Letter I just sent to the Powers That Be

Note: This is very dated and specific to a situation that is long ago, but I love how deeply I felt all this at the time.

I know how deeply you care about our kids’ education, and that when you are making decisions and considering hard issues, the impact on the students is in the forefront of your mind. I don’t question that in the least, so I’ve been biting my tongue and silencing my email for a of couple years now, trusting that my personal reservations about campus wear were based on my inability to see the big picture. After two years of campus wear at the high school, I am concerned that we may have all lost sight of the cosmic picture frame.

Here’s what has prompted my finally writing to you: I have heard from several teachers—including people not in my school—as well as two students about your reaction when you walked into the music room during a senior project presentation. Exactly what the student was doing as the project is not part of the grapevine retelling, nor is how well the task was accomplished. Instead of the focus being on the student’s project, the story flying around recounts how appalled you were by the dress code violations.

Although I’m not working on senior projects this year, I am a firm supporter of them, and want the MI students to value them, be invested in them, and yes, even be nervous and concerned about how well they are completing them. We make the task demanding for a reason: so the students have truly accomplished something noteworthy if and when they pass. I’m troubled that the topic of discussion at lunch tables and hallways is not the senior project, but how people in an ancillary position relating to the project were dressed.

This incident crystallizes one of the key issues relating to the campus wear policy: the balance between focusing on “rigor, relevance and relationships,” the three R’s we have been told would revolutionize our school, and focusing on compliance. As you just demonstrated, I’m sure with the best intentions, that balance is difficult. If we as teachers are to seek rigor and relationship, to get the student’s trust as their advocate, we undercut it in many students’ minds if the first words they hear in class relate to their clothing. Regardless how gently we phrase it, in many students’ worldview that makes us enforcers first. That is not indicative of the educational atmosphere I loved teaching in when we went to the small school concept, and it’s at least one component changing the climate in our school for the worse.

There is an issue tying in with that I think underlies many of the problems with enforcing the dress code: the students have not bought in. They do not really understand why it exists, or believe that campus wear will improve anything. As Chasity Boedicker said in her speech last year when she spoke to the dress code committee, the dress code feels like punishment for low test scores and being from a poor school. “How high do our grades have to be to make this go away,” I’ve been asked. We can explain and justify all we want, but high school students aren’t stupid; they know that Shawnee, Bath, and Elida don’t have campus wear and do better on the tests—as well as having parents who will get involved if they question a policy. When I go to church, or the store, or even to family events, I hear griping not about enforcement of the policy, but the policy itself. And believe me, I’m not the one raising the topic. I’m incredibly tired of thinking about it!

The campus wear policy has done one thing well: it has polarized the adults involved in enforcing it. Some people notice clothing quickly; some people couldn’t tell you what their spouse wore at their wedding! Some are very color sensitive; some didn’t know that baby blue, sky blue and light turquoise were different colors. Some people do not mind beginning class by calling out students for untucked shirts; other people are have multiple papers, late work, make up assignments and other tasks occupying their thoughts. Until campus wear, we could embrace and applaud our quirks and differences, knowing that we are all committed to helping our students perform at the highest level possible. Now, the differences too often divide us into the people who are following the rules to the letter and the people who aren’t—all still with the best of intentions, but the difference still exists.

Out of respect for Jeff last year, and for Sue this year, I’ve kept my concerns quiet. But as I sat in a sermon during Holy Week, I felt indicted by the story of Jesus overturning the tables at the temple. If I don’t tell you what I am concerned about, I am giving you and my students less than my best effort. Our students’ needs are so overwhelming in so many ways. I have to keep asking myself if the time we spend on this issue is key to helping our students learn to navigate the 21st century, or if we are working hard to win a battle, regardless of the effect on the war? The more I think about that, the less I like my answer. Since you were in the music room, maybe you have some frame of reference for understanding how easily we can lose sight of the mission at hand as we deal with the students on an hour by hour, day by day basis.

I didn’t mean to write so much, but there are even more points I could make. However, thank you for your time and consideration–and I do hope you have a good rest of the day!