What to Wear When Your Classroom is Too Hot or Too Cold

Overcome unpredictable classroom temperatures and keep comfortable throughout the school day with these innovative products and practical clothing tips.

Female high school teacher in front of her class

by NEA Member Benefits

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Whether you’re dealing with an overheated classroom in the winter, or standing outside for bus duty on a slushy day, what you wear can make or break your comfort levels—and your workday.

Researchers at Cornell University found that over-air-conditioned workplaces made employees 50% less productive and 44% more mistake-prone. The reason: When you’re too hot or too cold, you’re uncomfortable—and distracted. Your mental energy is being directed towards cooling off or warming up—not lesson plans or keeping rowdy kids in order.

While you might not be able to influence the weather or the school’s thermostat, you can choose a wardrobe that helps you stay cozy and content throughout the day. Innovations in today’s fabrics give educational professionals plenty of options for regulating their body temperature without looking like they’re on a mountain trekking expedition. Here’s how to dress for any curricular or extra-curricular occasion.

YOU’RE TOO HOT

Staying cool is more challenging than keeping warm. After all, you can pile on layer after layer of clothing, but there’s only so much you can remove.

Go au naturel. Lightweight, breathable and loose fabrics should be your first choice on sweltering days, says Chrissy Volk, personal style consultant. That way, the heat generated from your body doesn’t get trapped against your skin. Natural fabrics like cotton and linen are soft, airy options to keep you well-ventilated in your climate-control-challenged classroom. However, if you’re working in the cafeteria, it’s a humid day or you simply sweat a lot, cotton is super-absorbent and will leave you soggy and miserable.

According to Kurt Gray, a designer and merchandiser of performance apparel, basic physics tells us that wet conditions amplify the effects of temperature (think arid versus humid heat). So drying off quickly is crucial to comfort, whether it’s summer or winter.

Wick away heat. Today, most high-tech cooling fabrics utilize wicking technology that pulls moisture away from the skin and distributes it evenly throughout the fabric so it evaporates more quickly, says Woody Blackford, vice president of apparel design and innovation for Columbia. Since sweat needs to evaporate in order for the body to cool itself, wicking materials help speed up your cool-down.

Get your chill on. For an even chillier effect, Blackford’s team at Columbia designed the Omni-Freeze Zero line, clothes that react with sweat to cool you off. According to Blackford, the fabric is embedded with a material that drops in temperature when it gets wet, which results in an immediate cooling sensation. The line is also lightweight, wicking, breathable, and has a UPF factor (that’s SPF for clothes) of 50, making it an ideal choice for indoor or outdoor duties.

Cotton plus: Still, some people chafe at the idea of wearing synthetic fibers. If your skin isn’t happy unless it’s swaddled in cotton, PolarMax TransDry and Cotton Windows are two types of wicking cotton on the market today. They might not be as fast-drying as other materials, but they do provide extra comfort and moisture management over the traditional textile.

YOU’RE TOO COLD

Temporary classrooms can be drafty—especially in the winter. And donning your bulky winter jacket while you try to teach can make movement awkward.

Stay warm 101. Layering fabrics is the best way to stay warm and you can add or remove them, depending on if you’re too warm or cold, says Volk. Choose a close-fitting wicking base layer, an insulating middle layer (think wool or fleece), and, if braving the outdoor elements, a breathable waterproof fabric like Polartec’s Neoshell or Gore-Tex’s OmniDry.

As most of us know from second-grade science, the body emits heat. There are two ways to use that heat instead of letting it escape, says Blackford: trap it through insulating fibers, or reflect it back at the body. Columbia does both.

Reflect your heat. “If you were to get into an accident and went into hypothermia, EMTs don’t pull out a down blanket. They pull out a thin space blanket, because it’s the fastest way to get you back to normal body temperature. It’s thin and super effective,” says Blackford. Columbia took this foil-looking material, made it breathable, and used it in their Columbia Omni Heat Reflective line. You can wear it as a thin, insulating base layer under your regular clothes, or in our outerwear, for a lightweight and snug winter jacket.

“For educators who are chilly in the classroom, we don’t need to insulate them nearly as heavily, so we recommend the base layer. It feels nice close to skin, and the cuts are nice and slim, so you won’t look bulky,” says Blackford. In addition, it won’t cause you to overheat if you move from a frosty bus to a super-heated office.

Choose wool. For traditionalists, merino wool is the go-to fabric for staying toasty (and dry) in the winter. “It’s a great insulator because it has so much air-trapping capability,” says Blackford. “And, because it has a very fine fiber, it does so without a lot of bulk.” Merino wool also pulls moisture away from the body and dries quickly. For a classic look, Volk recommends pairing a silk blouse beneath a crew neck sweater.

Downy soft. If you spend a lot of time outdoors during the school day, there are few things that keep you as warm as down. However, it loses its insulation ability the minute it gets wet. That’s why many outdoor companies are using hydrophobic down—where feathers are coated in a durable water repellent—before being stuffed into outerwear. If conditions tend to be wet and slushy in your neck of the playground, look for jackets made with Hydrodown or DriDown.

For a more flattering look, Volk suggests a coat that is wool or a wool-cashmere blend. “One that is tailored, and with a belt, looks really nice. Making sure it fits is going to make it look put together and structured, even though it might be bulky.”

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