What Teachers Really Think About All Those Spirit Days
"I call this 'Teachers Pay Teachers' lifestyle creep.”
If you’re a parent of a child under the age of, oh, 30 in the United States or Canada or places whose education system is very similar…you know about Spirit Days. I’m not talking about the Spirit Week leading up to Homecoming that people my age and older had when we were in high school, when you raided your parents’ closet for ‘80s clothes one day and then wore your school colors on Friday.
I’m talking about Spirit Day as a school culture. I’m talking about whole calendars of themed days. I’m talking about the 100th Day of School (wherein each student is tasked with wearing a clothing item of…..something) or they dress like they’re 100 Years Old. I’m talking about Adam Sandler Day but also the seemingly endless pajama days and “Crazy Hair Day” (a problem, a real problem!) and “Wild Sock Day” and “Dress for Your Favorite Decade” and I kid you not, “Rhyme with No Reason.” For elementary school students. For three year olds.
It’s easy to react to these days with ‘BACK IN MY DAY, WE MADE OUR COSTUMES OURSELVES’ but you know what, back in my day, we really did make these costumes ourselves, and they were limited to high school. Talking to current high school teachers, it’s still very much a student-directed, student-facilitated thing. But the younger the students, the more non-student involvement comes into play — both in the planning and the execution.
Who does that labor? The vast majority of time, it’s women. Moms, of course, who are more likely to carry the mental load of remembering the spirit days, procuring costume ideas for those days, and managing emotions (their own and their children’s) about forgotten or half-assed days. But we’re also talking about the women who make up 90% of the elementary educational workforce and 97% of early childhood education.
We spend a lot of time talking about the contradictions and unsustainability of contemporary parenting, and what I’ve heard from parents when it comes to spirit days is a real mix of “how can I deny my child an opportunity for joy,” “who has time and money for this shit,” “they do look cute dressed as grandmas,” and “of course the work of figuring this out falls to me.” Those reactions make sense and, quite frankly, mirror my own. It’s possible to enjoy dress-up (for yourself and others) and also understand the inequitable labor expectations that often undergird it.
Still, I knew my annoyance was missing some vertical and horizontal contextualization. That’s how I think about information that answers the question of how did we get here (as in, what precipitated this phenomenon) and why did we get here (what societal factors keep it embedded in the status quo).
I also knew that these days were meant to engender community, infuse the school day with some level of joy, and incentivize attendance — all things most schools are desperate for, particularly post-Covid shutdowns.
But I still wanted to know: Just how much have these days spread? How has the blueprint for them spread from school to school, and through the age groups? What are the expectations for teacher participation and the wages of neglect? What uncomfortable realities do they make very, very visible? And what sort of say does anyone — parent or teacher or child — have in their future?
For today’s post, I asked educators to offer that context. The sampling you’ll find below comes from 150 responses from all corners of the country, in all types of schools, at all different levels, and with different levels of animus or apathy towards these days. What unites them is their anonymity — I would never ask an educator to comment on a fraught subject with their name attached in a public forum. I know, and hopefully you know, exactly what sort of rhetorical ammunition that could provide.
Whatever you think about these days (or whether you’ve thought of them at all!), the goal is that you think of them with just a little more understanding of what they’re trying, so very ardently, so desperately to do. No number of dress-up days, no matter how clever or carefully planned, can address or even distract from the actual issues ailing the educational system. You can dress up a problem all you want: make it wear pajamas, glue-gun puffy balls to it, put it in a matching outfit with another problem. But it’s still a problem.
These responses also ask us — as members of society, as parents, as people who care about education — to consider: What is school for? What should it feel like, what sort of incentives are you “owed,” how much work should it require outside of, well, “learning”? And who should ultimately decide those answers?
Answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
A 7th-8th Grade English Teacher in Sacramento, CA:
This brings up a lot of feelings for me. First, I think spirit days can be fun, especially with older kids who can gather a lot of the items needed. That said, the vitriol around it really irritates me — it's another case where teachers and schools are damned if we do and damned if we don't. I've taught at five different schools over the past 17 years, and parents get pissed either way.
If we don't do "enough" then they want to know why there isn't more for their child to do, why some schools have them and theirs doesn't, why teachers don't have parties or events or “positive experiences”….but if we do, then suddenly, it's too much work, parents have to work, why do they do this. I've seen these same complaints about everything from reading logs to homework: parents want their children to get a good education, to be challenged, etc. but if we set up the structure to do that, it's a problem because their kids play sports, and they have vacations, and they want family time, but then seem shocked when their child isn't learning as quickly or can't read well.
The spirit of education right feels very teachers-and-schools versus parents-and-kids, and it really, really sucks. Additionally, I think the school environment is reflective of how hard it is in general to parent right now: there's Elf on the Shelf, Leprechaun traps for St. Patrick’s Day, and many parents get mad when schools don't do these things to make it fun for their kids.
