Unwrapping the Holidays
A teacher reflects on a difficult first year
Illustrator: Bob Gale
My teaching career began on the picket line. After I was hired to teach first grade in a small town outside of Seattle, I spent my first month in front of the school instead of in the classroom.
After 30 days, our union settled the strike and won smaller class sizes for first and second grade, better health benefits, and a slight raise in salary. And on a personal level, I felt that I had really bonded with my colleagues. Most of the teachers who worked at this school had been born and raised in that small town and they showed extraordinary kindness to me during the strike. My father was having major surgery and I was extremely sad and worried. Each day, teachers inquired about his health. Other teachers showed concern about my lack of income and brought me bags of food. One teacher, Joseph, even brought me several bags of plums from his tree.
But through the course of the year, many of the bonds we formed on the picket line dissolved as I became involved in a controversy over holiday curriculum.
Before I became a teacher, I had spent years as a political activist. I saw my work as a teacher as important political work and wanted to create a classroom where students would learn to challenge biases and injustice and take action against unfair situations. Since this way of viewing the world seemed normal to me, I naïvely assumed my colleagues — with whom I experienced solidarity on the picket line — shared the same worldview. I could not have been more wrong.
Before Thanksgiving, two sixth-grade girls approached me to ask if my first-graders could make ornaments for the Christmas tree in the library.
I replied, “We have been learning about four different winter celebrations: Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas in Mexico, and Winter Solstice, and we are in the process of making a book about each celebration. We could put our books in the library for other children and teachers to read as our contribution.” The sixth-grade girls were persistent and still wanted to know if I would have my students make ornaments.
“I don’t think so,” I said, and then returned to my classroom.
I remember wondering if I would be depriving my students of something by my decision, but in my heart I felt I was doing the right thing. I was teaching them that not everyone celebrates Christmas, that there are many celebratory practices in the month of December, and that each celebration is richly marked with unique customs and beliefs. Not making Christmas ornaments would not rob my students of anything — except the belief that only Christmas occurred in December.
Thinking back to the Christmas tree in the library and feeling that holiday decorations should reflect diversity, I decided to speak with my principal, Oscar. Referring to the decorations in the library, I emphasized that I thought public areas in the school should reflect as much diversity as possible. Oscar was very supportive but he cautioned me that many staff members might not agree with my opinions.
At our staff meeting, I expressed my concern about the public Christmas displays and also mentioned the four different December celebrations we were studying in my classroom. And I shared an experience that had recently occurred in my classroom with Lindsey, a child who was a Jehovah’s Witness. Her mother had expressed concern about the class study on Christmas in Mexico. After I explained that our study emphasized the cultural and not religious aspects of the celebration, the parent was relieved. I shared that as a Jew, I also did not celebrate Christmas. The next morning Lindsey ran up to me, gave me a big hug, and said, “My mom told me you don’t celebrate Christmas either. Now I’m not the only one.” I shared my student’s reaction as an example of the pain children can experience when they don’t fit in. I also felt responsibility as an educator to minimize that pain in whatever ways I could.
As the staff meeting ended, two staff members thanked me for opening their eyes to new ways of looking at things. But mostly there was silence. Later in the day I heard, secondhand, that Robert, the librarian, was upset about what I had said during the staff meeting. When I approached him, he said he felt blamed for the library decorations, despite the fact it was the sixth graders who had put up the decorations. I told him that I was not blaming him; I was merely concerned about decorations in common areas within the school.
I visited one teacher, Linda, during our lunch hour to ask if I had inadvertently offended her. When I got there, she was ripping the “Merry Christmas” banner off her wall, saying to a colleague, “We used to be able to do anything we wanted to at Christmas time, but apparently not anymore.”
I asked if she was referring to what I said at the staff meeting, and she replied, “Well, yes. Plus, I don’t teach about Hanukkah because I just don’t know how to pronounce all those words. Besides, I just don’t feel comfortable teaching about something I don’t know much about.” I shared that my viewpoints were not only based in my being Jewish — though this is a part of who I am — but because I believe it is important for children to have exposure to all different kinds of people, customs, and belief systems. I also shared that I, too, have a hard time teaching something new and that one way I learn is to read books written for children. Alexis then responded, “We’re used to doing the same things every year. When Dec-ember rolls around, we always take out our December boxes and put on the walls whatever is in those boxes. And we really don’t think about it. We prefer it that way.” Just then the bell rang and our conversation ended.
