Advocating for Pagan Children in the Public School System
By Aurora Lightbringer
Several weeks ago there was a comment from a Pagan mom named Katie on the Pagan Families Facebook page. Katie’s children, who openly identify as and call themselves witches, were experiencing a struggle for acceptance of their tradition at school. Katie posted seeking advice about this situation:
“I am looking for any articles on young children going to public schools , I have enrolled my daughters who are open in calling themselves witches just like me and the school they are going to is full of small town [people] who pretend to be god fearing… and I had a K teacher tell my daughter, who is very loving that her moma ( me ) is going to hell . it got to a point that my baby didn’t want to go at all and she loved school and she loved her old school too …So I am looking for any info I might pass on to the school principal about pagan children. I have told him about how I raise my daughters but I am short tempered with the school so any help would be very much welcomed.”
Katie’s post struck a chord with me, as I too am a Pagan mom. I am also a National Board Certified Teacher and I teach in a public school system. Religious equity is a topic that I am very passionate about because I have a child that will one day have to navigate being a member of a minority religion in a public school and I have seen and experienced firsthand the types of bias and discrimination that occur in our public schools with regard to religious diversity. For the past year I have been working with members of the Pagan community to create a resource for Pagan parents called Pagan Kids in Public Schools (or PKIPS) to use in communicating needs and promoting understanding of our minority religion, which is due out in 2014. Katie’s request for suggestions resonated with me because her situation is just the type of treatment that we are creating this resource for. Since the PKIPS resource is not available yet, I responded right away with some other resources and strategies that Katie could use in communicating with her daughter’s school which I hope she found helpful. I am re-writing them here along with some others that I hope other Pagan parents will find useful as well.
- Approach the situation with the belief that everyone involved cares about your child. I have yet to meet a teacher who does not care deeply about his or her students, so I have to believe that when teachers make mistakes and behave in ways that are hurtful to students and families that these mistakes come from a lack of awareness about how hurtful the behavior is. It is likely that your child may be the first Pagan person his or her teacher has ever met, so it could very well be the teacher’s naiveté (rather than hate) that is fueling his or her hurtful behavior. Viewing your child’s educators not as enemies but rather as allies in resolving the issue will create a much more positive and productive environment in which to reach that resolution. This takes courage and self-control which is especially difficult when someone has wronged your baby, but in the end, your positive outlook will make a difference, especially as you find yourself in a position of educating the educators about your faith and about appropriate behaviors in creating a welcoming environment for all students.
- Know what you believe and find a way to articulate it clearly to others.When situations like this arise, Pagan parents often find themselves made the unwitting or unwilling spokespersons for the Pagan community. This is incredibly unfair and you can decline this daunting role by simply saying, “I cannot speak for all Pagans, but I can speak to my own family’s experience (or tradition)”. Having said this, while you do not have to assume the role of spokesperson for all Pagans, you do at minimum have to assume the role of spokesperson for your family and its needs. Pagan beliefs, traditions and practices can seem very foreign to members of mainstream religions or those who are entirely unaware or grossly uninformed of the Pagan community. So, distilling your family’s tradition down into an easy to understand statement will be helpful in supporting why your family’s needs are necessary. For example, if you want your child to be excused from school for all of the Sabbats, you should probably include in your statement something like “Our family celebrates eight high holy days, known as Sabbats. We are seeking an excused absence for our child when these holidays fall on a school day, so our child can stay home in observance of the holiday”. Further, as we know, in situations of ignorance words like “devil-worship” or “evil” or the like can sometimes arise. Being able to articulate your beliefs will help you to keep a cool head as you correct these hurtful stereotypes should they arise. You will be able to say something like, “’Devil-worship’ is actually not a part of my family’s faith, but it is an incredibly hurtful stereotype which we consider a slur. We do not recognize any devil or supremely evil force, so we do not worship such an entity. We do, however, worship a benevolent God as well as Goddess.”
Come to the conversation with a list of specific outcomes that you believe will make your child’s school experience better. Whether it is simply that your child’s teacher will stop making disparaging comments about your faith or wanting your child to be excused from school on the Sabbats or wanting the school’s winter holiday celebrations to include Yule—it is best to know what you want from your child’s school and, again, be able to articulate its importance clearly.
