The students at a prestigious Jerusalem high school owe their success in the literature matriculation exams to what the school's principal - a dear woman with short white hair in a shapeless dress, orthopedic shoes and wooden earrings - once described as "unsuitable clothing." In other words, denim overalls with a white shirt underneath, which caused her to call me into the corridor in the middle of my lesson to the 12th-grade gifted class to reprimand me for "overly sexy clothing, considering the fact that the students are at a problematic stage, hormonally speaking."
"It's not my outfit that you're setting on fire, it's me, only because I'm 27," I should have replied in a paraphrase of the Dahlia Ravikovitch poem, which I was teaching at the time. But instead of talking I preferred to resign from the career I never wanted in the first place.
I recalled this when I read about the dress code for teachers that the chairwoman of the National Parents Leadership, the heads of the teachers' organizations and the education minister want to impose. In a letter this week to the minister, the Parents Leadership's chairwoman asked that we "introduce uniform dress for teachers, as is done in the public sector," and to forbid teachers from wearing jeans "and all kinds of 'cool' clothing."
There is justice in the demand to forbid teachers from wearing the clothing they forbid their students from wearing, and we should all try to be reasonable. But it's a far cry from here to the demands by the chairwoman of the National Parents Leadership, which wants to forbid teachers from wearing even totally reasonable clothing.
Behind the education minister's preoccupation with fashion lies the desire to rehabilitate teachers' status in the eyes of students using the dress code. The students ostensibly will develop respect for their teachers if they start looking like the old-time teachers and parents.
Once it was easy to distinguish between teenagers and adults by their clothing. At a certain age you would exchange your khaki shorts for Dacron or gabardine pants; a hairdo stiff from hair spray marked the transition from the girlish look, with flowing hair and a very short skirt, to the matronly look. Today, parents, children and even grandparents wear more or less the same thing. As education methods have changed, the gap between the generations has shrunk and parental and pedagogical authority has eroded. But that does not mean the decline in authority is a consequence of the parents' or teachers' clothing. Perhaps even the opposite is true.
I still credit my class' great success in the English matriculation exams to the "cool" clothes of the teacher, Mrs. Kav-Venaki (her real name). Meanwhile, the tailored suits of the literature teacher Sharvit, and his demand that we address him in the third person, did not prevent him from being called "Baldy Sharvit."
The chairwoman's demands are another way to turn the teachers into the perpetual scapegoat for the failures of the parents and the system, and to erode their status even further. And the minister's preoccupation with dress diverts attention from the real problem of the teachers' status, which can be rehabilitated only by improving salaries, reducing class size, and increasing investments in handling violence and poorer communities. The Education Ministry, teachers' organizations and parents must also launch a campaign to stress the importance of good teachers. All this will do wonders to improve the mood of our teachers, and there's nothing like a good feeling to enhance a worn-out appearance.
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