Schools are busy this time of year juggling Christmas recitals, Hanukkah performances, and Kwanzaa celebrations. But one person who will not be celebrating at her school is Harmony Gooch. She's an eighth-grade teacher at Wright Charter School in Santa Rosa.
Not a trace of the holiday season can be found in her classroom. And it’s like this all year round. She has no holiday lesson plans, no activities and certainly no parties.
“I feel like you’re either all in or you’re all out,” Gooch said.
Gooch is part of a small but growing number of teachers who are "all out." They say being inclusive of all religious holidays and traditions has become too challenging and time-consuming. In fact, the state of Iowa encourages teachers to scale back on holiday celebrations and remove certain decorations from classrooms — out of fear of appearing biased, or making families feel uncomfortable.
Gooch excludes holidays for the same reasons, and says in a state as diverse as California, more teachers should be leaving the holidays at home.
“I’m an educator in the school system, I teach government for goodness sake,” said Gooch. “So I’m very clear of church and state [being] absolutely separate.”
Gooch says her top priority is preparing her students for high school. However, she contends that she’s not a total Grinch. Take for example Halloween, when she took her class to a cemetery.
“We checked out Santa Rosa historical figures. It’s spooky, it’s scary,” said Gooch. “I just do it in other ways.”
Even so, it’s hard to ignore the buzz here on the playground at this K-8 school. The Supreme Court ruled in the 1960s that public schools may teach about religion, but they cannot sponsor religious practices. In California, school districts typically let teachers decide how to address religious holidays.
“As I’ve gotten older, there really is the need to keep it more educational,” said Wendy Cook, a first-grade teacher at Wright Charter School. “I need to be more respectful of families that have different beliefs.”
She says she's learned her lesson over the years, noting that it is easy to detect early in the year how strict a family is with religion. She recalls the restrictions with a Jehovah Witness family noting, “you just don’t go there.”
Some students decide not to take part in any activities, and Cook says that's okay. Decorating her classroom windows are Stars of David from when her students learned about Hanukkah. This week they learned about La Posada, Mexico's version of Christmas.
“The kids especially this year are so accepting of each other,” said Cook. “There is a comparing and contrasting which is normal, but we try to embrace it and show them that it’s okay.”
One tradition she plans on keeping is making ornaments with her students. Cook says that she still has an ornament that she made in first grade that still hangs on her tree.
“There’s a sentimental value, and I [had] that experience,” said Cook. “I want to try to give my kids that I’m teaching something that might hold some fond memories for them when they get older.”
And it’s that tenderness that some students yearn for. Angelica Schmichael is an eighth-grader. She was a foster child who has been adopted.
“I always loved seeing all these decorations in the classrooms, and seeing how it looked, and it was always lovely,” said Schmichael. “Not everyone has it good at home, so I think a little decoration would bring a smile to their face."