Heads Up

Welcome to Heads Up, a blogging experiment that aims to: 

  • connect the people, parts, and principles of Durham Academy;
  • share ideas about learning and human development;
  • spotlight a few of the many wondrous things I get to see every day at Durham Academy. 

Thanks for reading the posts below — and sending news, links and ideas worth sharing. 

Michael Ulku-SteinerHead of School 


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Ties, Trust and Targeting What Matters

Brace yourself, as this long post represents either me making a mountain out of a molehill or us (faculty and administration) caring deeply about even minor matters in our community. You can decide . . . and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

After years of discussion, deliberation and debate, we are simplifying the faculty dress code at Durham Academy – removing from our male faculty the obligation of wearing a necktie to school every day.



Although classroom teaching has roots as a static “stand and deliver” profession, DA teachers are expected to be (and enjoy being!) active, mobile and amongst their students. Sitting on the floor and supervising recess outside are daily activities for Pre and Lower School teachers. Faculty in all divisions routinely lean over individuals and crouch with small groups of students. More formal dress (neckties for men, dressier clothes for women) may be appropriate for administrators and staff who spend their time with adults, but not for teachers’ daily work with squirrelly four year-olds and sweaty Middle Schoolers.


Schoolwide, 67% of Durham Academy’s teachers are female. Thus, our necktie requirement weighs heavily upon a minority of our faculty. It’s hard to claim a commitment to equity in September and May, when our female teachers are in short sleeves and our male teachers are sweating through their dress shirts and ties. As one female colleague told me, “I’m sure glad we don’t require the female equivalents of ties for men: panty hose or high heels.” More meaningfully, gender-specific regulations in the workplace seem legally and ethically antiquated.


In recent decades, standards of dress have changed significantly in many professions. Even without considering the casual uniforms of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and the millions of t-shirt-clad techies who follow in their wake, it seems fair to say that a small minority of DA’s parents are now required to wear ties to work every day. Many times in recent years, I have found myself in board committee meetings at school, surrounded by doctors, bankers, professors, attorneys and entrepreneurs. There are also men in the room – none of them wearing ties.

As you’ll see below, I don’t mind – personally or institutionally – bucking a trend and standing out from the crowd. But staking our collective professionalism (correction: the professionalism of one third of our faculty) on strips of cloth around our necks can seem obsolete, flimsy and irrelevant.

Turtlenecks and Casual Fridays

Our current dress code allows men to wear turtlenecks instead of ties. For many years we have observed “Casual Fridays,” allowing men to shed their neckties. These loopholes make little sense. Do we see less student learning on Fridays than other days? Should we protect the “integrity” of a policy that covers only 80% of the week and 33% of the faculty? Have turtlenecks looked professional (or even good) since 1979? No, no, and no. The current faculty dress code has oddities and absurdities worth correcting.  

Trust and professionalism

Ultimately, we made this decision because we trust and esteem our faculty. We trust them with the intellectual, social and moral development of our children. And we trust them to make appropriate choices about their own dress.

Soon after we made excellent teaching the #1 priority of our 2015 Strategic Plan, we convened a task force to focus on “Cultivating and celebrating excellence in the faculty.” Among the group’s eleven primary recommendations:

Ensure that faculty and staff are treated as professionals: 1) balance a culture of trust and accountability 2) trust faculty to dress professionally; create a more contemporary view of professional dress and make expectations equitable across genders (specifically, make ties optional for male faculty).

The task force (which included male teachers Jeff Burch, Gib Fitzpatrick, Mike Spatola and Jim Speir) recognized that the tie requirement was at once superficial and profound. Along with their recommendations relating to teacher orientation, evaluation, professional growth, mentorship, collaboration, benefits and culture, they concluded that the tie requirement adds nothing to the learning of our students and subtracts meaningfully from faculty morale.

I have always been proud to work and parent at a school that prioritizes student learning and faculty excellence over the first impressions of fancy buildings, ornate landscaping and elegant attire. As often before, it was right in this case to heed the voice of our faculty. 

Our revised dress code:

Faculty and staff are expected to dress professionally, as appropriate for the occasion and their roles. Questions about appropriate dress may be referred directly to any member of the Administrative Team.

With all that said, this decision was not a slam dunk.

There are good reasons for our male faculty to wear ties. I have been a sturdy if ambivalent defender of the tie requirement since arriving at DA in 1992. A dozen years after that, when I was serving as Upper School Director, the Upper School faculty mounted a neck liberation movement that I was somehow able to quell. My reasons for keeping ties firmly knotted around the throats of our faculty remain relevant now, but each of them is less compelling after some important shifts in and outside the school. 

 1. Tradition - Male teachers at DA have always been required to wear ties. Our parents expect this and our alumni remember it fondly.

Yes, and . . . this tradition is less relevant than our tradition of trusting faculty to use good judgment and provide useful input into discussions of school policy. Times (and dress codes) change but more meaningful, mission-relevant traditions are worth protecting.  

 2. Authority - Teachers deserve respect and ties are among the markers of that respect.

Yes and . . . this argument does not apply to 67% of our faculty. As one of my female colleagues quipped, “Shouldn’t we be worried about perpetuating the myth that a necktie equals authority and expertise?” Additionally, shifting societal and professional norms mean that the necktie may be as repellant to some as it is compelling to others. Thankfully, contemporary culture seems to recognize authority less through costume and more through character.

3. Standards and the slippery slope – Clear expectations matter. If we remove the necktie requirement, we’ll see a gradual but inevitable degradation of faculty attire.

Nope. I have already reinforced to our faculty what they know inherently: that professional attire still matters. Jeans, shorts, flip flops, t-shirts or the thousand other things that might qualify as “professional” in other workplaces won’t fly at DA. I expect no problems in this realm – and plan to verify this expectation with the help of my administrative colleagues next year and beyond.

4. Formality - Teaching is a special profession and school a special place. We should mark this specialness with more formal attire, and that means ties for men.

Yes, and . . . neckties are relevant to a minority of our faculty, and we have more relevant ways to mark the uniqueness of our community. See below – and pretty much every part of our Strategic Plan.

5. Boundaries - Especially in this era of ever-more-fluid social norms, children need clear markers for trusted adults and clear rules of engagement for their interactions with adults. Ties help both causes.

Yes, and . . . ties have never helped the vast majority of our faculty. And again, I would assert that other rules of engagement (from fundamental habits like warm handshakes, eye contact, and morning meetings to multifaceted programming like advisory groups and Lower School families) prove more meaningful to our students than seeing their male teachers in ties.

With all this said, I plan to wear a tie most of the time next year.

Wait. Why?

Partly because my job rarely requires me to operate a band saw, do recess duty on the blacktop or sit on the floor with first graders.

But mostly, it’s because I am personally compelled by this notion of Durham Academy as a countercultural project – a community that stands self-consciously apart from the mainstream and expects behaviors on campus that are not expected elsewhere. I have always believed that classrooms are sacred spaces and teaching a most noble vocation. One (albeit flimsy and superficial) way for me to signal that sacredness, to denote that nobility, to mark the boundary between DA and the rest of the world, is by wearing a tie on school days. Also, I have a notably unattractive Adam’s Apple.

In the end (“Hallelujah!” say the few who have read this far), I am grateful to my colleagues for engaging in this conversation with patience, idealism and candor. As I have noted for more than 25 years, Durham Academy has a remarkably dedicated, discerning and professional faculty. They care most about what matters most deeply: speeding the journeys of their students to moral, happy, productive lives. 

Posted by mulkus on Wednesday June, 21, 2017 at 05:57PM


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