As the days went on, I noticed lots of Christmas decorations coming off the walls. The library was almost barren. And, where the library Christmas tree once stood, a book was placed on Hanukkah. Though I had stated my hope that decorations should be more inclusive and had not requested all Christmas decorations to be removed — and certainly not that a book about Hanukkah take their place — what people heard was something quite different.
The following day, Friday, Oscar shared with me that my comments at the staff meeting had really stirred things up, and that people had been speaking with him about the meeting all week. He said he wanted to put the issue on the agenda of the upcoming faculty committee meeting, where I represented the first-grade unit.
On Monday morning, as I arrived at school, I was greeted with an anonymous letter in my mailbox. The message said, “Rights for homosexuals next?” I felt incredibly upset and scared. After showing the letter to Oscar, he said he would share the contents of the letter with the faculty committee at our meeting on the following day.
When the meeting began, one teacher said she felt it was important for me to understand that teachers have done things a certain way for many years at the school and that the holiday curriculum was not offensive because it was well within the district’s student learning objectives. I then repeated what I had stated at the staff meeting and said that it had not been my intent to hurt or offend anyone and if I had, I was truly sorry. Another teacher piped up that she had taught for 20 years — in comparison to my two-and-a-half months — and she felt no need at all to have to explain her curriculum to me. She ended by reminding me “to check things out before jumping to conclusions about the way things are done at our school.”
I thought a lot about what she said. I always had seen myself as a person with a commitment to understanding other peoples’ views and who takes the time to talk things through. I have never been comfortable with people coming in from the outside and trying to change things immediately. I wondered if I had become that kind of person. When I first noticed the Christmas tree in the library and had thoughts that holiday decorations should reflect diversity, I shared this with Oscar prior to saying anything at the staff meeting. Should I have checked things out with other teachers as well?
A few other teachers said they wished I had brought up my concerns in October, before the holiday decorations went up. I replied that, as a new teacher, I wanted to wait and see what happened, rather than assume how things would end up. I thought I was sitting back, waiting and watching — but others saw me as a newcomer barging in, but somehow barging in too late.
Joseph (the same man who had kindly brought me plums on the picket line) then stated, “You know, several of the staff of Germanic background are extremely upset by the fact that the Christmas tree in the library was removed and in its place put a book on Hanukkah.” I felt shocked by his comment. I said that I had no idea who removed the Christmas tree and whoever had, did so at their own discretion. I also did not know who put the book on Hanukkah in its place.
Oscar then shared the contents of the anonymous letter I had received, commenting that this was an example of how far things had gone and how ugly they had gotten. People were shocked and could not believe that “someone from a staff as kind as ours could have done something like this.”
As the meeting came to a close, Oscar reiterated the importance of openly speaking with one another when differences occur and that talking behind one another’s backs would only serve to divide the staff further. He said he hoped the staff could heal and move forward with understanding.
Oscar checked on me several times during the day, letting me know how offensive he found Joseph’s comment about “staff of Germanic heritage.” I appreciated his support since Joseph’s comment really shook me up. I kept thinking it would have been one thing if Joseph had simply said “several staff,” but adding “of Germanic heritage” meant something very different. It felt like a brief look into the hatred of the Nazis towards the Jews.
Prior to the faculty committee meeting, I had not realized the extent of misunderstanding and anger that existed. I felt scared and continued to search my mind for who might have put the anonymous letter in my mailbox. Up until the prior week I had looked forward to each day of teaching with great eagerness and pleasure. I now dreaded coming to school.
I felt trapped, wondering if the only way out was to join the opinion of the majority. Realizing I could not trade my beliefs for a few moments of “relief,” what instead seemed to pull me through was a feeling of strong empathy for all who struggle for something that is right. I thought about people throughout history who took the first step — and sometimes alone — to bring awareness to an injustice. I thought about people who risk so much while working to bring about a more just world, who stand on the shoulders of those who came before them and know they must keep trying. It was an empathy that forced me to keep trying as well.
