Toni Chewning at PSTA

Toni Chewning, the Palmetto State Teachers Association director who coordinates its Clothes Closet, picks up donated clothes piling up in the group's front conference room on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. Seanna Adcox/Staff  

WEST COLUMBIA — For college students used to wearing jeans and T-shirts, coming up with a wardrobe to teach a class can be a real struggle.

That's why the Teacher Clothes Closet, coordinated by the Palmetto State Teachers Association, provides future and first-year teachers free professional attire.  

The traveling "closet" is designed to help South Carolina's teachers walk into their classroom with confidence, without going into debt just to suit up, said Toni Chewning, the association's activities director.

"It really has helped students not feel the pressure of 'How am I going to afford to buy this stuff?' It relieves anxiety over not looking professionally appropriate," said Columbia College education professor Jim Lane, who helps stock the closet by spearheading clothes drives at his church, Washington Street United Methodist. 

The state's largest teacher advocacy group organized its first free shopping event in 2014 after a University of South Carolina professor noticed her students had difficulty putting together just a few outfits appropriate for student teaching. It now holds up to 10 regional events annually at campuses statewide, Chewning said.      

Teacher Clothes Closet

The Palmetto State Teachers Association runs a traveling clothes closet that offers student teachers still in college and first-year teachers free professional attire. Provided

The next event will be Dec. 4 at the association's offices in West Columbia. Invitations have gone out to colleges across the Midlands. 

Charleston Southern University senior Lizzy West said the Clothes Closet saved her from having to spend hundreds of dollars on garb for her full-time student teaching role next semester at Hanahan Elementary. 

"We're not supposed to wear jeans," West said. But before the September event on her campus, the part-time waitress had just two pairs of black pants. 

"I was shocked by how much they had. They had a ton of stuff," said the 21-year-old elementary education major. "I got at least a dozen different things, which makes a big difference."

Chewning said she never envisioned the program would get this big.

Teacher Clothes Closet trailer

The Palmetto State Teachers Association takes its Clothes Closet to colleges around the state in this trailer. The traveling closet provides student teachers and first-year teachers free professional attire. Provided

The "closet" rolls onto campus in a trailer the association bought last summer, which is refilled from a climate-controlled storage unit stocked with donations. The rental became a necessity when clothes began consuming all of their office space.

"Every table had clothes on them," she said. 

Initially, the association considered limiting shoppers to one interview suit and five outfits for teaching. But donations have been so steady — from churches, school service projects and individuals who drop by the office — that never became necessary.  

"We've been really fortunate. It's been amazing how the community has embraced it," Chewning said, noting the program has grown amid the state's teacher shortage crisis and debate in the Legislature over educators' low wages.

"This is the community’s way of getting behind educators of the next generation and saying, 'We want to support you. We know what you're doing is an important community service,'" Chewning said.

The free shopping is for men and woman. Participants in Clemson's Call Me MISTER teacher recruitment program left this summer's summit with more than 100 suits and 300 ties, she said. 

Teacher Clothes Closet at Converse

Future and first-year teachers can get free professional attire at Teacher Clothes Closet events like this one at Converse College. The Palmetto State Teachers Association brings the clothes by trailer and sets them up in space provided by the hosting college. Provided.

There's no catch. The association doesn't ask for money or take names at events, which are generally held over two days to try to accommodate schedules. 

"At first, our students were somewhat reluctant because they didn’t know what to expect," said Dr. Justin Mitchell, director of education undergraduate programs at Charleston Southern University, which hosted its first event last year. 

Students left September's event with more than 100 grocery bags full of clothes, he said. 

"Most people giving away something, there are strings attached," he said, explaining why this year's event was more popular. "Word got out. They were picking up nice clothes. You can pick it out and take it with you and there’s no catch, no trick."

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Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.