There’s a lot of a focus on kids enjoying every single second of their life right now. Sometimes school/life is boring; not every aspect needs to be gamified or turned into a dress-up day.
A High School Teacher in Southern California:
I want to say we have elevenbillionty spirit days, but realistically I guess we have two or three a month. And I have to wonder if this is a function of a greater trend in adult management of kid fun. Like, this is an offshoot of the same need parents have of scheduling play dates or the other billion activities kids get placed in. Now we have to engineer fun for kids too. Schools have excised actual fun by ratcheting up testing and "increasing the rigor" and as a result, there has to be manufactured fun in the form of Grease vs. Greece day or Read Across America Day or whatever.
And because schools run their own Instagram accounts, there's also pressure for the kids in ASB or leadership to create content to show how fun their high school experience is, so they have senior sunrise or honor roll picnics to make the whole thing Instagrammable.
My school has medium school spirit, but I am well aware that my daughter — who is in 10th grade at another high school and is in ASB — gets graded on how much she participates in school spirit activities. The day that it was “Tutu Tuesday” almost broke me.
In every school where I’ve taught, the labor of spirit days falls not just on teachers but female teachers. Things get planned and executed because female teachers help it along.
This will only stop when teachers say fuck it and begin to work to contract —not as a “punishment,” but because we should only do the work we are actually paid for. And if you do work that you aren't paid for (and trust me, I do) or you pay for things out of pocket (which I am also guilty of) it should only be for things you care about it. If that thing is Pi Day, then so be it. For me, it's not for a themed spirit day.
A Multilingual Learner (ESL) Teacher:
We have at least 20 spirit days at my school. Educators are struggling to get children excited about school and learning, so this is a nice little carrot to get them in the building. But it’s exhausting for everyone.
I’m an educator and a parent so I see both sides, but so many of our most othered or underprivileged students do not have the ability to participate. Currently I am working with mostly asylum-seeking newcomer students who are living in a hotel because they are technically unhoused. Of course they want to participate in these days, because they hold the allure of belonging — but there’s no way teachers or their parents or anyone really can keep up with what they would need in order to do so. Plus it’s all such a superficial attempt at community and inclusion anyway — and so many of the spirit days are cultural appropriation or offensive in numerous other ways.
As for stopping them, it feels train has left the station. I will say that the only way schools change is if parents make a stink.
A High School Psychology Teacher in Wyoming:
We have about 20 of these days a year. Our school is super toxic and dysfunctional and the student council does not represent our average student well, so a small handful of students participate and they are generally the higher socio-economic status students.
Helicopter parents want them so their kids can be special and they can post them all over social media. There. I said it. Few people do it so it becomes a very haves and have-nots situation.
A Middle School Librarian in the Pacific Northwest:
We talk about "belonging" a lot and I think some people have and idea that goofy school spirit is a visible signal of belonging. I also hear about trying to reclaim the joy and fun of being a kid. But even a lot of the kids — especially the ones who were most impacted by remote school — just flat-out refuse to participate.
We should listen to the kids. Do they actually want this? What do they want it to look like? How many of them, especially in middle school, just want to wear their usual thing and not think about their clothes/bodies, and not have other people think about their clothes/bodies?
A Third Grade Teacher in Oregon:
Honestly, I struggle on these days and the preparation for them. I want to have fun with my students! They are 8-9 years old and I want to build in memorable social experiences for them. But between the change in routine, the emotional pressure on kids and families to participate in and and enjoy these days, plus sugary treats and the ensuing crash, these days often become exhausting and frustrating.
I think a lot of this comes from what I’ve come to think of as performative educating. More and more, I’ve seen my school and district falling into the trap of “it looks cute and sweet on the gram.” But more often than not, it’s a distraction and takes time away from meaningful community building and academic work.
Some of this could be capped by schools and administrators and leaders setting clear, school-wide expectations with their teachers and families at the outset of the year. We could agree on a number of days to celebrate, stuff around food, the time dedicated to these days, how to make the them inclusive for all students, and then communicate those agreements to families clearly.
A Special Education Teacher in Missouri:
I teach in a special education-only building and spirit days are kind of more for adults than students. I’d kill for more sweatpants/pajama days. I just want to be comfy! At my school it’s very chill and optional. Everyone is depressed and burnt out and to some people more spirit days are a way to break it up.
A Kindergarten Teacher in British Columbia, Canada:
Some of our spirit days are relatively new and created in response to societal changes (i.e. Pink Shirt Day and Orange Shirt Day). But most of the time they are a way to fill the day and get kids excited about something new. It’s extra labour that I quite honestly don’t have time to do, especially as I’ve lost nearly all my prep time due to the teacher shortage. But as a new teacher with low seniority in the union, I have to make a good impression.