In the days that followed, a few staff members offered their support, for which I was immensely appreciative. I thought back on the first days of picket duty, when relations with my co-workers seemed so promising. I was glad for these memories. They helped soften the present wounds.
At the same time, I had to acknowledge that while the strike served to unify the staff and was a way for me to become acquainted with my colleagues, sharp differences also existed. They were differences that went beyond whether or not someone was nice.
I had popped open a huge can of worms, too big to shut. My original intention was not to change others but to see more diversity reflected in the library and other common areas within the school. But what, in my mind, was a simple request upset the teaching foundations of many teachers, caused resistance and upheaval, and resulted in alienation among many staff members and myself.
It was a long year, that first year of teaching. I tried my best to remain cordial with my colleagues, something that was often difficult — yet important — to do. In January of that year, Oscar shared with me he would be leaving for the remainder of the school year due to poor health. He left in February, and his replacement, Jeanne, offered me incredible support — both as a new teacher and as someone attempting to teach from a social justice perspective. This definitely helped me finish out the rest of the school year. Before the school year ended, Oscar died. It is to his memory and his support of, and belief in, me that first year that I have always dedicated my life as a teacher.
I remained at that school one more year, at which point I transferred to a school in Seattle.
What I have come to refer to as the “December incident” provided many valuable lessons for me.
First, I had not sufficiently assessed the staff regarding their potential reactions to being asked to be more inclusive in the school’s December celebrations. I assumed I “knew” the staff because we had walked the picket line for 30 straight days. I naïvely equated solidarity around union issues with pedagogical agreement. Additionally, I was the first new teacher to be hired at this school in many years, and I was viewed as an outsider.
Second, I did not take into consideration that many teachers held negative attitudes toward the administration because of the strike that began our school year. Although the strike was over, the administration was still viewed by many as the “enemy.” Additionally, my positive rapport with Oscar was viewed by some teachers as aligning with the administration.
Finally, what I am now able to recognize years later is that for the staff of my school, the celebration of Christmas represented much more than merely honoring a holiday that falls in December. It represented an entire belief system and something they valued and wanted to pass on to their students.
If I could turn back the wheels of time, I would definitely do things differently. I would sit through a “Christmas season” first, modeling my own beliefs within my classroom, but not pushing for change within the entire school. By allowing Christmas to happen first “as it always has,” I would better be able to assess people’s attachments to doing things in a particular way. I would then bring up the “Christmas issue” in the spring when the issue might not be so emotionally charged.
If I could do it again, I would start by assessing people’s viewpoints and beliefs instead of assuming they would understand or desire to do anything differently. For example, my co-workers prided themselves on being nice. They heard my request for diversity as meaning they had not been nice to people who do not celebrate Christmas. While I believe that my co-workers misinterpreted my original intent, I also think that I was partially responsible for this. I went about things in a way that did not first acknowledge the values held by most of the staff. Perhaps if I had first acknowledged how important the Christmas season was to the vast majority of the staff, they might have been more open to adding a bit of diversity to what to them was the “normal” way of celebrating December. Since I didn’t start by acknowledging their values, people’s defenses were up and they did not hear what I was trying to say. As a result, people clung tighter to their own belief systems, and my efforts essentially moved things backwards.
Introducing change into a school environment — especially one that has been firmly established for many years — is a complex process, one that I vastly underestimated. While I don’t condone the reactions of many of my colleagues, I do feel I understand what precipitated their response.
I also did not fully consider that people’s reactions to me might be based on the fact I was a first-year teacher. I can now see that not all veteran teachers — particularly those who have shaped the school culture and prefer things to stay a particular way — welcome new teachers with open arms.
I assumed my passionate devotion to my values could enhance the existing curriculum. I spent most of my first year of teaching trying to meld the world of my political activism with the new world I was entering as a teacher. I still believe that our best teaching occurs when we live first as authentic human beings, so I would never advocate leaving one’s values at the classroom doorstep. I would, however, suggest a balance of caution and wisdom when embarking on this delicate journey.