What does our work attire say about us as professionals?
This week an online article, focussing on factors which impact professional respect and recognition for ECE educators, got me thinking about staff attire and specifically, uniforms. In the UK for example, it seems that many staff who work in early years or “nursery” wear uniforms which are perhaps tunic style. This doesn’t seem as prevalent here in Ireland, however uniforms which include polo shirts with the logo of the setting are very popular. I have previously written about the importance of projecting ourselves as professional educators and using the professional language and titles which we wish others to use in reference to the ECE sector. However, we must also consider other factors which may impact, or even impede, the perception of ECE educators as professionals. One such factor is the clothing which we wear in the workplace.
A Uniform is a Statement
Consider a primary or secondary school teacher, their clothing is smart casual from their own wardrobe, no uniform or polo shirt emblazoned with the colourful school logo is required. It might be argued that those ECE educators, who are obliged by their employer to wear a tunic, pinafore or colourful polo shirt, may actually have their professional identity as an educator, who is highly trained and educated, somewhat undermined. Research posts that uniforms are “non-verbal, conscious statements” which can serve to indicate that the individual wearing it has the appropriate “skills and knowledge” required to perform certain professional duties (Spragley and Francis, 2006). Indeed, uniforms may also play an important role in bolstering the professional self-identity of the wearer and impart a sense of self-confidence in their professional abilities (Pearson et al, 2001). However, such research has highlighted these “benefits” of uniform wearing in relation to the nursing profession, which I would argue is already broadly held in higher esteem as a professional sector when compared to professional perceptions of ECE.
Sending the Right Message?
Uniforms usually associated with ECE, as mentioned previously, include polo shirts, tunics or pinafores which are usually brightly coloured. The question I am asking is, what message does this send? Does the wearing of such uniforms exude a professional status or is there a better option which can address the need to appear accessible and friendly while also sending the message “I am a professional educator”? My suggestion is that such uniforms, sometimes associated with the ECE sector, reinforce persisting stereotypes which may even further serve to undermine the professional perception of the sector. Such stereotypes include the vocational perception of the sector and associated gender stereotyping of ECE educators being mainly females who “mind” or “babysit” the children of other more professional individuals while they go about their professional day in their professional job. Perhaps if the standard was for those within ECE to wear their own casual, comfortable but smart clothing, as all other professional educators do, right through the continuum of education from primary to third level, this would go some way to breaking down some of the barriers to perceived professionalism?
A Critical Eye
Consider the parent who drops their child in to the ECE setting each morning and is greeted by the ECE educator wearing a pinafore or a polo shirt with colourful imagery such as balloons, clowns, flowers, teddies, jigsaw pieces or whatever the case may be. Surely there is the potential for unconscious bias to impact the general perception of the ECE educator as different to the other primary or secondary school educators whom parents encounter and perhaps this may subsequently undermine the general identification of the ECE educator as a professional?
Of course, not all ECE settings require their educators to wear such uniforms, but for those who do, perhaps an objective perspective and critical eye should be cast over this issue to understand the unconscious message which the wearing of such uniforms may be sending and the subsequent potential impact of this on the perception of those working within ECE as being professional educators.
About the Author:
Paula Walshe is an ECEC trainer and placement assessor in the further education and training sector and a freelance writer. She currently holds a BA (Hons) in Early Childhood Education and will complete her studies for a Master’s Degree in Leadership for ECEC in 2022. Paula has extensive ECEC experience in both pedagogical practice and ECEC management. You can learn more about Paula’s work at her website (www.thedigitalearlychildhoodeducator.ie), where she writes a weekly blog on current topics in Early Childhood Education and Care in Ireland and provides useful professional and academic resources for students and professionals in this sector. LinkedIn: Paula Walshe / Twitter: @digitalearlyed / Instagram: @digitalearlychildhoodeducator
Engage with a Community of Practice:
If you are interested in sharing knowledge and ideas in a community of practice, check out the Twitter page @ECEQualityIrl – a community of professionals sharing ideas and knowledge on all things quality, pedagogy and professional practice in ECEC in Ireland.
Pearson A et al (2001) Contemporary nurses; uniforms – history and traditions. Journal of Nursing Management; 9: 147-152.
Spragley F, Francis K (2006) Nursing uniforms: professional symbol or outdated relic? Nursing Management; 37: 10, 55-58.