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Classroom Presentation

Teachers prepare their back-to-school wardrobes as carefully as they do their lesson plans to better connect with students.


On a back-to-school shopping expedition at the Flashbacks in Orange, Bob Hiles zeroed in on used Hawaiian shirts and studied each one for pattern, fit, stains, rips or missing buttons. He bought two shirts: one with a cream-and-brown tiki design for $10 and a green-and-cream plaid shirt for $8.99.

"I won't look like all the other teachers," explained the Corona del Mar High School economics teacher, whose distinctive retro style is a winner with his students. "His style is cool, unique," said 18-year-old Bart DeClark of Laguna Beach. "It was an attention-grabber. He definitely got my attention and kept it."

It's that time of year--back to school--and teachers, like students, have spent considerable time and thought on what they will wear in the classroom. Some teachers consciously dress a certain way to deliver an extracurricular lesson to kids, whose self-esteem is often overly influenced by peer pressure. They are careful not to make judgment calls about student attire. Instead, many use their personal style to set an example of professionalism for students, establish rapport and credibility, and grab their attention.

"If you dress casually, you set that kind of tone. It's as if you don't care enough," said Maureen Brownell, who teaches Spanish at John Marshall High School in Los Feliz. "Dressing well will encourage kids to pay attention to personal neatness for opportunities in the future. It'll get you a lot farther than hip-hop clothes," adds the 51-year-old Brownell, who dresses in Liz Claiborne and Jones New York jackets. "I lecture them on this. I tell the girls about places to shop for sales. My caring enough to dress up really means something to them. I really believe that."

Public schools in Los Angeles and Orange counties do not have dress codes for teachers, but individual principals do have discretion over what is deemed appropriate, and may even institute rules. Teachers sometimes can use that freedom creatively. When students may not be wild about a subject, "I figure they don't need to have a dull-looking teacher," said M. Sherley , who teaches advanced mathematics at Crenshaw High in L.A.

"People might come into the class thinking the subject will be dull or dry, but I do try to bring some uniqueness to the class, to make it alive. And I think dressing a certain way might make the class a bit more interesting," said the 31-year veteran teacher, whose eclectic style of dress includes capris or camouflage baggy pants with jungle-print T-shirt, matching camouflage sneakers and kerchief. She loves to wear a touch of leopard print such as a scarf.

Sherley has style rules for herself and students--sleeves, long or short, are a must in her classroom. "This is a place of business," she explained. "Until we treat education as a business, we are going to continue to have low test scores and underachieving students."

Both Sherley and Brownell avoid wearing perfume because a scent can be overwhelming in a confined space like a classroom and some of the students are asthmatic.

In his third year of teaching social studies at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, Irvin Castaneda, 26, dresses carefully in order not to be mistaken for a student. "From the very beginning, I was very aware of the fact that I look young, so I definitely wanted to establish a professionalism with the students. How you dress is equivalent to a uniform." He establishes a line between student and the teacher "by dressing the part."

Having grown up in a low-income neighborhood with a factory worker father, Castaneda said he didn't have a role model for dressing in a professional environment. He followed the advice of a colleague, and now his work wardrobe consists of about 30 button-down, long-sleeved and 15 short-sleeved shirts, mainly Van Heusen, Geoffrey Beene and Pierre Cardin. He prefers either dark colors or all blue colors. His pants range from jeans to khakis to dress slacks. His two tie racks hold about 45 ties, mostly prints and solids.

"I have worn jeans, tennis shoes and T-shirts on a Friday, but only after I've established a certain rapport with my students. Usually that takes a month and a half," said Castaneda. "By the second semester, I could dress casually more consistently because that relationship has already been established, hopefully. I understand there are other messages that come with it [dressing up] like grooming, and if I can get up early and look professional, so can you."

Teacher style can be fun too, according to 38-year-old Hiles. His inspiration for school dressing was the beach party movies of the 1960s. "I figured I'm teaching at Newport Beach so why don't I dress like Newport, but from the 1960s, when Orange County was at its cultural peak."

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