Care and Feeding

Should I Be the “War on Christmas” Parent?

Our public school is bringing God into the classroom.

Kids in reindeer antlers doing Christmas things.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Rawpixel/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:

Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Brandon Hersey, second grade, Washington
Katie Holbrook, high school, Texas

We moved to a new state and a new school this year, and I am not sure if I should do or say anything about my first grade daughter’s teacher. I’m about as liberal as you can be, and our first-grader’s teacher is … not. She has sent the kids home with lanyards that read “God is Great,” and it’s a public school. I’m not religious, and I am very uncomfortable with this kind of thing. The school is also hosting a Christmas pageant (where the songs will almost all be nonreligious, but still).

I don’t know what to do. At our old school, I would have no problem saying something because I knew the game and the players. But here, I’m friendless and unsure if rocking the boat on this issue is a good idea. Do I say something to the teacher? The principal? Someone on the school board (it’s a very small community)? Or do I just let it go?

—New Atheist on the Block

Dear New Atheist,

You should say something. These are scary, uncertain times that feel hostile to many, but particularly for those who have found some aspect of their identity under direct attack. However uncomfortable and alienated you feel in this school environment as an atheist, I guarantee that feeling is amplified 100-fold for any family that actively practices or identifies with a faith other than Christianity. It’s anxiety-producing to address, and I understand it will make you a bit uncomfortable. But on the other hand … what’s the worst that could happen? You may rock the boat, but I think you can handle that! Even if you get a reputation as a wet blanket or the “war on Christmas” parent, you’ll be a voice advocating for families in your community who may feel too vulnerable to take up the issue themselves. You describe yourself as being “as liberal as you can be”; think of this as a way to live your values.

As for the nuts and bolts of the conversation itself: While the topic feels loaded and contentious, you’ll go further if you don’t approach it wearing battle armor. Since the teacher distributed the lanyards, you could start there and say that you’re eager and pleased for your daughter to receive exposure and education about a variety of traditions but that you want to be cautious that no single practice or faith is endorsed over others. However, since this seems to be a schoolwide issue, it’s reasonable to start with the principal, with the pageant as your key talking point.

Wherever you begin, I’d frame it like this: “We’ve had such a positive transition into this community, and I’d love to talk about how to make sure everyone feels as welcome here as we have!” Then, you can share your concern about how isolating it may be for families who don’t identify with the traditions being celebrated and ask to brainstorm some ideas for how to make sure everyone feels included.

You may not feel you’ve made impactful or lasting change, especially not right away. You may feel brushed off—or placated with a newly rebranded “holiday” pageant that is still dressed head to toe in Christmas regalia. But it’s a point worth pressing, and pressing again, and again. The common line is that schools, and teachers, should be apolitical or, at least, neutral. In practice, I’ve come to believe there is no such thing. Schools are one of, if not the primary institutions through which cultural values—and thus, personal values—are transmitted. Everything a school does (and does not do) communicates something to our children, from the history we learn (and do not learn), to the stories we tell and the stories we ignore, to the traditions we celebrate and those we do not. This matters. Say something.

—Ms. Bauer

My children only have recess once a day for 20 minutes. How is this possible when all of the research shows how critical movement is for kids? I feel like this schedule was established to ensure teachers could complete their daily instruction. And yet … children are so desperate to move, teachers spend this “instruction time” engaging students in wiggle time and dance parties in an effort to get children to focus. Why can’t schools renegotiate things to move the action outside again? Is there anything I can do to lobby for more time outdoors?

—Fresh Air Does Them Good

Dear Fresh,

When I was in elementary school, I had three recesses every day:

• A morning recess upon arriving to school
• A shorter, midmorning recess
• A longer afternoon recess

When I started teaching 20 years ago, my students enjoyed two recesses per day:

• A morning recess upon arriving to school
• A 30-minute recess before or after lunch

Today my students enjoy one 30-minute recess.

I think this migration away from free play is terrible. I agree with you wholeheartedly. But here is the problem:

Every year, content is added to the curriculum, and only once in a blue moon is anything ever removed. When I started teaching, for example, every classroom had a single computer for teacher use only. Today my students write on Chromebooks, utilize iPads, and conduct research and post content on the internet. This means enormous amounts of instructional time are dedicated to typing, the use of software, and the safe and appropriate use of technology in today’s world.

In addition to the fundamentals, my fifth-graders are also learning a foreign language and studying growth and human development. Even math and science curriculums are expanding in an effort to keep pace with countries like Germany and China.

Add to this high-stakes testing, and you can see where administrators and teachers would feel the need to recapture as many minutes of instruction time as possible.

Recess is an easy target. I agree that it’s not a good answer, but until school districts are willing to remove content from the curriculum or expand the school day or school year, I fear that free play will continue to suffer, despite an enormous amount of research indicating that it is essential to a happy, healthy, productive student.

In terms of wiggle time: Yes, it’s true that so-called brain breaks have gained in popularity recently, but there is sound research in this field. Human beings work best with short, frequent breaks, and these dance parties and wiggle time are teachers’ attempt to incorporate this research into their classrooms.

I’m not a fan of these prescribed brain breaks. I’d much prefer to let students do whatever they want for 10 minutes—read, draw, talk, eat a snack, lie down and close their eyes—but some teachers have a hard time releasing control and prefer to structure these times with organized movement.

