On Staying Relevant, Politics, and Opinions in the Classroom

I’ll start with a question:

“How do you deal with politics in your classroom?”

People become emotional about certain issues very quickly if they have strong beliefs, and political affiliation, if announced, can be a key to Pandora’s box. During this past election year, I found myself in a precarious position: student teacher in someone else’s classroom in a school very different from the one I went to. Kids want to talk to you about everything (the ones who want to talk) all the time in high school, including (and sometimes especially) politics. They desperately want to know every detail of your thoughts whether it is out of respect, curiosity, or an attempt to find a weakness they can exploit.

“Who are you going to vote for Mr. Moore?!”

I heard this 100 times a day this past Fall and it was a seemingly different challenge every time. I had a basic conception of my high school as a place comfortable for kids of Republicans and a bit more challenging for kids of Democrats. I phrase it this way because no one* knows for sure what they believe in high school, but everyone knows what their parents tell them. That being said, many teachers I met were ready to thrown down for their beliefs in the lunch room, or even in class I was surprised to find out. Was this appropriate? I began to ask myslef, how should I deal with this polarizing challenge in the best way for students, teachers, and the preservation of a learning environment. I came to one conclusion time and again:

Hold the center.

I made it my goal to keep my personal politics private. I taught students that they were welcome to ask questions as long as they respected my answers, which were usually allusive in nature and directed right back at the student. I played devil’s advocate, asked tough questions, and tried to show them that respect of opinion is democratic glue, no matter what kind of fighting they saw on TV. I told them they should ask everyone questions, with one condition in mind, don’t think you know what their answer is beforehand (or even directly afterwards). I wanted kids to learn to think for themselves rather than through assimilation of others’ opinions. A good democracy can’t function when people with opposing views are shut out; it thrives on diversity of opinion. Looking at my school’s mission, I thought that’s exactly what “productive members of society” meant.

Kids would ask me if I watched Fox News or MSNBC or CNN (trying to brand me) and I always answered that I did a few things for keeping up with news and trends. I told them I listen to National Public Radio, The News Hour, Charlie Rose, and CSPAN because of their open and publicly held nature. I tried to encourage them to think objectively about what they watch and hear. I told them to ask themselves if they listened to people differently depending upon the letter in front of their name (D, R, I, etc). Since I had a good reputation with the kids for being intelligent and caring, they usually took a moment to think critically. Even if that moment was singular or short, I hoped that it would plant a seed in them to search answers out for themselves.

Many of the staff all have strong opinions as well. I recall many lunchroom arguments about who was right and wrong; and too often people said things they didn’t intend to. I usually played the roll of peacekeeper. I tried to ask an exit question, maybe rhetorical, that could lead into something else (like football) that was safe. Conversing about loving or hating team X is much more comfortable than doing so about person or party X.

How does your political affiliation (whether openly shared or not) affect your dialogue with students and other staffmembers? I invite everyone to consider this often high pressurized topic. We may be “in the clear” for another two years or so until election season rolls around again, but emotions will run high again. How will you deal with it then?

Administrators, the challenge isn’t the same I would assume (not having experienced your position), but perhaps there is something you can add to this discussion. Do partisan politics on a state or national level affect the temperature of your school board meetings, your administration, or something else?

I’ll start with a question:

“How do you deal with politics in your classroom?”

People become emotional about certain issues very quickly if they have strong beliefs, and political affiliation, if announced, can be a key to Pandora’s box. During this past election year, I found myself in a precarious position: student teacher in someone else’s classroom in a school very different from the one I went to. Kids want to talk to you about everything (the ones who want to talk) all the time in high school, including (and sometimes especially) politics. They desperately want to know every detail of your thoughts whether it is out of respect, curiosity, or an attempt to find a weakness they can exploit.

“Who are you going to vote for Mr. Moore?!”

I heard this 100 times a day this past Fall and it was a seemingly different challenge every time. I had a basic conception of my high school as a place comfortable for kids of Republicans and a bit more challenging for kids of Democrats. I phrase it this way because no one* knows for sure what they believe in high school, but everyone knows what their parents tell them. That being said, many teachers I met were ready to thrown down for their beliefs in the lunch room, or even in class I was surprised to find out. Was this appropriate? I began to ask myslef, how should I deal with this polarizing challenge in the best way for students, teachers, and the preservation of a learning environment. I came to one conclusion time and again:

Hold the center.