If your list of desired outcomes includes having your child’s teacher fired, you may want to reconsider or at least give this a great deal of objective thought. Consider your ultimate goal here, is it to simply remove one teacher or to help bring about acceptance for your child and quite possibly students of other minority religions as well? If the teacher is fired, he or she will likely leave school a less-than-enlightened perception of Pagans not to mention you will still need to share a community with this person. Consider if you are willing to tolerate other parents’ reaction to your campaign to fire the teacher, not to mention how the other students in class might treat your child if they find out why Mrs. Smith was fired. Also note that it takes a lot to fire a tenured teacher in many school systems, so consider if you have energy to pursue this end. Every situation is different, but the silver lining of instances of school-based discrimination is that it is an opportunity for growth and the possibility of a new level of acceptance for Pagans in your community. It places you and your family as the leaders of a kind of change can be far reaching and have a lasting positive impact in your community and in the greater Pagan community.
- Document incidents of bias and discrimination. If your child is continually reporting disparaging remarks or negative interactions with his or her teacher (or other educational stakeholder), then it is time to begin documenting these incidents. This is because you will likely find yourself in at least a few meetings surrounding these incidents and having a list of specific examples to refer to will go a long way to helping you keep a cool head and be able to provide detailed and documented examples of the negative interactions you are trying to stop. I would recommend creating a chart with the following columns:
Date; Description of Incident: People Present; Parent Communication with School (include who you spoke to); Action taken by School; Resolution Reached Yes/No; Notes
It can be really easy to communicate less-than effectively when it’s your child who’s hurting and to get lost in a sea of “educationalese/leagalese” . Having a list of documentation is key to illustrating the problem and resolving it.
- Communicate frequently, respectfully and IN WRITING. Always communicate to your child’s teacher in a respectful manner—for one thing it’s better to have an uncomfortable conversation with a calm, cool and collected attitude and for another, you should be modeling the type of communication you wish to see between the teacher and your child. Try to communicate via email or in writing and request that the recipient of your communication respond in kind. This way you have a paper trail to follow and to bring with you to meetings should you need to. Also, having conversations in writing means you will be able to review the conversation. Being able to re-read your conversation might give you clues as to where mis-communication is happening, or what the teacher’s specific biases are or where they are coming from. You might even find that upon a second read of the teacher’s email that her tone was not as hostile as you initially thought when you had steam coming out of your ears as you tried to defend your child.
- Set an intention. Create an intention statement and keep coming back to it in conversations. It could be something like: “We are seeking a safe and supportive environment for our child’s education. This type of environment honors diversity, including religious diversity. It is our wish that your institution (including faculty, staff, administration and other stakeholders in my child’s education) can work together towards a goal of building that supportive environment through a mutual objective of supporting students and families.” You might also wish to come up with examples of what it would look like if your intention became a reality in your child’s school. Having examples such as “my child would be able to wear a pentacle necklace to school without the fear of ridicule or judgment from his or her teacher and peers, just as other children wear crosses and stars of David without the fear of ridicule and judgment. “ or “Our holidays would be included in school seasonal conversations and celebrations”.
Finally, don’t forget that you are a witch! It would be highly appropriate to do spellwork and ritual to help manifest a better environment for learning and it would further empower the words of your intention statement by including it in ritual work surrounding this topic.
Ultimately, here’s the bottom line: all students have the right to a safe, supportive and welcoming environment in which to learn. Discrimination and bias are not to be tolerated. Having said that, the manner in which you respond to instances of discrimination and bias will greatly impact the progress towards creating that learning environment. Keep calm, continue to work with the stakeholders in your child’s life and remember that you are ultimately the biggest influence and role model in your child’s life—so go ahead and be a leader and an advocate, your child will thank you for it!
Resources for Parents:
- There is an article, “So you have a Pagan in your Classroom” by Suzanne Egbert (2002). It was written for parents to share with teachers.
- Another good article
- An essay about Paganism for school teachers
- “Pagans and the Law” by Dana D. Eilers
- “The Small Town Pagan’s Survival Guide: How to Thrive in Any Community” by Bronwen Forbes
- Lady Liberty League: Founded in 1985 by Selena Fox and others, Lady Liberty League (LLL) is the religious freedom and civil rights support organization that provides information and networking assistance to individuals and organizations concerned with religious freedom issues pertaining to Wiccan ways, Paganism, and other forms of Nature religions.
Aurora Lightbringer is an artist,author and Pagan mom who wanted to create a series of books dedicated to young people growing up in Earth-centered faith traditions. She is a community leader who is a National Board Certified Teacher, volunteer, consultant to a non-profit and part of a leadership team of a Pagan circle. She recently published her first children’s book The Wheel of the Year (available on amazon.com) and is working with a committee to create PKIPS (Pagan Kids in Public Schools) which will be a resource for Pagan families navigating the public school system. To find out more and to read some of Aurora’s work for grown-ups, visit: www.fullcircleuuca.org.