Too much toe? – The peril of sandals in the classrooms

Nancy Gedge knows that summer brings tough clothing decisions – especially for women. And what sort of shoe is ‘appropriate’ in a sweltering classroom, anyway?

About six years ago I went back to teaching.  Up until then I had been on an extended maternity leave, and after making the decision to return to the classroom, I took myself off to the shops in a state of mild consternation.  There were Shoes to consider.

The Husband was heard to mildly ask, while enduring a long-ish but not-quite rant upon the subject, ‘What is wrong with all the other shoes you have under the bed?’   How I laughed as I informed him, ‘Teachers will know that these shoes have been under the bed for the last ten years.  They will not take me seriously.’

Even now, those shoes, the ones I bought to signal my return to public life and having taken me through a series of interviews, receive admiring comments from my female colleagues.

As a woman in a female-dominated and hierarchical workplace, how you dress – from your shoes to your hairstyle – is a tricky business.  It’s not so much ‘dress for the job’ as ‘dress so as not to annoy the boss’ (or potential boss).

And, now that we are at seasons change, women like me, up and down the country, who make their workplace the classroom and their education their business, are contemplating their wardrobes and shoe boxes in similar concern.  No longer will the reassuring comfort of boots (and three pairs of socks) be deemed acceptable (or comfortable) for playground. And, as the weather warms, we are plagued by the question: ‘how much toe to show?’

As the weather warms we are plagued by the question: ‘how much toe to show?’

Not so the men (sorry, men).  Their feet must sweat it out through the heat of the day regardless because, as everyone knows, sandals upon the male teacher are simply not acceptable. If they’re lucky they might be able to dispense with the tie.

Women, though, have a treacherous path to navigate as we tiptoe our way across generic dress codes that inform us only to adopt ‘office dress’.  What exactly does that mean, we wonder, as we nervously contemplate killer heels in Reception? Matching bags and accessories?  The possibilities and prescriptions vary from ‘you may wear whatever shoe you want so long as it’s not brown’ (genuinely) to ‘anything you like including flip flops’.

Given that the way people dress themselves, or their hair, or ink their skin, is an issue of personal expression, it is easy to declare in best tones of outrage, ‘Just who is this person having such influence on the children?’  But then who is the right sort of person to have influence over our young people? What is the shoe appropriate for the mythical offices of ‘Normaltown’?

Personally, I have always veered towards the covered toe, having found myself pinned to the floor by a chair leg bearing a hefty nine year old once too often.  I also find it impossible to move with any grace or speed when my shoes are slopping all over the place. It has nothing to do with the nasty rash that my pair of silver Birkenstocks gave me. No.  It is that I’ve always been a fairly traditional dresser in the classroom. I want to be approachable to small children, not intimidating.

Plus, aware as I am of a concerted campaign by my female teaching forbears to give me freedom of dress, I’m not giving up my choices or my autonomy for anyone.  The last time I looked I was part of an educated, thinking profession; one that demands that I make decisions according to my situation; and mine demands sensible footwear, the sort with ‘real’ diamonds on the toe. Your situation may be different.


Nancy Gedge is a teacher and writer

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