I made it my goal to keep my personal politics private. I taught students that they were welcome to ask questions as long as they respected my answers, which were usually allusive in nature and directed right back at the student. I played devil’s advocate, asked tough questions, and tried to show them that respect of opinion is democratic glue, no matter what kind of fighting they saw on TV. I told them they should ask everyone questions, with one condition in mind, don’t think you know what their answer is beforehand (or even directly afterwards). I wanted kids to learn to think for themselves rather than through assimilation of others’ opinions. A good democracy can’t function when people with opposing views are shut out; it thrives on diversity of opinion. Looking at my school’s mission, I thought that’s exactly what “productive members of society” meant.

Kids would ask me if I watched Fox News or MSNBC or CNN (trying to brand me) and I always answered that I did a few things for keeping up with news and trends. I told them I listen to National Public Radio, The News Hour, Charlie Rose, and CSPAN because of their open and publicly held nature. I tried to encourage them to think objectively about what they watch and hear. I told them to ask themselves if they listened to people differently depending upon the letter in front of their name (D, R, I, etc). Since I had a good reputation with the kids for being intelligent and caring, they usually took a moment to think critically. Even if that moment was singular or short, I hoped that it would plant a seed in them to search answers out for themselves.

Many of the staff all have strong opinions as well. I recall many lunchroom arguments about who was right and wrong; and too often people said things they didn’t intend to. I usually played the roll of peacekeeper. I tried to ask an exit question, maybe rhetorical, that could lead into something else (like football) that was safe. Conversing about loving or hating team X is much more comfortable than doing so about person or party X.

How does your political affiliation (whether openly shared or not) affect your dialogue with students and other staff members? I invite everyone to consider this often high pressurized topic. We may be “in the clear” for another two years or so until election season rolls around again, but emotions will run high again. How will you deal with it then?

Administrators, the challenge isn’t the same I would assume (not having experienced your position), but perhaps there is something you can add to this discussion. Do partisan politics on a state or national level affect the temperature of your school board meetings, your administration, or something else?

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4 thoughts on “On Staying Relevant, Politics, and Opinions in the Classroom

  1. I had a PoliSci professor who never tipped his hand, always keeping his political leanings private. I really respected that and was impressed at how he managed it over the years.

    I don’t think it’s always appropriate for all people (Ryan and I were just chatting about the volume of social media and private-info.-made-public), and I personally want to be open about most things, but if I were a teacher or in a similar position I would take the same stance you have. Challenging them to think for themselves, rather than encouraging them to buy into your position-of-authority-views is the absolute best thing you can do as a teacher.

  2. I think your paragraph under “Hold the centre” ought to be lesson 1 given to every trainee teacher. One of the first things I noticed when I entered the profession as a student teacher in the UK 30 years ago, was how appallingly politicised staffrooms were. Like you Steve, I established a really firm principle never to let pupils know my personal politics. But I am constantly shocked by how unusual a position that is, certainly here in the UK.

    Many, many teachers here not only don’t have a problem with politicising other people’s children, they regard it as their professional mission whatever subject they are actually paid to teach.

    Ironically, having left the profession a decade ago for business, only this week I found myself approached by a new, young political party in the UK, who asked me to advise them on their education policy. I did, on the condition that they do not ascribe anything I say back to me, and that they don’t make the mistake of reading into the advice I give…my own political beliefs.

  3. I appreciate hearing that from a veteran teacher Joe. I know far too many teachers who have, as you say, a “professional mission” to politicize their classroom.

  4. Being a first year teacher starting in Fall 09 I have not dealt with politics in the classroom. I teach elementary and it pops up less there, but it still pops up.

    I have thought about what I will say when kids ask me how I vote. Here is my response as it sits today:

    “What I think does not matter. You don’t need me to tell you how to vote or what to think. What really matters is what you think. More importantly, why do you think the way you do? Think for yourself and you will be a successful adult.”

    Is that a big cop-out? I don’t think so, but one might make the argument. Coming from a constructivist educational philosophy I promote students constructing their own knowledge rather than gaining it from what I tell them. K-12 students are in the process of discovering what they really think and really believe. They are still under the thumb of their parents and it takes time to make up their own minds.

    I think it’s okay to tell kids that we are not going to tell them what to think. We can ask more questions and get them to think more.

    If I were going to talk politics in a classroom, I would want that classroom to be one where such a topic is relevant and related to curriculum. It’s not really appropriate to talk politics in a math class.

    I would consider using:

    The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation written by Jonathan Hennessey and illustrated by Aaron McConnell.

    The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon.

    Let students really learn about our Constitution and how the government plays a role in our lives. Talk about great discussion in a Social Studies class. It’s relevant and the literature used is contemporary and accessible (and interesting) to the 21st century student.

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