When I was student teaching, I once had a student tell me I looked like a bigger, older kid. It was not intended as a compliment. I believe I had worn kind of baggy jeans and a sweater. Those words have stuck with me for years. Even when teachers (and many other supposed professionals) commonly wear jeans on Fridays, or any other day they feel like it, I still believe that your appearance matters… contextually.
Wearing a grungy t-shirt and a ratty pair of jeans to a professional interview would be quite unthinkable. Wearing a three-piece suit to work at an Apple store would be equally shocking. Being in lots of school buildings, I have seen a spectrum of attire that only avoids these far extremes on either end. My first year of teaching, a colleague (who happened to be nearing retirement) wore a suit jacket every day. I later found out he did that so he would only have to iron the front of his shirts. But the fact he bothered to iron at all set him apart from most. Perhaps it is a generational thing?
On the other end of the spectrum, I have seen teachers who will wear jeans I wouldn’t wear to mow the lawn in, flip flops, slippers (although I will give the pregnant ones a pass on that), and my favorite, velour tracksuits. The sexy “PINK” tracksuit may work for the young, the hip, the Hollywood set, but it has no place in a classroom. There’s about 5 minutes gap in one’s life between being too young to wear sweats all the time, and being too old to pull off this look in a professional setting.
As a volunteer youth leader with a… flexible schedule, there are many times when I will come to a program straight from work. The attire of a substitute teacher is usually acceptable for interacting in a youth group setting, but I will sometimes bring a change of clothes. Some volunteers have much more formal dress codes at work than I do, but I wonder if staying in those outfits might impair their ability to relate to kids. I also contend that dressing exactly like students do is not necessarily a goal to strive for.
Two considerations come to mind. I think one is balance. Somewhere between a tux and a frumpy tracksuit lies a lot of acceptable ground. The second key is probably more important. As a volunteer, who are you trying to be to your students? A parent? An authority figure? A friend? A concerned adult? The answer to that question informs the way I dress when I am with students.