Personally, I try to keep the theme days low key. But there are always costs associated with these days that I end up paying for, like stickers, art supplies, candy, themed books to read. The costs are small but they add up. I didn’t do anything for Groundhog Day, and I’m trying to get out of doing anything for 100 Days of School. I repurposed part of my students’ old art project as door decorations for Literacy Week and definitely got a few looks. Some teachers admired my creativity, others were judgmental — they had made brand new, elaborate door displays that took hours. And my class did not care! It was the teachers who cared.
I can’t see it ever ending. The power of education influencers is only increasing and it’s changed expectations for our profession. Teachers Pay Teachers [AHP note: this has been explained to me as “Etsy, but for lesson plans,” and it’s indicative of pretty much everything going on in ed right now] and the availability of lesson plans to go with these theme days are another factor — and, of course, most of these plans cost money out of our own pockets.
Parents also have high expectations for themselves and us: they are creating ever more elaborate goody bags for these holidays, and teachers can be easy to manipulate. We want to be fun and engaging, we don’t want to be the “boring” teacher, and we want to create special memories for our students. Unless we all decide collectively to limit this stuff, it will never end. You only need a couple teachers to go all in to feel inadequate.
A Middle School Teacher in Chicago:
Here’s what I think: the school day is too long. The school year itself is too long. There is not enough recess. There are not enough special classes — stuff like art, gym, and music. There is too much standardized testing. There is not enough joy at school. And admins and teachers want to do something with and for kids that feels special. They can’t ask parents to pay because not everyone can. Teachers (including myself) already spend hundreds of dollars on snacks, experiences, and incentives for students every year. Spirit Days are a free way to attempt to bring some fun and levity to the school experience.
It’s just One More Thing on a very very long list of things that I as an educator am responsible for. I absolutely encourage participation, but in a large urban district it’s obviously low on my list of priorities.
Parents: please recognize that for the most part, admin/teachers are trying to do something fun for your kids, not ruin your lives, because we’re working parents too! If you truly don’t like it, say something to your principal and ask about the reasoning behind it. Trust me, I’d rather my school have 15 more minutes of daily recess than ever do another Spirit Day ever again.
First Grade Teacher in Washington DC Area:
It’s just another thing to manage, which is exhausting. But I honestly love the 100th day of school because concepts within 100, number identification, etc., are all academic indicators in first grade. They get so excited about having met this huge milestone. My kids frequently tell me it’s the best day or most memorable part of first grade. It’s also a break from the mundane and way too academically rigorous curriculum.
A Former 8th Grade English Teacher in a Wealthy San Francisco Suburb:
The kids honestly love them. In my K-8 school, I led student council, and the older kids were always begging for more of them. A lot of well-meaning young teachers who don’t have children also drive a lot of this stuff. There is a positive correlation between over-decorated Pinteresty classrooms and spirit day supporters. And not to be a killjoy, but it has to be said: there’s also a negative correlation between these things and learning, at least in the short term, although learning can certainly be enhanced in the long term if kids are regularly having fun and getting their wishes met fairly reliably. I was very much about a blank canvas classroom on day one of a school year because it should belong to the students and their projects as the year goes on.
The worst thing about spirit days is that they very quickly become racist or inappropriate. Not everyone (teachers included) knows that a brown Afro wig is a bad choice for “crazy hair day.”
A County Office Support Staff Member in Central California:
Right now there's a big push to get kids reengaged with school: there's ongoing conversations about the pandemic "exodus" from public schools, and it feels that lots of people are panicked about that. Add ongoing issues of alienation and depression, a renewed fixation on accountability (lots of state tests/accountability schemes were on hiatus until this year) and brutally boring curriculum and instruction….and I think we have the perfect storm to which the only answer we can come up with is "fun!"
And because “fun" fits into the capitalist framework — either with pjs, t-shirts and costumes to buy or through the new social-emotional industry that has been ramping up over the last few years — it's easier to implement than, say, treating students and families with intellectual respect.
A 1st-3rd Grade Teacher at a Montessori School in Texas:
I feel pressure from parents to create these experiences for their kids, and social media also seems to create a sense of expectation. It's so deeply rooted in consumption: buying crap for the theme, essentially creating content of children for consumption, and training our kids to engage with parts of the year and each other as things to consume vs rituals in which they can participate. I also find some of the themes fun, but I hate teacher Instagram/ Tiktok / Pinterest communities that glorify this type of participation in themed days as evidence of having fun at school.
I try to be mindful of what my actual job is vs what are the "hobby" parts of my job. Spirit days fall into the "hobby" part of teaching for me and I hate any expectations surrounding things I do for fun. I have much better boundaries than I did in the pas and delegate the shit out of these sort of things. I send out a form at the start of the school year to lay out all of these spirit day events and to get an understanding of how my community of parents feel.
