Classrooms in Crisis: Teaching during Tough Political Times
I remember the conversation very vividly. Don was angry. I mean really angry and wasn’t really sure how to move forward but knew we had to do something. I could tell that he wasn’t really sure how I would respond and maybe even thought talking to me about it was a bit futile.
The year was 2008. I had been working with Don for a short time, only a couple months. Our relationship was tumultuous at this point. We barely knew each other, and we were learning how to work with each other. Our biggest sticking point? Well, there were a couple, but the one that seemed to keep coming up. Politics.
I am a bit of a conservative. Albeit a moderate conservation and more liberal on social issues. My friend Don was and is a bleeding-heart liberal. Okay, maybe not a bleeding-heart liberal, but definitely a left leaning liberal. As you may recall, the election of 2008 was a bit historical in nature. Barack Obama was the leading candidate and ultimately won. Don and I had some strong discussions about the election cycle. Don favored Obama, I strongly favored McCain, don’t judge me too harshly, he was good man. Needless to say, things were tense during the fall due to the political climate.
In January when the election was decided, we had spoken about watching the inauguration of Barack Obama. As a group of teachers, we discussed how this would be impacting on our time in school, but that it was educationally valuable and worth taking time out of our classes. It was a historic moment and a civics lesson well worth learning.
Then we learned that our school district was going to require that every student would have to get a permission slip to watch the inauguration. We were in varying levels of frustration with the decision, but Don was mad. He taught history and government and felt passionate about this which is why he was talking with us about what to do. I could tell this was important to him. Not to mention it was a historic point in history.
I said something along the lines of “This is B.S. This is a moment in history that every one of our students should see. Not only is this historic because of who is being elected, but more importantly, it is a presidential inauguration, and we would never require permission to watch any other candidate ascend to the presidency.”
It took Don a moment for him to pull his jaw off the floor. You see, while I may have my personal opinions and convictions about who I want to see elected president, that did not matter. Don was right. The kids needed to see this live in all its pomp and circumstance and see us as educators support it and answer questions about the process and our political positions. We came up with a plan to end run the process and most all our students got to see the inauguration live.
Don and I, well, we are still friends to this day. We kid each other about our political positions, but recognize one key fact about each other, we disagree on issues, but on important issues, there is no disagreement.
Today, I watched my government and nation’s capital try to tear itself apart. The presidential election process has followed the correct path legally, but not how we have come to expect it. Congress met to finalize the verification of the electors, a process which typically takes about an hour. If you watched the news at all today, you know that the capital buildings were invaded by angry men and women attempting nothing short of a coup. There was destruction of property and police response was required to bring order before Congress met again to finalize the verification. It wasn’t without challenges, but President-Elect Biden and Vice-President Elect Harris were confirmed as the next leaders of the United States.
But you must teach kids tomorrow. Or maybe today by the time you read this. So, what now? If you are a history teacher, you are salivating at the opportunity to draw comparisons to historical events. Other teachers, maybe you are not as excited about this. However, everyone will most likely deal with this tomorrow in class.
So, what do you do?
Drop your lesson plan and talk.
Be ready to drop your lesson and talk to the students about what happened. Your class may just want to talk about what they saw and heard. They may just need to process how the situation played out. They probably don’t understand the process and have question about that. Have questions ready and be prepared to drop your lesson and talk in a way that honors voices in the class.
Be objective and stick to the factual information.
If you stick to known factual information and clearly separate it from opinion or other information you will be far better off. If you wander into the discussions of opinion, misinformation, politics, and values, you are likely to find yourself in troubled waters, especially if you do not have a strong relationship with the class. The more you stray from facts, the easier it is to find yourself in trouble with parents and administration, especially in a politically charged climate.
Ask how students are feeling.
Do not discount how this is impacting them. Let’s be honest, some of the pictures are disturbing. Some of the videos of violence are worse. There will be questions about varying police response, which you probably can’t answer well. There will be some feelings about everything that happened.
Measure your personal response and discussion
There is a significant different between sharing your opinions and position and telling students why they should think about an issue. If you share personal opinions, state them as such, or even state “some people believe this…and some people believe this other thing…” Do not engage in arguments rather discuss the issues respectfully.
Set Ground Rules
Depending on what you are going to talk about, set expectations for the discussion first. What are the ground rules you expect students to follow and respect? Everyone must agree, or you probably should not have this conversation. If the group trust is violated, then move towards warnings stating how the trust and rules were violated then either remove the student, or most likely, end the discussion and state why.
Know your students
If you are a substitute, it is not a good idea to try this unless you are very confident in your abilities and the students. If you know this is not an issue you can discuss, then maybe you should not. If your students are prone to conflict over these issues, then this is not a good discussion topic. Maybe you need to talk to individual students and check in with them rather than discuss the whole class.
This political season and moment will pass. In just about 2 weeks, President Biden will be inaugurated and something else will take its place. Use this as a teaching moment later in the year. You can talk about many topics from the events of today and the past year. Perhaps these are issues best discussed in the future. Do not be afraid to discuss them but know when it is safe to do so with the group.
Don and I
Don and I had a number of heated discussions about political issues over the years. The election of 2012 was much less heated. I wasn’t as much a fan of Romney as he was of Obama. Since we had developed a positive relationship by that point though, we could discuss the issues and the people to talk about who we thought was the best candidate.
The key here is that we had established a positive relationship with each other. We also had positive relationships with our students. He and I could openly discuss issues and disagree in a healthy manner, and our students watched. We modeled good discussions and our students learned from it. We also articulated our own viewpoints and positions when asked by students. We always emphasized that we were respectful.
I hope you have positive relationships with your students at this point where you could have these discussions in a healthy manner. I hope that you can model healthy political disagreements and positions with the students and adults you interact with. I hope you can point to examples of both positive, and not so good, interactions from the discussion with the Congressional discussions today. There is a lot to work with.
Our students, and a lot of adults, need to see positive, healthy interactions now more than ever. We need to rebuild our schools and our communities rather than tear them down. One of the most valuable gifts we can give our students is a space to speak freely and respectfully where they learn how to disagree by supporting their own position with evidence. Another is a space where they can share how they feel and how others make them feel in a healthy manner. As educators, we are best suited to provide both to our students.
In a few short weeks, all this will be behind us. President Biden and Vice — President Harris will be in office and a new Congress will be in place. There will be new issues to face and we need to prepare our students to face these with dignity, pride, and understanding. We can teach that.
My hope is that, as you share with your students and discuss these issues, you help raise the next generation of leaders who can be the positive change we hope to see. Please support great educators who are doing this now and trying to build towards this in the future.