Male and female teachers across countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Korea (see our best countries to teach abroad guide) are required to dress in a specific way and adhere to clear dress standards. There are also expectations of what teachers will not wear.
So what do you need to know as an ESL teacher in the classroom or online as it relates to tattoos, pants, skirts, dress shirts and general grooming? This will be your complete dress code guide for ESL teachers.
Teachers with Tattoos
Like the military, tattoos are fine for an English teacher as long as you successfully cover them up. In some cultures like Thailand, it’s not appropriate for a teacher to have visible tattoos as teachers are highly regarded in their social hierarchy (even Buddhist or other religious tattoos are frowned upon).
Depending on where the tattoo is, may require some creativity in covering it up. One of our teachers from Liverpool has a large forearm tattoo that he covered up with a band-aid on the days were he was required to wear a collared shirt.
If you plan on getting a tattoo and being an English teacher, give thought on were the tattoo will be.
Skirts and pantyhose are mandatory for women
Female teachers often find this dress code requirement unfair, but please note that wearing a skirt of an appropriate length is a requirement as a female teacher. Your skirt must reach above the knee cap and anything shorter may be cause to send you home to change.
Also, no you can not wear pants in most classrooms and language centers in Asia. Even if it’s acceptable in America or the UK, you must consider the culture and country your in and adhere to what is considered appropriate for a female teacher.
Pantyhose / sheer tights
To go along with skirts, you will want to stock up on pantyhose (or sheer tights for our UK readers) of different color. In general, go with a dark conservative color choice.
Of course you can buy this at any big box store or online, but make sure to stock up on a high quality pair you like that will last you a year or more.
While women are restricted to skirts, you tend to have much more flexibility with your top. As long as it matches the skirt, looks appropriate for a business setting and is comfortable, consider buying a variety of tops to show off your style and uniqueness from your favorite store.
Our favorite shoes
There are quite a few options female teachers have access too. From casual loafers to open toes sandals. We have a dedicated guide on the best shoes for teachers that you can check out. Here are our top two suggestions:
Clarks Ashland Women’s Loafer
Conservative but cute. These come in various colors and match well with any skirt, dress pants (if you’re teaching in the US) or even a nice pair of jeans.
They are also comfortable for long periods of time as you’re standing and walking around the classroom.
BOBS From Sketchers Plush Fashion
These are plush slippers with memory foam. Ideal for offices and for teachers. They are light, comfy and come in a variety of conservative colors. You can wear them with socks, pantyhose or simply bare foot.
You’ll need business casual most days as a male teacher
Business casual means you’ll need a nice button up shirt and a variety of collared shirts. Depending on how strict the school is you may be required to wear a tie. Most schools don’t have an issue if you roll up your sleeves as a teacher because it can get quite hot and uncomfortable in some countries.
As a man, consider getting under shirts for your dress shirts. The best type of under shirts are light and protect your dress shirt from sweat stains (here is one brand we like) and are essential if you’re going to be wearing button up shirt of a collared shirt.
The type of undershirts we like best have a v-neck so you can wear them with a collard or button up shirt and we like our undershirts to have no sleeves.
It still amazes us how some teachers think it’s acceptable to wear black cotton socks with dress shoes. Not only are cotton socks that are designed for casual wear too hot, they are actually quite uncomfortable to wear with a pair of dress shoes.
Dress socks look better and feel better, but they are not as durable as athletic socks. So get a few pairs and expect them to last no more than 6 months to a year.
Dress Belt – For Professional Wear
You’ll also need a belt as a male teacher and will be expected to tuck in your shirt be it a dress shirt or a collared shirt. The best belts are ones with a small buckle, black and are specifically designed for dress pants.
This may seem like common sense but we’ve seen teachers wear belts with large inappropriate buckles, belts that were old and frayed and belts that look like they were bought at a store for jeans.
Dress pants will be an obvious requirement, you’ll want dark brown and black as these will match most dress shirts and any collared shirt you’re given by your school for field trips and events.
