School staff members offended by government circular asking them to avoid wearing indecent clothes

A recent circular issued by the school education department, which urges teachers to be dressed in a “decent manner”, has evoked strong responses from teachers, who are offended by what they see as the officiousness of the message.

The circular dated June 29, in essence, tells teachers: Please avoid wearing indecent clothes; it is important that you are attired in and accessories that go with the dignity of the teaching profession and uphold our culture, tradition and ethos. You have to set an example to students.

“But, who decides what ‘decent’ is?” asked a teacher at a Panchayat Union School in a southern suburb of Chennai. Terming the note condescending, the teacher said in a tone that was unmistakably sarcastic: “As teachers we are aware of our role and the responsibility that goes with it. I wear a sari on most days. Now if the department find my style of wearing it objectionable, will they send someone to drape it around me?”

Another teacher felt there were a few teachers who could dress better. However, after the initial judgement, of her colleagues’ dress sense she spoke in support of her clan, saying: “Well, beyond a basic dress code, the way one dresses is personal. No one should dictate what teachers ought to wear. Teachers are quite conscious of these things.”

According to a senior official in the school education department, the decision to send out the circular was sparked by a photograph of a teacher in which he was wearing “cooling glass and a cap”.

The official said: “He was posing like a hero and we thought teachers should dress more responsibly. Otherwise it’s a circular we send out from time to time. It is a general request and not meant to put down teachers. Some people are simply reading too much into it and over-reacting,” he said.

A teacher at a Chennai Corporation-run high school said it was only in Tamil Nadu that the school education department insisted on formals – shirts and trousers for male teachers and saris for female teachers. “We visited a few schools in Delhi as part of a programme and found many male teachers dressed in T-shirt and jeans. Even the female teachers were in salwar-kameez,” he said.

This circular is applicable primarily to government and aided schools. However, barring a few private schools in the city that have gradually moved on to a broader dress code for teachers, many private institutions, too, insist that women teachers be dressed in saris.

S. Amudha Lakshmi, principal of Chettinad Vidyashram, said the school prescribes saris for its women teachers. “If, for medical reasons, some teachers want an exemption, we give one temporarily.” Chitra Prasad, correspondent and principal, NSN Matriculation School also feels sari tends to be a more appropriate outfit for women teachers, particularly in higher classes. “They tend to look mature in a sari and students take them more seriously. Sari is considered moredignified, particularly in south India.”

But, there are also those like Calibre Educational Foundation Trustee Madhuvanthi Arun who believe that it is not what one wears, but how one wears it. “It’s not about sari or salwar-kameez. Dignity is something that comes from within. And all our teachers know that – they are thinking individuals and professionals,” she said.

Jashoda Sundar of Sivaswami Kalalaya Senior Secondary School, said she strongly believes that any teacher who takes herself and her job seriously will dress appropriately. “Some people tend to equate saris with decency. It doesn’t work that way – there is nothing indecent about salwar-kameez or trousers. Teachers know these things,” she said.

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