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 on your teacher wardrobe.
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. Review this list and make note of any new items that would stretch your teacher wardrobe further, then check NEA Discount Marketplace for deals and cash-back offers from clothing retailers.
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.
Her mother-in-law, Connie Perez, who retired after teaching kindergarten for more than 30 years in 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 Osi Juergens, who was an elementary and middle school teacher for 15 years before moving into administration roles. 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 transitioned from the classroom to administration positions, her wardrobe shifted to be "more dressy," but one clothing retailer remains at the top of her go-to list: “Loft will still be my first choice.”
Connie Perez recommends cardigans, which add a modern look to your teacher outfit. Classic cardigan sweaters 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,” which 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 pieces 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 Amy Murphy, a third-grade teacher in 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. Keep an eye out for ankle boots and tall boots 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.”
Comfort-brand shoes such as Keen Footwear, Rothys, Clarks, Dansko and more are very popular with teachers because the shoes are perfect for people who are on their feet all day and offer a lot of support. NEA members can easily search for deals and cash-back offers from comfort-shoe retailers through the NEA Discount Marketplace.
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,” Weingarten says.
4. Be realistic about your classroom environment
Teachers probably go through more clothes than other professions, Murphy says, so whatever dresses, pants, skirts, shirts, shoes and accessories they buy must be reasonably priced and easy to care for.
“We’ve got glue and paint and glitter going everywhere,” she 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 piece.
Primary-grade teacher clothes need to be durable, wash-and-wear, and easy to clean, 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 teacher discounts at clothing stores,” Kendal Perez says. “For example, Loft and J. Crew offer a 15 percent discount to teachers.”
Check our big list of teacher discounts on everything, including wardrobe items. And use your NEA membership to search for special discounts from thousands of popular clothing and accessories retailers through NEA Discount Marketplace. You also can earn cash back while you shop and receive your rewards via check or PayPal.
7. No matter what, keep your style professional
Even though you may face the perils of glitter and grape juice regularly, many schools do have a dress code for teachers. Often, these can focus more on avoiding outfits that are deemed either too casual (leggings, skinny jeans) or too dressy (short skirts, high heels).
Comfort is key, but professional dress in the classroom is important. This can extend to budget fashions as well. For example, 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 what you’re teaching.