Teachers have such an important role to play right now. Of course, they always do. But in our increasingly explosive partisan atmosphere, the ability and willingness of American teachers to rise above personal biases and create a welcoming & safe place for all students has perhaps never been more important.
I taught through both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. In both, but especially in the former, many of my students brought a joyful and vocal support for President Obama into the classroom. Some wore pro-Obama t-shirts, and one girl even sported red & white face paint too. As both an adult and a white person, I treasured that experience. Because had I not been in a classroom with 13- and 14-year-olds, I might not have fully grasped the magnitude of Obama’s impact for many teenagers. Especially, for young people of color.
It was huge.
The 2012 election did feel different from ’08, though. Teaching in a middle-class suburb outside of Austin brought an extraordinary diversity to our student demographics. Every class represented a range of ethnicities and backgrounds.
And in 2012, several of the Mormon students I taught were rooting for Mitt Romney. I’m sure there were others, too, but I realized that for Mormons – a religious minority that has experienced persecution on American soil – the hope represented by Romney meant something more.
I don’t like identity politics. After all, there are African-Americans who vote Republican, and Mormons who didn’t support Romney.
Yet the symbolic weight of those two men – what they meant to young people who had inherited the reality that their ancestors had been, at the very least, historically at risk – superceded normal political preference.
So I in no way envy the tightrope teachers today must walk, especially if they teach History or Government (or include current events in their curriculum).
Because you have young people whose parents are Trump supporters. Students who see him as the champion of the working man (probably even more so, following Trump’s meeting with union leaders). Students in rural areas, in industrial areas, whose parents may very well have been hit hard by the financial collapse and the realities of modernity. And students whose “identity” – white, and especially white and male – feels like an automatic indictment from so many cultural power brokers.
They look at Trump and see someone who does more than just ignore or passively hate them.
On the other hand, you have students who feel immediately threatened by Trump. After all, he’s put a man in the White House who makes no effort to hide his distaste for immigrants (read: Steve Bannon dislikes anyone outside the European bloodline). Trump has made racist statements himself. He’s bragged about sexually assaulting women, because he could get away with it. And apparently, he could: Trump is now the President. And with his recent action to halt the entry of refugees – and anyone else – from certain, coincidentally Muslim-majority countries (not to mention prioritizing “the wall” along the border with Mexico) – who could blame young people for being afraid? Especially students who are minorities? Or female? They’ve been singled out, haven’t they?
So how does a teacher deal with this?
My best advice is to first and foremost insist that it is not your job to weigh in on political matters. When my former students begged me to reveal who I’d voted for, I always told them the truth: that I’d consider it a manipulation and perversion of my position to sound off on politics. Maybe they like me, and so my opinion sways theirs. Or maybe they don’t like me, and so whatever I support, they feel they must be against. Maybe they take my words as a personal affront to the views of their family, and by extension, them.
That’s not helpful.
But more importantly, for me, was that I would risk keeping my students from experiencing the lasting joy and life change that comes from arriving at conclusions on their own.
So what to do if the news spills, as it is wont to do, into the classroom?
To start, I’d make a big deal about bipartisan friendships. I know they’re hard to find now, but take the fact that liberal hero Ruth Bader Ginsburg used to vacation together with conservative icon Antonin Scalia. Here are two Supreme Court Justices in living memory of everyone (Ginsburg is still with us) who disagreed profoundly on almost all hot-button political issues of our day.
And yet, they were deeply close friends.
The best of humans, on both sides, have proven throughout history that political preference does not have to determine civility, or even friendship. President George W. Bush spoke regularly on the phone with former President Clinton, despite being from different parties. There are others.
I’d use them to help students grasp that, the catty bickering so often featured on cable news notwithstanding, bipartisan relationships can be ones of more than just convenience. They can be ones of depth and meaning.
After that, I think it’s becoming ever-more important that young people be taught the difference between a fact, an uncertainty, an opinion, and a deception. Propaganda’s as old as politics itself, but with the recent addition of “alternative facts” to national dialogue, it seems especially urgent to help young people understand that there are, in fact, certain things that can be verified and known.
The best way to do this is not use American examples. Too hot. Too much potential for personal allegiance to get in the way.
Again, if Trump (or any current politician) is used as an example, then it risks shutting down every single student who has a parent or sibling or friend who loves the new President.
Examples from history or other countries are better bets. Or take the master himself: George Orwell. Instead of talking “alternative facts,” talk about “newspeak.”
Students must know there’s nothing novel about government misleading the public, about politicians twisting the truth.
And there’s nothing shocking in huge swaths of the population choosing to go along with it.
The imperative here is for young people to learn how to parse information, judge arguments, separate emotion from fact, and ultimately figure out how to make solid choices based on reliable information.
None of that is possible if some of them feel alienated or unsafe.
This is a monumentally hard task for teachers. But the difficulty doesn’t diminish the urgency of accomplishing this, of ensuring the next generation can successfully navigate the worthiness of political persons and news.