We pretend core subjects are dogma-free; they aren’t. Here’s the right approach for teachers of all political persuasions.
It’s an election year, and that means TVs, radios, Internets and dinner tables will be immersed in campaign minutiae. And keeping all that political buzz out of the classroom can be a wildly difficult feat.
The first election I witnessed as a teacher was in 2008, when Barack Obama handily beat John McCain to win the presidency.
Many of my students were utterly elated. One had worn pro-Obama t-shirts to school all election season, and the day after Obama’s historic victory, she came in to class dancing, with cheeks painted bright red and blue.
Her enthusiasm and joy were contagious. Beyond Democrat or Republican, that the United States democratically chose a black man to its highest office had symbolic merit far beyond any other election, at least up to that point.
But I still refused to tell my students for whom I had voted, both in that year and later, in 2012. I made sure they knew I had voted; but I also insisted that my position as their teacher made it inappropriate for me to proselytize, even inadvertently.
Not to mention alienate students who might disagree (or whose parents might disagree).
Politics is personal. And I’m in the business, as a teacher, of making my relationships with students as strong, real, and supportive as possible. Whether I voted for Obama, or McCain, or Romney, statistics show half of my classes would be from families who voted differently.
And believe me: the last people you want to alienate are your students’ parents.
Yet the subject of politics in the classroom is unavoidable. Outside of mathematics, the other three core classes – Language Arts, Science, History – are going to have political dimensions.
What books do you teach, for instance? During my days as a Literature major, a professor who taught one of my required Lit survey courses had strong and regularly vocalized opinions about “canonical” authors. So instead of reading Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger, or Kurt Vonnegut, we read Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Bharati Mukherjee.
And what about History? Students taken to see the musical “Hamilton” would have a very different view of our founding fathers than if they read about the nascent phase of our nation from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. In fact, history is arguably the most politically fraught topic. Millennia of humans on earth leaves no feasible way to study even a fraction of all that has transpired. A teacher’s discretion on what to highlight will have political implications.
And of course, there is the ongoing controversy in the realm of Science, over whether or not teachers must, or should, or can, include the theory of Intelligent Design alongside Evolution.
So if politics is unavoidable in the classroom, how does the responsible teacher navigate forward?
Here are three tips:
1. International news is usually less troublesome than domestic politics. Events happening in other countries are far enough removed that personal attachments are unlikely.
And what happens in other countries can be a powerful way to talk about power. To talk about political ideologies. And of course, to help students recognize how interconnected our world is, and how much of a connection there is between what happens overseas and what happens here.
2. Give the other side of your argument.
President Obama was famous in his law schools days for giving the impression to opposing sides of an issue that he was in both their camps.
One of my own favorite professors tried to guide a sobbing student through her grief the day after George W. Bush was elected to a second term. And despite watching her kindness towards this distraught youngster, I never could tell if she shared my classmate’s reaction, or if she had voted for the other guy.
I always tried to be that kind of a teacher.
3. Let your students talk about issues with one another.
There’s inspiration to be had in watching young people respectfully disagree. It’s a great exercise in learning how to express your viewpoint, while also learning how to show decorum and graciousness to someone who disagrees.
Students need to learn how to do this.
Out politicians could use a refresher course themselves.