Friday, May 24, 2013

A Thank You to Teachers

I come from a long line of school teachers. My grandmother, Elsie Benson Storms, taught in a one-room country schoolhouse in Iowa. She continued teaching well into her late 30s, which delayed her marriage to my grandfather.
In the early part of the 1900s teachers signed contracts that required them to abide by the following set of strict rules:
  1. You will not marry during the term of your contract. You are not to keep company with men.
  2. You must be home between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless attending a school function.
  3. You may not loiter downtown in any ice cream stores.
  4. You may not travel beyond the city limits unless you have the permission of the chairman of the board.
  5. You may not smoke cigarettes.
  6. You may not under any circumstances dye your hair.
  7. You may not dress in bright colors.
  8. You may not ride in a carriage or automobile with any man unless he is your father or brother.
  9. You must wear at least two petticoats.
  10. Your dresses must not be any shorter than two inches above the ankle.
While this list seems amusing and amazingly restrictive to our modern day minds, it stemmed from the way society viewed teachers. In that rural landscape, teachers were held in high regard – and expected to be role models for the children.

Like my grandmother, my parents were both school teachers. My dad taught junior high social studies for 30 years, and my mom is now retired after a long career in the field of special education. My sister carries on the family tradition by teaching second grade. I am a college professor, teaching print media.

As a child, I knew my parents worked hard. They would bring home tall stacks of papers to grade in the evenings. I remember helping my dad average end of term grades, and preparing bulletin boards and craft projects for my mom’s class.

Through my family’s example and through the many teachers who have impacted my own life, I have seen that teaching is an honorable profession. It is a job that promises little financial reward and demands great effort, discipline and patience. Teachers must smile every day, whether they are feeling well or not. They have to deal with students who don’t behave, who don’t listen, and who don’t always learn. They are asked to be patient, creative, kind, and faithful.

Teachers grade endless papers, checking for the same mistakes. They review the same curriculum year after year, helping each generation of young people learn the names of the same 50 states and the correct way to construct a paragraph. Although they are now allowed to marry and frequent ice cream shops, they are still expected to be role models for those they teach.

The National Education Association reports that almost 4 million teachers will be needed by the year 2014. And, they estimate, almost half of the new teachers hired will leave the profession in the first five years of teaching due to working conditions and low salaries.

Take time today to thank the teachers you know. Remember also those teachers who have been instrumental in your own life – the ones who gave you words of encouragement or who pointed you toward the profession you do today.

Remember to express your gratitude to your children’s teachers – to those men and women who patiently serve your child on a daily basis.

Donald Quinn once wrote that “If a doctor, lawyer, or dentist had 40 people in his office at one time, all of whom had different needs, and some of whom didn't want to be there and were causing trouble, and the doctor, lawyer, or dentist, without assistance, had to treat them all with professional excellence for nine months, then he might have some conception of the classroom teacher's job.”

To the teachers who have changed my own life (Mrs. Hart, Mrs. Grossner, Mrs. Devane, Mrs. McElry, Mr. Pitts, Mrs. Jankowski, Mr. Gansauer, Dr. De Rosset, Dr. James, to name just a few...) thank you for the many ways you have made a difference in my life.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Plain Dress: Women, Clothing and Personal Identity

I've been reading a great deal about women and clothing lately. First, I picked up the book Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work by Deborah Tannen. Years earlier, I had read Tannen's book You Just Don't Understand: Men, Women and Conversation and found the differences between the ways men and women communicate fascinating.

In this later book, she shifts the discussion to gender differences in the workplace.

She discusses the idea that women are always "marked" in the workplace by their clothing choices. In other words, there is no standard style to which women can conform - other than to adop the men's style. For some women, wearing a grey, navy, or black business suit allows them to fit in with the men at their office. They crop their hair or pull it back into a bun. They look: "professional."

Other women wrestle each day with clothing choices. Is my skirt too short? Is my outfit too "sexy" or "dowdy" or "trendy" or "professional"? Even how we style and cut our hair says something about us. It always feels like we are making a statement by how we look.

Tannen describes how, at a recent business conference, she noticed all the men from her office were dressed alike. They all had variations of the same outfit - dark pants, light colored shirt, tie, brown or black shoes. They even had basically the same haircut. By conforming to expectation, they are "unmarked."

Then, she looked at her female colleagues. One looked overtly sexy with tossled hair and high heels. The second looked somewhat matronly with comfort shoes and slacks. The third, a decided feminist had limited makeup and chose earthy fabrics. Each, by her style, was making a distinctive statement about who she was. She was "marked."

Oh the pressure!

In a Christian workplace, the choice is even more bewildering - with added moral pressure. Not only are we to look professional - but godly - the Proverbs 31 woman at the office. We are to look feminine, but not too sexual. Many women, I've noticed, solve this by adopting a more masculine, asexual style. They wear short, cropped hair, dark colors, and conservative clothing choices.

A biography of early Christian workers shows that, to be taken seriously, many of them began to wear the Plain style of the Quakers or Friends. They work dark, simple, floor length dresses. They wore plain dark bonnets. They avoided any frills or fashionable detials. They wanted to be "unmarked" in a sense - but were actually "marking" themselves as set apart from other women - more serious about God and life.

For Amanda Berry Smith (pictured above) - this choice of the Plain style was intentional - I wanted to be a "consistent, downright, outright Christian," she wrote. Many women in Amish and Quaker orders continue this style today - although it makes them distinctively "marked" when they leave their unique and isolated communities.
How are women to dress? Should we care about our clothing? Should we try to be "unmarked" in the office? What do our outward choices of style say about our inward character and identity? Heavy questions.
I don't think I could ever be a Quaker. I love shopping and clothing and style too much. But, right or wrong, I have learned to adapt (somewhat) to my surroundings, to set aside frills when I want to be taken seriously.
I remember one day, when I slipped a bit and wore a leopard-printed skirt to a mainly male-attended business meeting. As I took notes using a pink pen, one of my male colleagues said to me, "What are you doing? Legally Blonde?"
I'm not blonde - not even close - but I had let my feminine self surface in the midst of the sea of navy blue business suits. Most of the time, I keep it in check.
What do your style choices say about you?