Ask a Teacher: What Happens to My Son if He Doesn’t Stand for the Pledge?

Back-to-school advice from inside the classroom.

Girl sitting with a book while rest of class stands for Pledge of Allegiance.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock. Girl sitting with a book while rest of class stands for Pledge of Allegiance.

This is the final installment of Ask a Teacher, Slate’s back-to-school advice column.

My son recently started sixth grade. His homeroom teacher told them they are legally allowed to sit or kneel during the Pledge of Allegiance, but commented that that is not what he recommends or believes in personally. My son supports Black Lives Matter and thinks the pledge is silly and has opted to sit. He’s a little worried because this teacher also teaches his math and robotics classes. Should he be concerned that their obviously different politics could result in the teacher grading him differently or otherwise treating him differently in these classes?

In general, I want to support my son in fighting his own battles, but am wondering if I should quietly ask the principal to remind teachers of students’ constitutional right to refuse to salute the flag. Any general principles for parents about when it is and isn’t appropriate for us to intervene?

Your son’s teacher was wrong when he imposed his personal beliefs on the class, and I can understand your son’s concern. A teacher in Colorado recently pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in injury after forcing a student to stand for the pledge while he was exercising his constitutional right not to do so. But this is the extreme exception and not the rule.

The classroom is no place to promote your own political beliefs. As an American who is politically active, it’s not always easy for me to refrain from expressing my political opinions, but I have always done so. That said, I don’t believe that your son’s teacher will intentionally treat your son any differently because of his position on the Pledge of Allegiance. I have never met a teacher who would intentionally treat a student differently because of any disagreement over politics, religion, or any other belief.

I also respect your decision to allow your son to fight his own battles. I think it’s a good one. My suggestion would be to wait and see how the first month plays out. If your son feels that he’s being treated fairly, all is well. But if he feels implicit bias is raising its ugly head, a conversation with the teacher (and then the principal depending on his response) might be in order.

Recently my children’s school implemented a very strict “no gifts” policy for parents giving gifts to teachers. I understand the reasoning behind the policy (avoiding the appearance of favoritism for families who gift teachers, not wanting teachers to feel like they “owe” parents, et cetera). I’ve always liked to go big on gifts for my children’s educational teams, because I know how important the work they do is and how little they get paid for it. The least I can do is get my kids’ teachers a gift card to buy supplies for their class or treat them to a gift certificate for a nice dinner on their birthday. What are some ways I can follow the policy yet show my heartfelt appreciation to the men and women who dedicate their lives to educating my kids? 

The best gift I have ever received from a parent was given to me during my first year of teaching. Near the end of the school year, a parent wrote a letter describing how instrumental I had been to the growth and success of her daughter and praised my effort, skill, and commitment to teaching. Then she sent that letter to me, my principal, and my superintendent. As a brand-new teacher, this meant everything to me. It was validation that despite my inexperience and all that I still needed to learn, I had done well, and the people who would help determine the course of my career knew it. Seven years later, another parent did the same thing for me, and this time, the letter also went to the board of education. It felt just as good.

If it doesn’t violate your school’s policy, an end-of-year album filled with photographs, letters, or poems written by students and parents, and other memorabilia from the school year, is a fantastic gift, and it’s a way for everyone in the class to come together to show their appreciation for their teacher. I have about a dozen of these from my two decades of teaching, and I cherish each one. I often bring them to school to show my latest batch of students as well. They get such a kick out of seeing the faces who filled the classroom before them.

Finally, your child could also make a gift for the teacher, eliminating parents from the gift-giving equation. These are some of my favorite gifts that I have ever been given. They’ve ranged from poems written and illustrated by students about me, often framed so I can hang them in the classroom, to Lego re-creations of scenes from the Shakespeare plays that we have studied throughout the year. (I have two of these on display in my classroom.) Last year, a student made me a hatchet from a stone, a carved piece of wood, and some twine. While the appearance of a surprisingly well-crafted hatchet on the last day of school made my principal nervous, this student was famous for being able to “make stuff from other stuff,” so the gift made sense. Also, the bragging rights that come from wielding a student-made hatchet made this gift unforgettable.

Matt Dicks and hatchet.
Matt Dicks and hatchet. Matt Dicks

If your child is willing to put some thought and effort into making something for a teacher, the results can be extraordinary.

Why do classes have so many events that parents are expected to attend when parents do not want to have to attend these events? Relatedly, if a parent does not attend these events, will teachers think worse of them and their kids or do teachers secretly know that these expectations are insane?

Teachers are engaged in a constant balancing act. Some of our students’ parents work two or three jobs and are just happy to see their kids for 15 minutes a day. Other parents are fortunate enough to have flexible work schedules and want to be involved in as much of school life as possible. They volunteer in class, serve on the PTO, and work to make their children’s school experience as rich as possible.

As a result, we often find ourselves serving two masters, and truthfully, the most demanding of those masters are the ones with the most free time to make demands. As a result, we find ourselves trying to ensure that parents and students see their school as a place filled with diverse opportunities and experiences, both during and after school.

So many teachers also love their jobs and want to make each school year as meaningful and memorable as possible. They view teaching not only as a career but as their primary passion. They want every school year to be unforgettable for their students. The desire to pack the calendar with events comes from a good place.

Happily, I can report to you that no teacher will think any less of you if you don’t attend these events. We are human beings, too, often with children of our own. Add to this aging parents, demanding in-laws, overly dramatic friends, pressing hobbies, booming side hustles, poorly behaved pets, overflowing laundry bins, and everything else that makes a life burst at the seams, so we get it. If you can’t make it to one of our school events, or if you would prefer to remain at home, lying on the couch, watching Netflix, we understand completely.

Sometimes, in those moments, we even envy you.

Can you get over it if a kid is really, really difficult at the beginning of the year? Or will you never really like that kid?

I can absolutely forgive a kid for being exceptionally difficult at the beginning of the year (or any time of the year, for that matter). In fact, those tend to be the kids whom teachers remember best. They are the reason we become teachers in the first place!

We want to help kids improve. We want them to become better students and better citizens. When a challenging student becomes less challenging, or when a struggling learner struggles a little less, or when a child who doesn’t love learning becomes enthusiastic about school, that’s the best part of our job.

We don’t expect perfection to walk through our classroom doors on the first day. We expect that much work will need to be done, and we can’t wait to get started.