actually, as a high school art teacher, I want my students to take art seriously, so I try to project that in how I dress. Sure, I like bell bottoms, mixing prints, clothes that are fun and nudge the definition of "dressing professionally." But I try not to alert the fashion police. I never want to call attention to myself based on what I wear. Even when I was a clothing designer, I was more concerned with making patterns, working with different fabrics, and handling production than styling.


click to enlarge Christi Camper-Koplen, a dance teacher at Durham School of the Arts, shows off the fluidity and comfort of her gaucho pants and  halter tank. - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS
  • Photo by Lissa Gotwals
  • Christi Camper-Koplen, a dance teacher at Durham School of the Arts, shows off the fluidity and comfort of her gaucho pants and halter tank.

Christi Camper-Koplen has been a professional teacher, choreographer and performer for more than 10 years. She has her BFA in dance and a Master of Arts as well as a Master of Education degree. She is currently in her fourth year directing the dance program, as well as the dance company, at Durham School of the Arts, where her passion is equipping young dancers with the essential educational and technical requirements to become visionaries and advocates in the field.

Whether I am in an official-looking black camisole leotard with capri spandex pants or a performance or company T-shirt I have worked with and a pair of baggy gauchos, what I wear to present myself to my dancers on a daily basis communicates more than being a creative leader. My appearance helps students to understand and connect to the fact that I am an artist, not just their teacher. My inherent love for dance and the joy I receive from moving are internal forces that my choice of clothing drapes over and gives an external visual shape. It allows me to communicate to my dancers that I want them to be driven, inquisitive and full out. It enables me to be a role model for curiosity. I want them to discover creative solutions to presented problems and have a willingness to follow through on these artistic discoveries. My clothing imparts a relaxed presence that, in a modern-based dance program, reminds students to be connected, grounded and mindful movers in their environment.

Self-expression can often be stifled if the learning environment is not supportive and encouraging of helping each student to find their individual potential as a creative being. What I wear allows me to move and dance fully and "look like" a dancer. However, I am not convinced it is the loosely fixed bun, bare feet or the myriad of dance clothing they see me wear that convinces them to be enthusiastic young artists or to see themselves as "looking like" dancers when they stare at their own reflections in that wall of mirrors.

Instead, maybe it is what I wear that simply embodies and imparts the knowledge that dance is so much more than just dressing the part.

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