In general you’ll only need two pairs of pants. Just alternate between them and don’t worry too much about having a large selection of dress pants.
Buy shoes in the UK, Canada or America
For men, shoes are simple. You’re going to want brown shoes to match your brown pants and black shoes to match your black pants. Yes, we know it’s annoying having bulky dress shoes, but at a minimum at least get a pair of quality black shoes and two or more pairs of black pants.
Also, you’re going to want to buy shoes in your home country, particularly if you’re a large man as shoes in South East Asia tend to be small. You don’t want to land in Thailand then struggle to find a pair of dress shoes you like that are of an appropriate size.
They make classic dress shoes that are comfortable, durable and come in a bunch of different colors. They are built to last and are perfect for any type of office work.
We suggest getting a solid pair of black dress shoes and black dress pants or brown pants with brown shoes.
Ideally, you’ll want to have both so you can mix up your dress style so you don’t wear the same clothes everyday to school.
Buy clothes in Thailand (or related SEA country) if you will be teaching there
This is unique to Thailand and South East Asia obviously, but it’s a popular ESL destination for new teachers. Clothing in the United States and the UK is typically to heavy for Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and so forth.
Dress shirts, pants and ties can all be bought in Thailand and it will be of a lighter fabric design so you’ll be more comfortable as a teacher. We want to emphasis this so you don’t waste money stocking up on clothing for your ESL adventure, only to never wear the clothing you bought.
You will be required to wear a uniform on some days typically
Most schools in Asia will give you some type of collared shirt that you’ll be required to wear in solidarity with the other teachers. This is good because it saves on the amount of clothing you’ll need to buy but please be aware that this is a totally normal expectation as an ESL teacher.
Our community manager Brad was required to wear a navy blue collard shirt (that was given out by the school) as Thailand as colors of the day.
You can’t wear jeans or leggings ever as an ESL teacher to school
Most schools as an ESL teacher don’t allow teachers to wear any sort of casual wear to school if the students are at school. While in America and other western countries the dress code has become a bit more practical, it’s still expected in other countries to wear business casual at a minimum.
However, most schools are reasonable in that if the students are not at school you can wear jeans as a man or leggings as a woman. For example, after finals or mid-terms when you’re at school grading tests and projects and the students are not at school anymore, it’s acceptable to wear jeans and a collared shirt to the office.
The only exception to this rule is the PE teacher. Typically at English Programs and International Schools the PE teacher will be a foreign teacher who teaches PE and one other subject. As such, it’s acceptable to wear jeans and running shoes to school on the days where you’ll be outside with the children.
Lipstick, nails and makeup must be conservative
This should come as no surprise but you will have certain limitations on your choice of makeup, lipstick and nail polish color. In general, along with tattoos it’s considered inappropriate for a teacher to wear specific shades of color.
You’ll want to follow up with some fellow teachers your future place of employment on what is expected and accepted so you don’t give a bad first impression to your school administrators and teaching staff.
What to wear as an online teacher?
Online teaching is great because you only need to wear a t-shirt. Ideally you should have a t-shirt that matches your companies colors; VIPKID for example is orange.
However, as an independent contractor you are not required to wear any specific color as online teaching companies are not allowed to enforce a dress code (which would be a uniform, which only employees are required to wear).
We do suggest though keeping your dress consistent. Wear the same color shirt for example to every class and make it your own personal uniform that students come to expect.
Why are dress codes important?
Schools must balance expectations from parents, students and teachers. Codifying specific requirements simply makes this an easier process for everyone involved as we all have different opinions on what is appropriate.
Some requirements are a bit dated, like the requirement for female teachers to wear skirts and what not but part of being an ESL teacher is integrating yourself into a community and culture.
Dress code for ESL Teachers Conclusion
Dress codes are not particularly fun as a teacher, but it’s part of the education business. Find a style and various brands that you like best and work for you and make sure to meet the expectations of your school, parents and students.