Does wearing a uniform equate to being a professional?


When I was a new educator, over twenty years ago, I was given my first uniform shirt. It was pale blue and button-up, with a logo on one side of the chest. To be honest, it looked like the shirts the boys had worn at my primary school. It was uncomfortable too. The buttons gaped and the shirt had no give in the sleeves. It was designed with one body shape in mind, and we were all totally different shapes and sizes.  Thankfully, with a change in management and some begging from educators, the school shirt was ditched, although there were some protests from those who longed to hang on to the ease of not having to think about what to wear each day (granted - that's a plus for many people). The general argument was this: 

If you aren't wearing a uniform, you won't look professional and families won't know that you are employed here. 

Now, this is a two pronged argument and so I will address both aspects. 



1. You won't look professional

I have always wondered why early childhood services lean towards uniforms. I visit a lot of services and I would say that at least 90% of these have at least a uniform shirt in place for their educators and yes, they usually look neat. tidy and professional. But what about the other 10%? Do they look any less professional? No. The educators that I encounter who are not in uniform, look just as neat, tidy and professional. 

What is it about a uniform that says "professional" anyway? My doctor doesn't wear a uniform and yet I consider her a professional. Our accountant doesn't wear a uniform and yet I think of him as a professional too. In fact, the teachers at my kids school don't wear uniforms and I consider every single one of them a professional. To be honest, I have encountered some educators in the past who were wearing their brightly coloured, logo emblazoned polo shirts and yet their practice or language used regarding their work was far from professional.

A uniform isn't what makes someone a professional. Their commitment to their work, their knowledge about their practice, their drive to continue learning and growing and evolving - those are the things that make them a professional. 


2. Families won't know that you are employed here

For me, this is symbolic of a far greater problem within a service. If I need to be in a uniform to ensure that a family knows who I am - then there is a problem with the relationships within the service. Of course, there will be new educators who start at the service, or casual staff who come in infrequently, but surely it is vital that these people introduce themselves to families anyway and we shouldn't be relying on being able to spot the green shirt from across the playground? 

I will add that as a consultant, when I visit services, a uniform can make it easier for me to quickly identify the educators in the services - particularly in a large service and if I am there around drop-off/pick up times. 


What if uniforms work for us? 

Every single service is different - as they should be. What works for one, won't work for another. For me, wearing a uniform feels restrictive, particularly if that uniform isn't designed for my body shape and makes me self conscious or uncomfortable. I enjoy being able to wear clothes that express my mood and personality, that I feel comfortable in. For others, the idea of not having to give any thought to what they wear each day is a real win.

If everyone in your service is happy wearing a uniform and it is working for you - go for it! But, if educators are not comfortable and are challenging the need to wear a uniform, we need to give more thought to the arguments both for and against. If the only argument is that you need to wear a uniform to be a professional then perhaps it's time to ditch the polo.


Change can be hard

We all know that some of us find change more difficult to embrace than others. I can remember challenging the blue school shirts and there were some educators who were horrified at the idea of changing. For awhile we just opted for a different style of shirt (with different styles of the same shirt available for different people) but after a few years, and when I became the director, we were all ready to embrace the freedom of wearing what we wanted to. Let's be clear though - just because there isn't a brightly coloured polo shirt handed out to each educator, it doesn't mean that there aren't standards about what is appropriate to wear in the early childhood environment. While you would like to not have to spell that out, and would hope that all educators are aware of this, I did have to send a casual home once when they arrived in a midriff top. If you decide to abandon the uniform, be clear in your policy and staff handbook about expectations around appropriate attire. 


I will always be a professional. I might be sitting at my desk in my home office wearing activewear and Ugg Boots, but sitting here in a business suit wouldn't be very comfortable would it? Would I wear this to speak at a conference... well, no. But if I did, I have to wonder if it would make me any less of a professional? I'm pretty sure I would be taken more seriously in a business suit, or even in something just a tad more formal, but my knowledge would still be the same. It is definitely a bit of a conundrum and one that I'm not sure I really have an answer for.

So perhaps, the takeaway is that we need to put more energy into being a professional than trying to look like a professional. Or is it that we can look like a professional even without a uniform? Or that we might not need a uniform, but we do need standards or expectations for our service? 

I feel like there is a lot more to this topic than first meets the eye and would love to hear your thoughts on it.

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