At the start of the school year, a second-grade teacher welcomed a new student named J into her class. Unbeknownst to the teacher, however, she would soon find herself grappling with a moral dilemma when discovering the religious restrictions that J was subject to.
The School’s Christian Background
The woman taught at a school that had a firm Christian background. “It’s a tight-knit community where almost all families are Christian”, she explained. “We celebrate many holidays and always plan fun activities during those weeks. We learn about all other cultures too.”
J’s Religious Background
The teacher had recently been introduced to the new student, J. J and her family were Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religion that refrains from celebrating birthdays and holidays, among other practices.
The clash between the school’s festive atmosphere and J’s religious beliefs became evident during social studies. During a remote learning session, J covered her ears and eyes during discussions about flags, expressing discomfort with the content.
Seeking a Solution
“I asked if I could just put her in a digital breakout room during social studies until we finished and have her work on other things”, the woman recounted. “Her mom and my boss gave this the OK and approved of me exempting her from the rest of the unit.”
However, tension returned when the class celebrated a student’s birthday. After the traditional birthday song, J interjected, stating her religious prohibition against participating in birthdays. The teacher, feeling a hint of frustration, responded firmly, telling J to tune out if she felt uncomfortable.
Christmas came around, which would soon give rise to the biggest controversy with J yet. During another remote learning session, the teacher decided to incorporate Christmas activities, videos, and books into the curriculum, following the school’s traditions.
“I decided to put J in a breakout room if she started to complain”, the woman explained. “She hadn’t said anything yet so I was reading a Christmas book when J’s mom came on camera and started scolding me in front of my class, saying I had been “disrespecting her child’s religion.”
Isolation and Disrespect
The teacher defended her approach, emphasizing the importance of learning about various religions and fostering tolerance. “I told her that our school celebrates Christmas and that in general, I think children should learn about other religions and learn to accept others’ beliefs”, she explained. “J’s Mom proceeded to log her off in response.”
After the holiday break, the teacher found herself facing a barrage of emails from J’s mother, forwarded to the school’s administration. J’s mother expressed her displeasure over the teacher’s festive teachings, her handling of J’s participation in class activities, and even the small gifts that she had given students before breaking up for Christmas.
The woman found herself caught between teaching her students and the concerns of J’s mother. She felt that her teaching style was enriching her students’ education and that she had taken appropriate caution to accommodate J’s religious beliefs, but recognized how the breakout rooms could be seen as isolating.
Unsure how to proceed the teacher headed online, seeking guidance. “Have you and your boss had any meetings with this student’s parents to talk about these issues?”, asked one reader. “That seems like the best way to resolve it, rather than putting a little girl in the position of having to advocate for herself on the spot.”
However, many readers felt that the woman wasn’t making the effort to reduce J’s discomfort in class. “I don’t think you are in the wrong but you seem… unkind to J”, another reader expressed. “You know what things aren’t allowed in her religion, so you should tell her when to leave, instead of waiting until it becomes an issue.”
A Better Understanding
Despite the complications, one commenter expressed their happiness to hear of Jehova’s Witness beginning to embrace public schools. “Most JW children are heavily home-schooled, so it’s actually an amazing thing that the child is in a public school setting and getting to experience different cultures”, they wrote. “It will give them a better understanding of the world.”
Another reader expressed confusion
“I don’t understand why J can’t learn about other cultures and religions? Seems very troubling that her parents are isolating her from the rest of the world to enforce their own beliefs.”
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