“Mr. Eddy, tuck in your shirt, please.” The tall twenty two year old Scotsman turned to see who had called to him. He didn’t look so happy with our older Thai colleague. “I’m all done teaching. I’m just going home.” Our colleague was not persuaded. “You are a teacher and you are still at school.” Mr. Eddy begrudgingly tucked in his dress shirt and continued down the hallway.
For foreigners coming to Thailand to teach English, the expectations of the institutions that they teach at can seem overbearing. This is particularly true for younger teachers who are more accustomed to the informal individualism of Western youth culture. But whether one is at home or abroad, there are certain expectations for how one should dress on the job. In Asia, this is particularly important as there is often a high cultural value on appearance and maintaining an image appropriate to one’s role in society. Being a teacher is not just a job but an identity. It is a role in society that is accorded much respect because teachers are role models for the students they teach. In Thailand, teachers are even called the student’s “second parent” because of the big role that they play in student’s life, dispensing not only academic but personal advice and guidance.
If a teacher dresses like a slob, or even just dresses too informally, there can be many unpleasant results. Besides rebukes like the one that Mr. Eddy received, dressing inappropriately can cause you to lose credibility among both students and teachers. It shows disrespect for the institution, and in the foreign context it shows cultural insensitivity to the host culture. Under the guise of “being myself”, failing to conform to dress standards can unintentionally give the impression of arrogance and ethnocentric superiority. It says, “My way is better, and I don’t care what you think.”
Although dressing up may seem contrived, it is not merely an exercise in legalistic formality. In the context of a school or university, dressing like a teacher (however that is defined locally) says, “This job is important to me, and the people that I work with have value.”
In a hot, tropical country like Thailand, wearing a shirt and tie, and long trousers is... well, hot. Dressing appropriately may seem like a pain but at the end of the day it is a small price to pay for the good will, smooth relationships, and respect that makes for a good teaching experience. And in the case of Christian teachers, dressing the part can not only create a good impression but also reduce an unnecessary barrier to sharing the Gospel.