The End Dress Codes Collective is looking for stories about dress code discipline in the Toronto District School Board. Browse our archive of anecdotes, and get in touch if you can add to it. Anonymous contributions are welcome, and we won’t post your story to the site if you don’t want us to.

I’ve taught for twelve years in Toronto, and two before that overseas. It’s a cliché, but I’m firm but fair, I hope. My goal is to have my students learn. It shouldn’t be a party, it shouldn’t be tons of fun all the time, they have to do some serious learning. But I don’t lose my cool too often. It’s pretty great to be able to talk about things that I like all day, things that I really care about, and to try to make students like them too. Books, literature, politics, big ideas, big questions…

I don’t usually enforce the dress code. I have bigger things to worry about. I don’t think it affects their learning, so I don’t care about it.

The dress code prohibits hats so that we can identify intruders. The logic is that if someone is wearing a hat, they’re an intruder. I get the concern for safety. But I walk by hundreds of kids every day. I don’t know most of them. I can’t tell if they’re an intruder whether they’re wearing a hat or not. And if I see a student I don’t know wearing a hat, I don’t want to start our relationship on a bad note, by talking about this thing that I really don’t care about.

There’s one Vice Principal in particular who is really on about the hats. I’ve had a few encounters with him over the past couple years. It’s frustrating because the encounters have all happened in college-level classes. At my school the kids in those classes are often at-risk, they don’t necessarily like school, and they definitely like it less when they feel like they’re being picked on. I think they feel the same way I do, like it has nothing to do with their learning.

The first encounter was when a student left my class to go to the washroom, put on his hat once he was out the door, and was caught. The VP gave him a talking to, and then gave me a talking to. “We all have to be on the same page…”

Another time that year a student came to class late and sat at the back of the room with his hat on. I’m in the middle of a lesson, I’m engaging the other kids, and I’m not going to interrupt my class — I want everyone to stay focused on what we’re doing, and I’m so focused on what we’re doing that I’m not going to notice a small thing like that. And inside the classroom the student clearly is not a threat: I know him, he’s supposed to be there. So the VP opens the door and yells at the kid with the hat on. And what I’m doing gets destroyed, the whole moment gets destroyed — and clearly the VP’s relationship with that student is null and void.

The third encounter is the most vivid to me. It’s June, we’re in the computer lab. There’s this kid who is having a really difficult time at home, his parents have split, his mom has been away, he’s moving around, he hardly ever comes to class. There’s a couple minutes left in the period. I’m having a conversation at the back of the room, everyone else is just waiting to get out the door, and this kid puts his hat on. This is after doing some good work, trying to make up for what he’s missed, really trying to get the credit. The VP sees him through the window, bursts into the room, takes the hat off, gives the kid a scowl and says “You’re not getting it back,” gives me a scowl, and leaves.

That kid already has a very tough time. Why did it need to be made worse? It’s like the rule is valued over individuals, over acknowledging that students have stuff going on, and this thing that’s unnecessary is making their life worse. And when there’s a real safety issue, like violence or something, these students are not going to go to the administration, they’re not going to want to work with them, they won’t be on board.

The negative effect that the dress code has on school safety was really brought home to me by this student who was always breaking the code. She was really pleasant, she wasn’t a bad student, but she was always breaking the dress code, always getting hauled into the office. I taught her in grade twelve, and early in the semester she happened to mention that she’d been assigned a locker next to a guy who had assaulted her in the past. And she wasn’t going to do anything about it because she felt like the administration wouldn’t be on her side, because of her history of breaking the code. I ended up going down to the office with her, and making sure that the guy got moved to another locker.

If she’d been left alone, if she’d been allowed to wear what she wanted, she would have been more likely to feel like she could speak up about this herself. And her learning would have been better because she would have felt safer. We can’t control what she’s wearing. (What are you going to do, suspend her? That would be absurd. You’re going to take away her learning because of what she wears?) But we can control how safe she feels, and we have some control over how focused she is on her work. Why waste time on stuff that doesn’t affect her learning?

It was the same overseas. My students would adjust their uniforms for the weekly check, they’d be compliant for that day, and then they’d go back to doing what they wanted. It was just absurd. The administration would measure their fingernails, measure how high their dresses were, call them all into the gym… What a waste of time.

I guess I just don’t want to make anyone’s day any worse. I want to talk to them about their learning. Why get all riled up about something that is not going to affect their learning?

When he isn’t marking or prepping, Mr. Wright likes reading history books, watching (and yelling at) Blue Jays games on TV, and hanging out with his new baby.

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