Dress codes in most U.S. public schools have become quite casual, so before you pack for overseas teaching, be sure to check with your new international school about cultural norms within that country and within that particular school. Culture, climate, grade level, subject area, and comfort should all influence the way you dress for success while teaching abroad. The dress code and expectations might be driven by the religious values of culture of the country. They might be driven by school policy, and may or may not be outlined in the teacher handbook or policy manual. Senior Associate Bill Turner adds,
“I have noticed that British curriculum schools generally tend to be more formal than American and Australian curriculum schools.”
Senior Associates Jennifer Imholt and Bob Imholt—Americans who have worked in overseas schools in Qatar, Japan, Venezuela, Paraguay, and Colombia—say that the most conservative code they experienced was in Qatar, 20 years ago. However, Bill, who is British born, says,
“I do not think the dress code in Qatar is noticeably more formal than other countries in the UAE. It’s more about individual school culture than countries. However, the UAE does tend to be fairly formal: it is common for a school to expect a man to wear a tie, with buttoned-up shirt, and a jacket for formal situations; and a woman to wear a smart dress or blouse with trousers.”
Here are 5 quick tips to prepare for your physical and social well-being in your new overseas teaching position:
1. Scan your new school’s website
for a policy manual or staff handbook with guidelines.
2. Buy a guide book on the country; it will describe cultural norms, seasons, and weather.
3. Women might ask questions in advance like these:
a. Can you only wear dresses and skirts below the knee?
b. Can you show your shoulders?
c. Are you allowed to wear open-toed shoes?
d. Do you need sun-protective clothing or a hat to be outside on recess duty?
4. Men could ask the following:
a. Do you need to wear a collared shirt?
b. Is a tie required?
c. Are you allowed to wear shorts?
d. What about tennis shoes or dress shoes?
5. Ask to be put in contact with a teacher on the ground in your subject area. Then you can ask what they wear to work. Do they ever wear jeans? If there are casual Fridays, what do people wear? What is the policy regarding piercings and tattoos?
As an administrator in an international school in Dubai, Bill, along with his wife Alison, used to open the August professional development period for new teachers with a session called What Not to Wear! He and other members of the senior administration team took to the cat walk, each modeling something inappropriate—low-slung trousers, sunglasses on the head, see-through shirts/blouses, open-toed shoes, too-brief shorts/skirts, etc. New teachers were invited to guess the error. A serious message was conveyed in a memorable way!
Naturally, there tends to be a loosening of expectations for teachers of very young children, in acknowledgment of the fact that they spend a lot of time on the floor or being hugged by children who transfer whatever is on their hands—from pasta sauce to paint—onto a teacher’s clothes! Senior Associate Jennifer Imholt offers assurance:
“Good international schools will let their new teachers know about cultural norms before and during their on-boarding process so that they can avoid any social faux pas. When in doubt, though, teachers should ask their supervising administrator or a trusted colleague who has been at the school for a while, and always err on the side of caution.”
On a final note, you can’t go wrong if you follow this advice from the International School of Macao: "Teachers should dress in a manner that reflects the professional nature of the job."