The lesson of the substitute teacher who stole Christmas
The principal of Cedar Hill Elementary School in Montville, New Jersey, is apologizing to parents after a substitute teacher told first graders that Santa Claus isn't real.
According to a Facebook post by a devastated parent, the teacher told aghast and agog children that, in fact, parents buy the presents, reindeer can't fly, elves aren't real, and the popular Elf on the Shelf doll is just a toy that parents move around.
This heartless woman even shattered the illusions derived from other childhood fairy tales, from the Tooth Fairy to the Easter Bunny.
Now, an entire class of schoolchildren will no longer know the untold fulfillment of believing in mythical creatures who aim to guide their moral character, reward good behavior and fill their hearts with endless wonder and joy.
While it's unclear why this substitute teacher felt compelled to dismantle these children's harmless fantasies in a matter of minutes -- maybe she was having a bad day, maybe she was wronged by a rotten Tooth Fairy, maybe she felt like she was preparing gullible kiddos for the harsh realities of life -- what she did was wrong and inexcusable. And it was just plain mean.
But among the many laments about our public education system, the aberrant Ebenezer Sub who ruins Christmas is nowhere near the top of the list.
As a kid who moved a lot, I went to all kinds of schools, including public, private, magnet, Catholic and single-sex. Some of the best schools I attended were public — just like the one where the over-sharing sub taught. Her actions point up a problem that this ghost of Christmas future might portend: As parents, we've long ceded far too much authority to our schools, and we are starting to see the results.
Public elementary schools should be places to learn what parents cannot teach. Even if we, as adults, already know what our kids are only just learning, we don't always know how to teach it to them ourselves — how to read or multiply, perform chemical reactions or process centuries of world history. And for those of us who work, we certainly don't have the time.
But the things that all parents can teach their kids -- moral values, tolerance, and what not to put in their bodies -- should be left to them. Instead, these topics are codified into curriculum, and parents expect, and indeed demand, that they are taught.
Public school sex education, for instance, was born out of a 1919 US Department of Labor report suggesting that educating young men about sex could have better prevented STDs in soldiers. The very next year it was introduced in high schools. Somewhere along the way it trickled down to middle school, elementary school and even kindergarten, and vastly expanded its purview to include everything from pornography to gay rights. Some schools have introduced graphic sex ed plans that walk children through things like the benefits of lubrication and increasing pleasure during sex.
This gradual and ever-increasing reliance on public school to teach kids not only about the birds and the bees, but also the LGBTQs and the Big Os, has led to some next-level absurdity.
And one Rhode Island mom and education writer wanted public schools to teach the idea of consent to kindergartners because a local toddler kept kissing her 4-year-old.
The overexposure to sex advice, rather than education, in public schools, cuts the other way, too. A majority of school districts in Georgia, despite hundreds of student requests for science-based sex programs, still instruct students to save sex for marriage.
Sex advice is for parents to offer, not public school teachers. So, too, are lessons about tolerance and inclusion, ideas about gender fluidity, and drug and alcohol abuse, experimentation or avoidance.
Nevertheless, teachers are taking these lessons into their own hands. In a California charter school, a kindergarten teacher held a "transition ceremony" to celebrate a 5-year-old boy's decision to identify as a girl. California law requires parental consent in matters of sex education, but the school argued this had to do with "gender identity," which the school district says falls under their "tolerance and diversity" curriculum, raising the question: Why do schools have a tolerance and diversity curriculum?
They certainly won't if they know their schools will do it for them. So rather than insist our schools keep expanding the range and scope of what they teach our kids, so that eventually they'll have nothing to learn at home, shouldn't we spend more energy compelling parents to teach these important lessons in the ways they feel are age-appropriate and consistent with their own values?
The usual arguments over public school curricula often center around religion. Like history and literature, public schools should teach religion -- but they should not teach faith. That is the difference. Like science, teach sex -- but not sexual morality.
When we cede so much authority to schools, it's no wonder they often overstep and run into these invisible boundaries between home lessons and school lessons. It's also no wonder the homeschooling movement is booming.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal organization that collects and analyzes education-related data, in 2012 there were only 1.8 million children who were homeschooled. The National Home Education Research Institute, which conducts research on homeschooling, estimates the practice has grown at a rate of 3% to 8% a year.
That's not an option for everyone, but it's hard to blame parents for wanting more control over their children's coursework when any of it is devoted to lessons best learned at home.
That includes whether and how to tell your innocent babes that Santa isn't real, or that God isn't either. The sub who stole Christmas shouldn't do the job of parents -- but too many schools already are.