Reconstructed conversation I had with a coworker — let’s call her Nicole — the other day. The words are paraphrases, but I have attempted to accurately convey the overall sentiment.
I decided it would be awesome to try to wear a black casual work dress with my bumblebee running shoes. While one could make the argument that it’s not the most professional look I’ve ever constructed, in the grand scheme of all clothes ever, sneakers and skirts probably do not make too many people gasp in horror.
Nicole noticed as I approached our lunch table. “Nice shoes.”
“Thanks,” I replied, sitting next to her. Nicole’s own shoes included three inch wedge heels. “Either I’m getting old, or my feet are still readjusting to teaching. But they definitely do not like it when I try to wear my dress shoes.”
“Have you tried smaller heels?” Nicole asked, poking at the mystery cheese (?) concoction on her tray. “Ew. Anyway, sometimes that’s what I do when my feet need a break.” She took a bite, made a face. “Not flats, though. I’m too short for flats.”
I don’t know about this “too short for flats” thing, but as someone who’s nearing five-eight, it’s not a frame of reference I know that much about, so I decide to keep my mouth shut. Except for the tomato wedge: it is still lunch, after all.
And except for my own shoe woes. “Most of my work shoes are already low heels. I was never too much in love with them to begin with — for actual wearing, even though they look good — but for some reason this year, my feet are just completely rebelling. I think it’s all the yoga and the running.”
“Eek!” Nicole exclaimed in mock horror. “That gives me a reason to stop running. I love my shoes too much!”
I shook my head and took a drink of my water. “I honestly don’t know how you do it.”
Because somehow, Nicole manages to wear high-heeled dress shoes to work every day. Sometimes thicker heels or wedges instead of stilettos, but from my perspective, that doesn’t matter so much. Seeing a coworker doing my same job in anything other than a walking shoe (or running shoe, trail hiking shoe, or similar) leaves me awed and befuddled. Because the status quo on my campus is largely that women will wear traditionally feminine women’s dress shoes, bearing heels or not. Sure there are a few of us in the Dansko Flats Support Group, but we’re considered an anomaly.
Though I understand the mechanics of why my feet (knees, hips, low back) don’t like these shoes, part of me feels like my body is failing me and/or societal expectations by objecting to wearing them. It feels like I’m failing at performing femininity (which, in this particular work context, is sometimes considered interchangeable with “professional dress”) by wanting and requiring shoes that don’t impair my ability to move.
That movement thing. Turns out, there might be more to it than I originally thought.
Nicole giggled. “Maybe I don’t walk as much as you do. Sometimes, I let my students come to me.”
Which, indeed, might be a key difference. While I do establish classroom norms and procedures that facilitate student movement and contact, one of my strengths as a teacher is my ability to work the room. During class, I am everywhere; it’s like a superpower. Students know they can’t engage in off-task behaviors because I will be right there to call them on it. Similarly, students know they can receive one-on-one attention because I will be right there to answer the question they were too nervous to ask in front of the whole class.
I’m not willing to give that up. Not that there aren’t other quality teaching styles, but this one is mine. It fits naturally, and it works for my students and me. Good learning happens when I can be Teacher Ninja.
At the same time, I’m no longer willing to live in discomfort in order to perform femininity (pardon me, professional dress) correctly. Because I think that’s what I’ve been doing for a number of years. Even when my work shoes haven’t caused outright pain, they have caused discomfort — multiplied by many hours, many miles, and many days. I’m tired of sneaking in days of sneakers, hoping no one will notice, and resigning myself to days of kitten heels and unsupportive flats as penance. I’m tired of looking for excuses to be comfortable in my body.
If that means I fail at performing femininity, so be it. But it is not a failure of either professionalism or professional dress. And if it means I need stealth Ninja Teacher Shoes to do it, then stealth Ninja Teacher Shoes I shall have.