"I call this 'Teachers Pay Teachers' lifestyle creep.”
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.
Thank you for posting about this. I have taught in a high-income school and now teach in a low-income school. My current school gets it right. There are a handful a year and are very low-key. At my previous school, I had to spend so much money on theme t-shirts and matching Halloween costumes. (This begs the question, why do we make t-shirts for every occasion? The environmental cost is unreal.)
As a parent, it is a relief to see that so many teachers share my concerns. Particularly the observations that spirit days are:
- mostly performative, especially for young students;
- deeply rooted in consumption/capitalism; and therefore
- highly inequitable and incredibly wasteful.
Once my local school board refused to implement/enforce any pandemic protections, I removed my elementary-age child from public school and started homeschooling. Even though I now have to:
- know the curriculum;
- prepare lesson plans;
- gather resources;
- document evidence of learning; and
- consult with, and report to, supervising teachers
I somehow feel less overwhelmed than when my child was attending public school full-time. That’s partly because the performative aspects of parenting a school-age child have disappeared from my to-do list.
It is fascinating to see how these spirit days are a collective coping mechanism to create the illusion of belonging/community and calm/fun.
“Yes, you six-year-olds had to do lockdown drills again, but at least you got to do it in your pyjamas! Fun!”
“Sure, we’re in the middle of a traumatic pandemic that is orphaning our schoolmates, but surely we’d feel a lot better if we wore expensive sports jerseys on Friday!”
“We are all, students, parents and teachers alike, completely overwhelmed by our increasing workloads, but these themed sugar cookies we baked last night will help us manage the overwhelm! Right? Right?!?”
I feel for every teacher. Thankfully kids are grown and on their own now, but what I see with my cousin's kids is sometimes too much. The 'gamification' of every subject to make it 'fun'. Tik Tok and IG need to calm down. Social media has destroyed everything good in the world. It always starts as a great idea, but it never ends that way. To all the teachers out there. I appreciate you. I also don't blame you if you leave the profession for the sake of your own mental health.
I am a teacher (or was) and a mom and so much yes to these comments. Spirit days can be fun and they can also be toxic. I recall a school nearby whose classes got colors for homecoming week. The seniors wore white and a number of them showed up to a pep rally with WHITE PRIDE written in sharpie on their shirts. We live on an Indian reservation. It ended up in the WaPo. This could have happened without spirit days but for gods sake it’s one more stressful thing for teachers and administrators (and the entire student population, in this case) to contend with that could have been avoided.
My kid recently has "Dress like your favorite idiom" day and I LOL'd about the absurdity of it. It was definitely a "LOLSOB" moment.
Totally recognize/feel the responses that mentioned the gap between haves and have-nots, and the nebulous way that affects the perception of which students are "cool" and which teachers are "fun". I'm a quadruplet, and both my mother and us HATED spirit days because of the stress of trying to do participating outfits x4, and the inevitable visual gaps/fights/ill feelings between which of us got the one on-theme item of clothing in the house, and the others making do with whatever could be made or scrounged from Wal-Mart/Target the day before. This also always played out in the contrasts between the rich kids (new, custom spirit stuff), middle-class kids (homemade or cheap stuff), and poor kids (often nothing). Teachers got the judgment, too, because of course the ones who had the time/money/resources to decorate themselves and their classrooms were viewed positively ("fun teacher") by everyone, and the ones who didn't were seen as boring, unengaged, etc.
So, yeah, all this to say that spirit days for everyone in my childhood were marked by stress, class performance, and gossip, and I feel sorry for the teachers, parents, and kids who have one more thing to worry about. Happy, like, Dress-Like-The-Mouse-In-If-You-Give-A-Mouse-A-Cookie-Day, I guess.
What I recall of school celebrations as a kid growing up in the 80's in the East Bay in California is that we wore costumes on Halloween and gave tiny cards on Valentine's Day, and any other celebration basically involved someone's mom bringing in cupcakes. Now that we are honoring so many food sensitivities, celebration seems to have been channelled into clothing because... we all wear clothes? But my kids are very sensitive to clothes and so coming up with something to wear on these days, or worse, having to wear the same t-shirt as everyone else (always the same enormous boy-cut rough cotton t-shirt), has always been an issue. I ignore the Spirit Day notifications or maybe mention them in passing, see the corresponding eye roll, and drop it. But I do sense that my kids, while unwilling to participate, also don't enjoy being part of the out crowd that didn't wear a red t-shirt that day. For us, these days contribute to my kids' sense of alienation from school that was exacerbated by the pandemic.