To answer your question about what you can do: First, see if there is a law in your state related to recess. In my state of Connecticut, for example, the law requires public schools to include a total of 20 minutes of physical exercise in each regular school day for all elementary school students, and it prohibits the denial of this time for punishment purposes.

Not great, but I’m happy that there is a statute in place preventing any further degradation of recess.

Next, meet with your principal and discuss the matter, though it is likely beyond the control of a building administrator. Ideally, the issue should be addressed at a board of education level or higher. If your town or state would create a law guaranteeing a certain number of minutes of free play every day, then school districts would have to adjust.

Absent any support from government officials, I fear that there is little you can do except to provide as many opportunities as possible for play outside after school and on weekends.

If I was in charge, I would immediately return to the schedule of my childhood, where classroom time was continually and gloriously broken up with time outdoors. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

—Mr. Dicks

My child is 6 years old and in the first grade. The first week of school, her teacher called me at work to ask what I thought she should do about my child who was talking and not paying attention. I suggested she separate my child from her friend. I was annoyed about being called at work for something that didn’t seem terribly important. Things seemed to go better, and the teacher and I continued to work together to make sure my child pays attention and listens. I felt the teacher was trying to be supportive and positive.

Yesterday, I received a message—again at work—that my child was talking and not listening. I messaged back that I wasn’t sure what she should do. By the time I see my child in the evening, my talking to her about her behavior doesn’t really make an impact—too much time has passed since the incident. I have talked to my daughter generally about how she needs to listen and be respectful, and we have taken away her television and tablet privileges.

I find myself becoming increasingly annoyed that I’m being called at work about things that I feel should be handled by the teacher or the school. I’m happy to back them up with whatever they decide and work with them, but I am not there for these incidents, and I also have never dealt with my child in a classroom setting. Isn’t this the teacher’s responsibility? What is my role here? I’m getting frustrated.


—Wit’s End

Dear Wit,

All teachers know that parents are the experts on their kids, and if a child is having issues, all good teachers include parents in conversations about the development of classroom consequences. You mention that you and the teacher “continued to work together to make sure my child pays attention and listens,” which suggests that your child has had ongoing issues and that this is not a one-time thing. I would treat the teacher reaching out to you at work as such—that she is dealing with a difficult, persistent issue in the classroom. The teacher is involving you in the hope that similar language and consequences that are effective at home can be used at school.

I understand your frustration about being called at work. But the teacher needs to have access to you when she needs your support. Try to find a happy medium—talk to the teacher about what your workday is like, offering her some specific times when the interruption might be easier to handle (lunchtime, for instance), or let her know you’d like to support her but that when you receive her texts, you’ll call her back as soon as you can.

Calling a parent is a teacher’s Hail Mary. We educators are always trying our best to build an equitable learning environment for all of our students. While we try to develop fair and effective consequences on our own that are specific to the child and get to the root of the problem, bringing parents into the conversation can remove the need for trial and error. While you have never dealt with your child in a classroom setting, you are an expert on her as a person, and the teacher is just beginning to get to know her.

On the flip side, if it doesn’t seem like your child’s disruptions are at all severe and that the teacher is abusing calling you to solve regular classroom issues, try having a conversation with her about it. Problems like this can often be solved with clear communication. You could even be upfront and say, “Don’t call me at work unless it’s an emergency.” If it’s really an ongoing problem, the teacher will work with you to find a time that is convenient for you to address it.

Assuming that’s not the case, try redirecting your frustration to your daughter, not the teacher. Negative phone calls home are the worst part of a teacher’s job, but sometimes they are a necessary evil. The next time the teacher calls you at your job, keep in mind that she’s just trying to do hers.

—Mr. Hersey

I’m furious at my son’s junior high, and I’m hoping to get some perspective. My 13-year-old boy is a good kid with strong ADHD. He can be difficult for teachers, but he’s getting A’s and B’s in all of his classes. He got into a fight at school with someone he says was antagonizing him. (I believe him, but he’s still responsible, and he was punished.) In the aftermath, we had a teacher conference at which my wife, son, school counselor, vice principal, and a number of teachers were present. (I was at work.) One teacher declared to my son, in front of all assembled, that “nobody likes you.” Of course, both my wife and son were devastated and embarrassed. He shut down emotionally; she left in tears. I’m furious. I’ve made an appointment with the principal. I’d like to file a formal complaint and maybe dig down a bit on their guiding pedagogical philosophy. Any advice? It’s a big school and a hard job, but this seems really over the top. Am I overreacting? What would you do? Thanks!


Dear Outraged,

You’re not overreacting. This teacher was completely out of line. Conferences like this are supposed to be a time for students to reflect on what happened and make a plan for improvement. Cooler heads should prevail. What disturbs me is that “nobody likes you” is exactly what junior high kids fear most, which makes this teacher’s comments particularly cruel.

If we’re being generous, maybe this teacher made a regrettable comment in a heated moment. Honestly, I have said things to students that I wish I could take back. If you think he is a good teacher who made a terrible mistake, you could meet with him first to give him a chance to apologize and make things right. But given what you’ve described, it sounds like this guy’s just an asshole. It’s unfortunate when assholes become junior high teachers, but it happens. If that’s the case, he needs to be put in check. Meet with the principal and document your concerns. Follow up afterward to find out what sort of action the principal is taking so this doesn’t happen to another kid.

I don’t know whether your son and his teacher will be able to repair their relationship. I hope the teacher makes amends with your son. If not, this may be one of those difficult life lessons where your son has to figure out how to cope with an unfortunate situation.

—Ms. Holbrook