I remember vividly the start of one school year when a veteran teacher approached me to let me know it was my “turn” to have the Jehovah’s Witness kids. She explained that they grouped them together so that no teacher had to “deal with them” for more than one year in a row. The attitude was definitely one of annoyance at having to accommodate for the needs of these children. I was horrified. It was pretty clear to me that this particular group of students was suffering from institutional discrimination, and I wanted to change that.
In my experience, Jehovah’s Witness parents are very forthcoming about identifying themselves to teachers and letting them know that their kids don’t celebrate holidays. One family gave me a pamphlet especially written for teachers. The purpose of the pamphlet was not to evangelize, but simply to explain what their kids can and cannot do and why. Every parent I’ve met has informed me that their child can answer any questions and generally knows what they’re not allowed to do, and I’ve found that to be true.
That year, I set about making my classroom a more welcoming place for all, but especially for this marginalized group. I started by providing alternate activities when they couldn’t participate, but I wanted to do more than just give them something else to do. Because maybe having to do that meant it wasn’t an appropriate lesson in the first place. I began examining my curriculum for exclusionary activities. I changed writing prompts. Instead of writing about what they hoped to receive for Christmas, they wrote about their wishes for the world (which is a better topic to have kids think about anyway). I replaced art activities. Instead of drawing jack-o-lanterns, we drew fall leaves. Some activities, like Easter word puzzles, were relegated to the recycle bin.
I also made efforts outside the classroom. As a young single teacher, it was easy for me to find time to attend soccer matches, bowling tournaments, plays, and recitals, and I knew how much it meant to my students. When a Jehovah’s Witness family (whose daughter I’d had for third and fourth grade) invited me to hear her give her first talk at their meeting, of course I said yes. I think it’s important to dispel stereotypes whenever possible, so I want to be clear that at no time did I feel like I was being pressured in any way to join the church or believe a certain way. My only job was to watch proudly as my once shy student spoke in front of a huge group. I was an honored guest. I went on to attend talks and readings for three other students at two different schools in the years that followed.
Those efforts helped the families be patient with me when I inevitably slipped up, like when I forgot to send a child to the library during a holiday assembly until we were already ten minutes in. They knew I was trying and learning from my mistakes. Small gestures mean a lot. I remember one time at a music concert, unbeknownst to me, the students were singing “The Star Spangled Banner”. My student had been sitting out during rehearsals, but she looked around helplessly at the concert. I called her over to me and had her stand next to me, my hand on her shoulder. Her parents thanked me afterwards. The next year, they recommended me to a new family, “You have Miss Read? That’s good. You don’t have to worry about any of the holiday stuff.”
I think teachers struggle when they feel like something is being taken away from them. I’m not a religious person, so I don’t know how that feels. But I do know that there’s more to being Christian than celebrating Christmas. It’s important to remember that taking away holiday celebrations doesn’t prevent teachers from practicing their religions or even from using teaching as an expression of servant leadership. No one is telling teachers they can’t pray. They just can’t lead prayer. No one is telling teachers they can’t practice the virtues of their religion as teachers. They just can’t indoctrinate.
Letting go of tradition is hard, but we have to remember that we are the adults and we are public school educators. We have a duty to every student who walks through our classroom door, and those students are diverse in many ways, including religion. They are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist…and they all deserve an education in which they are fully included.
So maybe this is the year that you skip the Christmas craft or leave the Easter decorations in the box. It might cause you a little pang, but it is nothing compared to what a child feels when they are left out because of their religious beliefs. And you don’t really need me to tell you. Take a long look at those smiling faces in your classroom today, and you’ll know it’s worth it.