Some parents love participating in these sort of cutesy hobbies and they help me support the community as a whole (for instance, someone signs up to bring extra Valentine's cards in case anyone forgets). Not all teachers have this sort of parent community, though, and I think expectations for teachers to create this sort of support and involvement from classroom parents is some deep BS.
An Assistant Principal in New York City High School:
In my role as an AP, I feel pressure to have spirit to support my students, and the student council members who organize the events, and to connect with students in a humorous, or lighthearted way. That said, I just about lost my shit in December when we had spirit week with the randomest spirit days, a staff cookie swap, and a staff potluck. I could not dress appropriately for three out of five of the days— I couldn’t even muster an easy match for twin day — my twin from earlier in the year was having her shirt laundered.
The days were confusingly themed, like, “dress as your favorite holiday movie character” or even though it was easy, “wear the color of the class you belong to.” I supervise all grades, so it was hard to participate without a lot of effort and honestly, what holiday movie character would I want to be that I could put together very quickly while baking cookies and getting my son ready for his spirit days in kindergarten? My son’s spirit week this week is super weird. He needed silly socks today to represent his digital footprint. He needs game paraphernalia to represent his favorite game. He needs a hat that represents something about him.
I try to help our student council keep things manageable, but I don’t want to crush our students’ spirit and many of them love to plan these events. They want more! As a parent, well, it’s 11 PM and I’m not sure what tomorrow’s theme is, and I am trusting that my son’s teacher will help him to navigate any social issues that arise from me not knowing where the schedule is anymore and if I’m not able to find it and figure it out in the morning.
A Public High School English Teacher in New Jersey :
Spirit Weeks are absolutely insufferable as a teacher. At the high school level, it’s distracting at best with photo shoots in the hallway for “twin day” and “sports jersey day” and borderline toxic at worst. My administration has asked me multiple times why I “have no spirit” and don’t participate or hype up my homeroom. This is not an essential part of my job. I don’t even know what my job is anymore because there’s no time or resources to be able to do it. I can’t fathom adding the labor of being spirited to the list.
Schools are scrambling to fix “climate and culture” measures with absolutely no resources or money to do so. At least in my district, teachers are reporting absolute dread at their jobs. Kids and families report a lack of support and the fact that covid made school not enjoyable. They have no actual ways of fixing these problems, so this is their best attempt.
A Kindergarten Teacher at an “Early Learning” School in Washington State
In twelve years of teaching, I’ve never really enjoyed spirit days. But becoming a mom really calcified for me just how much work it all is, and I go to great lengths to create ways to celebrate that don’t involve parent labor. Because I’m also tired of buying valentines for kids whose parents chose not to. I’m tired of helping kids through the emotions of forgetting to wear pajamas.
Right now there’s an attempt to bring community effervescence to the schooling day, which has become more and more dictated by others. Curriculum is decided by district superiors; there is a significant push of highly academic skills into younger grades with less focus on play; there is less focus on celebrating traditional holidays as a class — which I think is a good move.
But I also think we still seek these community bonding type activities, where we are all dressing the same and excited about the same thing… so then if we are putting less focus on Christmas, let’s make 100th Day special! Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that true community doesn’t always require *big* celebrations - that we can build it in other smaller ways. I follow a teacher on Instagram who shares different ways to “surprise and delight” students every month in a seasonal way, and that can mean something as simple as turning a fireplace YouTube video on and reading books together in front of it.
I do think Instagram/TikTok teacher influencer culture is a bit to blame for all of this — I call this “Teachers Pay Teachers lifestyle creep.” Around the time I started teaching 12 years ago it became super important to have a classroom theme and to make sure any worksheet was not just educational but also cute. Seeing the glorification of over-the-top and cute ideas makes people think that that’s what’s valued. Instead, I’d like to see the community value strong instructional methodology like the science of reading or making sure that schools are staffed. Glitzy holiday parties and complicated scavenger hunts for 100 Day seem like an effort to make the community think that the work we are doing in education is valuable….but we’re focusing on the wrong thing.
Until teachers begin to get outside validation from the community for things like helping kids learn to read and teaching strong lessons, I don’t see this changing… but those things are a lot harder to capture in a cute pic on a school’s social media page. ●
Further Culture Study Reading in this vein:
That’s What the Money Is For (on Teacher Appreciation Weeks)
And tremendous thanks to all the educators who took the time to share their thoughts.
As a former teacher and a fat person, I wish one of these people had mentioned the added difficulty of doing these days while fat (either as a child or a teacher). All the last minute shopping is often impossible for folks who can only by clothes online due to in person stores not carrying their size. Also, there's just so many less options for plus size clothing that it's a lot harder to meet the theme!
I would like to thank whatever genes or spirits gave me an obnoxiously contrary child. He’s always responded to any school-mandated costume day with an enormous Nope.