Professional Wardrobe Tips for Teachers

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by NEA Member Benefits

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In addition to classroom preparations and lesson planning, a big part of back-to-school readiness is figuring out what to wear when school resumes. What items can you re-use? What new pieces do you need to buy?

Most important, what will help you look professional, feel comfortable and save money?

“I don’t think you have to spend a fortune or be trendy or try to keep up,” says personal branding and fashion expert Rachel Weingarten, but you do need to allocate a reasonable budget for what you wear.

However, you should choose your wardrobe pieces wisely. Your outfits broadcast to people who you are, Weingarten says, and it’s important for a teacher’s clothing to convey authority and professionalism.

We asked teachers and shopping experts what educators need to buy in order to start the school year in style:

1. Start with the foundation

Stretch your budget by building your wardrobe around a few conservative foundation pieces.

“Neutral pants and skirts are key to a versatile wardrobe and enable you to completely transform an outfit just by focusing on tops, blouses and jackets,” says money-saving expert Kendal Perez, a blogger for Hassle-Free Savings and marketing manager for Kinoli Inc.

Her mother-in-law, Connie Perez, who recently retired after teaching kindergarten for more than 30 years at Central Elementary School in Santa Clara, New Mexico, says she usually shopped for basic slacks in black, blue, brown and gray.

“I always aimed to have five pairs of pants so I could wear a different pair every day” with one of 10 to 15 different blouses, Connie Perez says. “For example, I may wear the same black pants every Monday, but I’d choose a different blouse to make the outfit look fresh.”

2. Add accessories strategically

Accessories “add some pizzazz to your outfits,” says NEA member Osi Juergens, who will become an assistant principal at Diablo Vista Middle School in Walnut Creek, California, this fall after teaching both elementary and middle school for 15 years. As a teacher, she typically wore long necklaces, scarves and crochet vests in bright colors. For example, by pairing a yellow-and-orange scarf or a teal crocheted vest over dark pants and sweater, you’ll feel like you’re wearing a completely different outfit, she says.

Juergens says that as she transitions from the classroom to her new assistant principal role, her wardrobe “will become more dressy, but Loft will still be my first choice.”

Connie Perez recommends cardigans, which add a modern look and are versatile and layer well under jackets. She also notes that scarves may be hazardous for teachers who work with small children.

Women aren’t the only ones who can accessorize. “One thing I think male teachers could have a lot of fun with, believe it or not, is socks,” because they add personality without minimizing authority, Weingarten says. And if students happen to see a stripe of purple or orange sock accenting your otherwise subdued outfit, the effect “is almost like you’re winking at them, saying, ‘You can talk to me—I’m not scary.’”

Men can spend less than $50 on three new things for fall—a couple of pairs of designer socks, a great shirt, and a nice belt or tie—and look great, Weingarten says.

To keep your look fresh all year long, consider requesting colorful, inexpensive accessories as birthday and holiday gifts from family and friends, Juergens suggests.

3. Keep your feet happy

“Shoes are my biggest problem,” says NEA member Amy Murphy, who will be teaching third grade this year at Twin Lakes Elementary in Tampa, Florida. “I don’t like to wear flip-flops or sandals because I don’t feel as professional,” but her large shoe size limits her choices. She hasn’t found many comfortable shoes she could wear, so she has been buying the same $15 pair at Target as needed.

Uncomfortable shoes take another toll, Murphy says: “I can’t move from desk to desk and be as active as I want to be with my kids.”

Flats shoes, especially those with rubber soles, work best for Juergens. “The new fashion is tall boots,” she says, so keeps an eye out for styles with flat soles or low heels. “Depending on what boots I have and the scarves I team them up with, that really seems to make a difference and makes the outfit pop.”

Men can find supportive shoes at Keen Footwear, Weingarten says. The company makes shoes for people who are on their feet all day and has “really nice-looking black leather shoes or work shoes with tons of support.”

It’s possible to look stylish and be comfortable. “With a nice pair of black slip-ons or lace-ups [shoes] that are comfortable and not scuffed, you’ve instantly created a different impression,” she says.

4. Be realistic about your classroom environment

Teachers probably go through more clothes than other professions, Murphy says, so whatever they buy must be reasonably priced and easy to care for.

“We’ve got glue and paint and glitter going everywhere,” Murphy says. “You’ll look like an art project yourself by the end of the day.”

She says she knew of one teacher who sacrificed a brand-new dress the first time she wore it to school because one of the kids accidentally splashed purple grape juice all over her new frock.

Primary-grade teachers need durable, wash-and-wear, easy-to-clean clothes, Connie Perez says: “If you’re working with young children, you’ll be doing science experiments and using paint and glue, and kids will put their hands on you constantly.”

5. Shop for wash-and-go clothes

Perez always checks the care label before she even tries on a garment. “If it says ‘dry clean only’ or has complicated care requirements, it’s a no.”

Juergens says she doesn’t buy clothes that require dry-cleaning or ironing. With three young children at home, she doesn’t have the time to bother with it, so she choose clothes she can throw into the washer, toss in the dryer, hang for a while, and be “good to go.”

6. Take advantage of discounts

“Make sure you take advantage of your status as a teacher by asking for discounts at clothing stores,” Kendal Perez says. “For example, Loft, J. Crew, The Limited and Banana Republic all offer a 15 percent discount to teachers.” You can find a complete list of teacher discounts for clothing at GiftCardGranny.com.

You also can use your NEA membership to shop at NEA Click & Save, where you can find regular discounts and flash deals, plus you’ll earn rewards (aka WOWPoints) that you can use later to buy more merchandise.

NEA Click & Save clothing and accessories retailers include Macys, Kohls, Banana Republic, Express, The Limited, J. Crew, Jones New York, Chico’s, New York and Co., Old Navy, L.L. Bean, Lane Bryant, Shoebuy.com and many more.

7. No matter what, keep it professional

Thrift shops are a good place to find bargains, but that may not be a good idea for teachers, Weingarten cautions: “Kids can be so critical of what their teachers wear.”

It’s important to pay attention to the details, Weingarten says, because if your students are questioning your wardrobe or teasing you about what you wear, then your clothes may be distracting them from learning.