Politics in the Classroom
Last week The Washington Post published the article, “Teachers are expected to remain politically neutral. These Teachers of the Year say they can’t.”
One of the reasons given for not including politics as a topic of discussion in classrooms is the fear that students will be “insulted or intimidated from expressing contrary thoughts,” or indoctrinated to the teacher’s point of view.
I would like to think the teachers of this country manage their classrooms in a way that the environment is an encouraging and safe space for discussions that are readily applicable to the students’ world state. And because of that environment, their students are aware that they are in control of their own opinions and decisions.
Whether you talk openly about politics or not, if you have the kind of classroom environment I’ve mentioned above, your students are going to discover the very basics of where you stand on the political spectrum based upon how you handle lessons, communication, and overall management of the class. They are intelligent, far more so than society gives them credit for. They are our future, and believe me, they’re paying attention.
Children are watching. They are listening. They are learning from the example we set as their parents and teachers—not only from what we say and do, but from what we accept when it comes to the words and actions of others. We have to show them that hatred, sexism, racism, disrespect, and threats of physical violence are not okay.
The majority of my students identified as Latino and many of them came from immigrant families. They are social media fiends, so they were all over news about Trump when the candidate insulted and degraded their heritage. This is a real issue for them, they want to learn as much as they can about it, they want to do something about, and they want their teachers to address rather than ignore the elephant in the room.
Last year, the students were discussing a slew of Trump’s recent insults as they came in from passing period. And one girl said to me, “Miss, you should be happy when Trump becomes president.”
After I picked my mouth up off the floor I responded, “Why would you think so?”
“Because you would get to stay in America, but we would have to leave because we’re Hispanic.”
Now, as a teacher, I considered it my responsibility to educate and encourage my students, and I knew this would turn out to be a teachable moment. So what did I do? Did I just nod, smile, and jump into the lesson prepared for the day?
There are times when silence is the voice of complicity.
NO. Everyone’s attention was on this moment, and I didn’t have to request it. They were listening to every word being exchanged, and this was a moment that mattered. Even though this student was an American citizen, she whole-heartedly believed she would be deported. She whole-heartedly believed that since I was white, I agreed with what a disingenuous man in power had to say because he was white.
“No. I would not be happy. I love every one of you. I see you every day, and you’re the reason I come to work. I would be so angry and sad if you had to leave. Teaching students with different backgrounds than my own is one of my favorite things because we learn so much from each other.”
While that response appeased them and quelled their curiosity, ensuring they were prepared to work on the day’s material, I wasn’t done. I opened up the floor to anyone who wanted to voice their concerns about the upcoming election, about what it might mean for them. In my class, we support each other, we listen to each other, and we respect each other. The students are a family, and I merely facilitate conversation intended to grow them as human beings.
Some students shared their worries, their anger that they weren’t old enough to vote, the hypothetical scenarios that had the potential to play out. And I let them, only stepping in to encourage others to participate or ensure respectful etiquette was followed. They formed their own opinions because they have their own minds.
Our kids deserve to have their own opinions on the politics of this country. They deserve to be informed of the candidates’ intentions and how those intentions could affect them in the future. They deserve the chance to understand how the society they live in works, and have a voice in how they believe it should work. They deserve an education that actually educates them and prepares them to think for themselves in the “real world,” because, surprise, they are already in it!
“Before we move on, I want to make it perfectly clear to you that no one, no one, has the right to make you feel any less of a person than you are. I don’t care if you are young or old, black, white, brown, or blue, speak English, Spanish, Korean or otherwise, rich or poor, boy or girl, each one of you has a unique voice that deserves to be heard. Don’t ever let me or anyone else forget that.”
Should I have said that to my students? Was it in the lesson plans for the day? Did it connect to common core? Was that statement too political?
None of that ever crossed my mind. And were I given the opportunity to do it all over again, I would do the exact same thing.
We also help children become good human beings — to work hard, to do the right thing, and above all else, to be kind to one another.