As a child my school had Spirit Week and 100 day and I hated all of it, so I was relieved to find that my own kids' school does nothing like this. No spirit. No special observance of any day. It is wonderful. I see my friends' social media posts of their kids' cute/funny outfits and yes, very cute, very glad we don't do it.
The Chicago teacher's observation that school is too long is right on target, in my opinion - my kids go to a non-traditional private school that believes that school itself is a very demanding environment for children and it isn't reasonable to expect high engagement all day/every day, so they have a short school day, three recesses, art/music/etc. every day, a developmentally appropriate curriculum and no homework. As it turns out kids are plenty enthusiastic about just putting on their uniform and going to school when school itself is engaging to them. This makes our home life/my work-home balance so much more pleasant - we don't need to think about school when they're not at school!
Well, this reminds me that tomorrow is dress like a book character day for my first-grader, which I had been forgetting. Yikes. The last time we had dress like a book character day he was in daycare and they gave us two days of warning and I assessed his wardrobe then went out and bought a book with a skeleton character so we could send him in his skeleton pajamas. Also I wrote a snippy email to the director about the lack of notice. Happily, the skeleton book turned into a longtime favorite.
Reading this piece, though, my kid's school is sooooo laid back, which I think is partly a district-wide thing though I don't know how spirit days will be for the older kids. But our schools don't do any holiday celebrations beyond "Friendship Day" on February 14. No Halloween etc. And even the dress like a book character day, they will make masks in school, so if they don't arrive dressed as a character they get to participate. I think that's a self-conscious effort to not exclude kids.
There are a couple of pajama days a year, which last year did cause one emergency shopping trip because our kid always sleeps in long sleeves and pants and there was a pajama day on a hot day and we had to get shorty pajamas. Luckily there's a Gap near my husband's office and he just went there. For the 90th day of school it was mismatch day, like half one thing and half another but they helpfully mentioned that mismatched socks were a good choice. Then 10 days later it was the 100th day of school, and ... it can't really have been wild and crazy day, right? They wouldn't have used crazy? I hope? Anyway, some kind of dress weird thing, and we just went with mismatched socks again. So thus far it's been manageable but reading these responses fills me with fear.
Yes yes yes to all the comments about how much effort Spirit Days are for parents. But I’m really here to share that this year my daughter’s high school had “Early 2000s Day” as one of their spirit days, which had the same knife-to-heart energy as the newest historical American Girl doll being from 1999.
Parent of a 1st grader and a toddler.
1st grader’s school is private and goes PK4-8th grade, but has a high number of Louisiana tuition voucher students (low-income kids who would otherwise be enrolled in a failing public school). Has uniforms and 6 optional “color days” per year: 2 Saints colors (wear black and/or gold or a Saints jersey), 1 Halloween colors (black, orange, lime green, purple), 1 Christmas colors (red, green, and white), 1 Mardi Gras colors (purple, green, and gold), and 1 either Valentine’s (red, pink, purple and white) OR St Patrick’s colors (green and white), whichever one falls further on the calendar from Mardi Gras that year. This seems reasonably nonspecific, stuff that they would likely have in their closets already, and a lot of it can be re-used from one Spirit Day to another. And there are enough of them to make being out-of-uniform special without it being overwhelming. About 2/3 of the kids participate.
