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December 1, 2014
Vol. 72
No. 4

Principal Connection / Dress Code!

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    Principal Connection / Dress Code!- thumbnail
      I shouldn't know what color underwear you are wearing." That quote by one of my teachers is how I ended the dress code guidelines memo that I sent to my staff.
      I spent much more time and emotional energy developing the memo than I had expected, and I was pleased with the absence of any pushback when I finally sent it. In hindsight, the experience offered some obvious management lessons. What did I learn?
      1. The little issues are really the big ones. Educators have spent a lot of time implementing the Common Core State Standards and working to raise student achievement. That's appropriate because success in these areas goes a long way to determining the quality and reputation of our schools. But the "little things"—from designing worthwhile faculty meetings to having snacks in the lounge—help determine how people feel about their jobs. If these little things aren't handled well, they can become big things.
      2. "Measure twice, cut once." This carpenter's aphorism speaks to being extra careful before you take an irreversible step. In my mind, it means being sure I need to intervene before I intervene. It's tempting to get involved in everything, but a lot of issues will resolve themselves without my intervention. (Or maybe they don't need resolution.)
      My school is a casual place—I'm the only person who wears a tie—and we've never had a staff dress code beyond being "neat and clean." Yet it seems to me that we should dress differently when working in a school than when going to the beach or a nightclub or working in the yard, and my gut told me that what some people were wearing to work could become a big issue. But before making a statement, I discussed the issue with some staff members to determine whether others shared my concern. Their comments and raised eyebrows told me that, as a leader, I needed to speak up.
      3. Our decision is almost always better than my decision. Although I always like my ideas, I'm aware that my decisions become wiser—more likely to be respected and followed—if I've listened to others and pulled in their ideas. This isn't just true for me; in The Wisdom of Crowds (Doubleday, 2004), James Surowiecki makes the case that our decision making is improved when we listen to others, especially those who may not see things the way we do.
      In this case, I wrote a draft of our dress code guidelines and shared it with some teachers. By doing so, I was not only getting their input, but also alerting them to what would be happening and garnering support. Their feedback endorsed my points, but a couple of people suggested that the guidelines be even more restrictive. Several noted that my guidelines only applied to women: "What about the men?" one teacher wrote. Another said that although she wasn't aware of any men dressing inappropriately, we should be proactive and address this before a problem developed. Of course, they're right, I thought. I was pleased that I had reached out for feedback, but then a teacher asked me about the ages of the teachers to whom I had sent the draft. "Does the group reflect a cross section of our faculty?" she asked. Gulp, no.
      4. Who is the "our" in "our decision"? I had sent the draft memo to teachers who have been in my school more than 15 years. These teachers have a wealth of experience and bring seasoned judgment to any issue, but their sense of what's appropriate to wear to work may not be the same as that of those who are in their 20s. If I really want to benefit from the wisdom of the crowd, I need to reach out to those who may see things differently.
      Sure enough, after I shared the draft memo with some younger teachers, a few items changed. "Does what kind of sandals I wear really make a difference?" a teacher asked. Not really, I decided. Another teacher wanted to make sure the guidelines were appropriate for teachers who spent much of the day engaged in physical activities with kids or sitting with them on the floor. The resulting memo that I sent was stronger because it included these additional perspectives.
      5. Explain why and explain again. Whenever we place a restriction on behavior, we need to give the rationale. "Because I said so" doesn't cut it today (and I'm not sure that it really ever did). I explained that we need a dress code because we always want to present a professional appearance—even if it's casual. We don't want to dress in a way that causes others to question our judgment. After sending the memo, I raised the issue at a faculty meeting and asked if there were any questions or comments. I got lots of affirmative nods and a few "makes sense" comments.
      Now you can see why this issue took more time and energy than I anticipated. What could have been a big deal remained a little thing. And I hope that the teacher's comment that ended the memo also elicited a smile.
      <ATTRIB> Author's note: Readers who would like a copy of the dress code guidelines should send me an e-mail at trhoerr@newcityschool.org. </ATTRIB>

      Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

      Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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