Without a doubt, Levi Strauss had no inkling of the power of the pants he created and patented in 1873. By that I don’t mean the near indestructible nature for which they were created, but in their use as a motivator for teachers. I’m not sure I can think of another more widely wielded weapon of mass motivation than the jeans pass. Teacher appreciation week, the day before a holiday break such as Christmas, and fundraisers. Five dollars buys a pass to wear jeans to work one day; and $50 will buy you every Monday. I’ve even seen parents asked to pay for jeans passes for their teachers!
First, my take on jeans… It’s somewhat ironic that jeans are an issue seeing that Strauss created the denim trousers for workwear. I can dress a pair of jeans better than I can dressing to the definitions outlined in a dress code. I’ve got a number of blazers and dress shirts that look remarkable with blue jeans and appear straight out of GQ magazine.
Years ago when I was still an elementary school principal, I was invited by the Dean of Education at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, TX to speak to the education majors in their final semester of college about the interview process. Each Wednesday afternoon after school, these seniors would meet to listen to practitioners in the field talk on a variety of educational topics. Expecting to have an hour to talk, I crafted a PowerPoint presentation. When I arrived at the education building and found the room, I noticed a row of chairs at the front, most of which were occupied by others. Startled, I handed the dean my presentation and she apologized for not clearly communicating the session would be a panel discussion saying I could share if time allowed. I took one of the two empty chairs, both of which were front and center in line with the aisle where students walked up and down the stadium seating steps to fill the empty seats on either side of the lecture hall. A gussied up woman 20 years my senior in heels, pearls, and a massive brooch took the vacant spot next to me. Extending my hand and introducing myself, my role, and place of employment, she pretentiously countered sharing she was a principal of an elementary campus in Wylie, a wealthy community on the outskirts of town and happened to be the chief, rival school of my town. While we both were considered bedroom communities to the city of Abilene, mine was known more for its poverty. When the schools would meet for under the Friday night lights once a year, Wylie schools showed their spirit by having “white trash day.” In return, our high school students attended pep rallies with fancy gear for “preppie” day. (Just the other day, I taught a workshop, and a WHS grad confirmed they really did do it.)
As the final few students took their seats, the dean asked each to introduce ourselves with a few words about the hiring process. The HR director from Abilene ISD gave her name and role and shared the district had a few thousand applications yearly and only a handful of jobs. A snowball began rolling downhill. One of the high school principals from AISD spoke of how he only hired new teachers if they completed the student teaching experience on his campus and was recommended by one of the campus teachers. A middle school principal followed with more of the same and the room collectively slumped. Next, I said I believed everyone in the room had a place, whether here or not, but that there would be a spot just for each one of them. The dampening mood didn’t change much over the course of the next half hour.
Students were encouraged by the dean to ask questions of the panelists. After a few questions were posed and answered, one student asked, “What is one really big turnoff in an interview?” Dressed-to-the-Nines hastily shot her hand high wanting to take the question. “Blue jeans,” she opened. “Blue jeans are THE most unprofessional…” and she went OFF. There I sat, front and center stage, legs crossed adorned in a snazzy, mustard gold blazer subtlety striped with green and maroon thread, olive green shirt, and burgundy tie with stripes perfectly matched to the jacket. Matching pants were out of the question. Blue jeans finished the look perfectly. As her tautological diatribe continued, I noted a few of the students covering their smirks. One by one, they took notice of my attire; and I flashed a wry smile when one would giggle. When the harangue came to a close, the wide-eyed dean asked if there was anything anyone wanted to add. Casually, I lifted my hand and said, “If you want to dress up and look fancy, apply in Wylie. But if you want to get on the floor and work with kids, come interview in Clyde.” Big-Brooch furrowed her brows and gave me a fuming stinkeye. With time left on the clock, I gave a modified version of my presentation ending with Proverbs 16:3 (HSU is a Baptist university after all), “Commit your actions to the LORD, and your plans will succeed.” I reiterated there was a place for each and every one of them. Other than myself, not one of the panelist were asked back. I spent the next few years speaking at HSU.
In my opinion, the quality of a teacher is not in the fiber of their trousers, but in the fabric of her heart. Dress code is a hot button for some. Recently, a fellow central office administrator and I had a discussion on the topic. Wearing a suit on a Friday, I asked him if he wore a suit as a principal. “Everyday. I wanted to set the tone,” he replied. “You?” he inquired. “I’ve spent my entire career on campuses of poverty. I never wanted to set myself apart so as to seem unapproachable. I didn’t ever wear a suit.”
Hanging in the closet are a few I own for special occasions; and at times, it’s fun to gussy up (dressing while listening to JT belt out “Suit and Tie”). Professionalism, in my opinion, is a way you treat others. One can wear a suit and be a real prig. I’ll take the one in the jeans who acts in loving-kindness. To me, time is better spent in ways other than monitoring who is wearing jeans and whether she submitted a pass to do so. Jeans passes are an overused medium lacking creativity. Woefully absent in schools today is time. Finding time is a gift. Finding time to visit classrooms daily (or at a minimum once weekly during class or during the planning time or at lunch) getting to know the person in front of the classroom and about him/her and his/her interests, family, etc. is more important. Showing genuine interest and knowing and loving teachers doesn’t require a pass. Getting creative in scheduling occasionally is another powerful use way of finding time. An article in the Washington Post talked of what teachers [ultimately] want. “What they want, they say, is for their profession to be respected in a way that accepts educators as experts in their field. They want adequate funding for schools, decent pay, valid assessment, job protections and a true voice in policy making.” And I couldn’t agree more, but it’s beyond the scope of the campus.
So, teachers, I want to ask you, “Instead of a jeans pass, what do you want?”
In the meantime, how much for the jeans pass?