My younger daughter’s DAYCARE OTOH (it goes from 10 weeks to 3-4 year olds, she is 20 months old) and which has no uniforms has had Halloween Pajama Day (because every kid totally has special pajamas for every holiday and is not wearing her sister’s hand-me-downs), a whole week of Christmas dress up days, a whole week of themed dress-up days for National School Choice week, a Valentine’s party and dress-up day, and for Mardi Gras I was told to send in a plain white t-shirt for them to decorate (which I did, and then never saw or heard anything about again) and then told to dress her in a Mardi Gras outfit (we’re in New Orleans, so this isn’t TOTALLY random, but I’m not buying my kid a Mardi Gras outfit that will only fit for one year and then have it get ruined at daycare) for the Friday before Mardi Gras. And every Friday during football season is "Black and Gold Friday" because we must have pictures of all the babies in their tiny Saints onesies! (Note: even though my husband grew up in the suburbs here and literally works next to the Superdome, he doesn't follow football or any sports at all and upon seeing a traffic jam heading downtown will ask me if the Saints are playing that day when it's, like, April. So unless I got it as a hand-me-down, my baby isn't likely to own a Saints onesie.)
Next week there’s a whole week of Dr. Seuss-themed dress up days. There will undoubtedly be dress up days if not whole weeks for St. Patrick’s Day and Easter.
THIS IS A DAYCARE. It exists because mothers are AT WORK. There is absolutely no educational benefit for this at this age. It is ENTIRELY for the benefit of the school’s social media presence.
I’m just flat-out ignoring these dress-up days for the younger kid and getting dirty looks from some of the teachers for sending my kid in in a Santa Claus shirt on Valentines Day, but a large portion of the parents aren’t. (Most of the parents are upper-middle-class white folks.)
I’d argue that these days are NOT harmless, as there are undoubtedly mothers there with PPD or PPA beating themselves up over their “failures” to provide this or that socially-pressured thing for their kids that doesn’t actually matter. This is just one more thing added onto them.
The topic of spirit days actually came up in my district administration meeting today. After a pause due to COVID, average attendance is now part of my evaluation again as a school administrator. I do take issue with this because it’s not something I completely control as a school leader.
After a colleague said she does spirit days to boost attendance, I looked at my school’s data for this school year. Our top four attendance days for the year so far are:
- The first day of school
- Valentine’s Day
- The day of the December music program
I’m not a huge fan of special events at school because they are just so darn disruptive. However, the data shows they are also the days when the most kids come to school. I really bristle at using spirit days to cajole students to come to school. At the same time, I don’t blame my colleague for using them to get kids to school, especially if a poor evaluation means being out of a job.
Attendance being part of my evaluation is just another example of the many expectations that are placed on educators without the proper resources to pull them off. As a school leader, it’s easier for me to procure the resources for an epic Kindergarten Valentine’s Blowout and cook my attendance numbers than it is for me to hire a social worker or connect families with community services that are needed to actually tackle the issues that lead to poor attendance.
When I was a classroom teacher at the middle school level, I had some concern about how much these days accentuated the differences in resources available to families and children, if the day involved costumes.
The busy, not affluent parents bought inexpensive costumes for the younger children, while the affluent parents facilitated homemade costumes that, when you count the time it takes to make them, were much more expensive and striking. It became a status display.
On twins day at the school, another teacher and I would wear black pants and the same color shirt. But pairs of kids would go shopping to buy identical outfits. One year some of the students came in and had the price tags dangling from their new hats. These were not the affluent students at the school. I thought it was by accident and said to one of my students, 'the tag is still attached to your hat,' and she told me that was the style.
I didn't say anything but found that alarming.
I have to believe flooding the calendar with spirit days is mainly distracting everyone from learning. Events are special if they happen less frequently. In my classroom I timed some off-curriculum projects for the day of the Halloween dance or day before Winter break when I knew kids could not focus on the lesson anyway.
As I read this, I kept thinking about how helpful it is to teach kids that things like “holiday magic” (as Eve Brodsky’s Fair Play brilliantly put it!) require work and labor from someone. Not because there is never value in these kind of fun activities or that kids need to be in charge of them, but because we actually devalue the miracle of them happening at all thanks to the tireless work of underpaid educators and (generally speaking) mothers and women!
I think kids, especially by the time they reach high school, can understand and appreciate being taught that special and fun things in life do not happen without an emotional, physical, and monetary cost paid by someone, and understand that someone is often invisible. As many people interviewed in this story mention, the only way to change this is system is for teachers/parents to start opting out of things like this — but we need to have future generations who know opting out is an option and won’t punish those who do!