Why teachers see this election as a high-stakes mine field in the classroom
If Donald Trump were in school, many of his comments would earn him a trip to the principal’s office, according to many educators across the country.
They say they are struggling with how to teach an election cycle that has inflamed racial and ethnic tensions, sparked name-calling between the Republican presidential nominee and Democratic standard-bearer Hillary Clinton, and drawn stark lines between—and even within—the parties.
Some teachers say they have found themselves trying to strike a balance with their own code of ethics as educators: They feel they have a responsibility to condemn some of Trump’s controversial remarks, despite their wish to maintain objectivity in front of their students.
“I try to be very neutral in class—that’s always been my philosophy,” said Erik Anderson, a U.S. government teacher at Valley View Middle School in Edina, Minnesota. “Probably for the first time, there have been some things said in the campaign that I can’t just ignore. I have to say, ‘This isn’t right.’ I don’t remember ever before being unable to play it right down the middle.”
Trump’s comments on immigration, in particular, have struck a nerve with Anderson and other teachers. The GOP candidate has called for large-scale deportations of undocumented immigrants, the construction of a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, and an outright ban on Muslim immigration.
“It’s not so much the policy—it’s some of the words used, some of the hyperbole that’s thrown out there, and the personal nature of things. I would have a hard time looking some of my kids in the eye if I didn’t say anything,” Anderson said.
In an unscientific survey conducted in April, Teaching Tolerance, an educational project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, found that 40 percent of 2,000 teachers who participated were hesitant to teach about the campaign at all. As the new school year gets underway, many teachers are still reluctant, said Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance.
For the most part, the concern is not coming from administrators, she said. Rather, classroom teachers are wary of their own ability to navigate the tensions.
Of course, not all teachers are unsympathetic to Trump. There are several Teachers for Trump social-media groups, for example. But teachers from those groups did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Sean Hiland, a high school social studies teacher in Atlanta who tweets and blogs under the handle Conservative Teacher, plans to vote for Trump. He said he tries not to broadcast his political beliefs to his students but, instead, encourages them to look past the rhetoric coming from both parties.
“I don’t let my kids take anything a politician says at face value,” Hiland said. “I don’t want to breed cynics, but I don’t want them to be naive voters either.”
Indeed, having students analyze issues beyond the campaign rhetoric is one of many ways that teachers are approaching the 2016 election, said Meira Levinson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has been holding professional-development sessions on the election with teachers.
Some teachers have decided to facilitate strictly issue-based discussions, she said. Others have tried to put the election—and Trump’s rise in popularity—in historical context.
Some teachers say they will teach about the election as in previous years but be more careful with setting the ground rules on acceptable classroom discourse. Still others are focusing on teaching their students how to analyze media reports and notice biases.
Justin Christensen, an Advanced Placement U.S. government teacher at St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco, put it this way: “In my classroom, we’re not here to say, ‘I like this person, I like that person.’ We’re here to be political scientists.”
Still, Levinson said many teachers “are still wrestling and stuck. Grown men started to tear up as they talked about this. They said, ‘I’ve been thinking about this all summer long. What am I going to do?'”
Such teachers, she said, are committed to ensuring that their classrooms are safe spaces for their students, particularly those of color or from marginalized communities. At the same time, they’re worried that parents might complain to the school’s administration if they take a stance against a candidate in the classroom.
Educators say the divisive and inflammatory rhetoric in this campaign cycle has caused some students—particularly undocumented students, children of immigrants, and Muslim students—to feel unsafe and concerned about their futures if Trump is elected. That has sparked teachers’ protective instincts.
“It doesn’t feel like I can say, ‘There are two candidates and you should make up your own mind,'” said Luke Carman, a math teacher at Albany Park Multicultural Academy in Chicago, which is almost 80 percent Hispanic. “It’s obvious, but I still feel like they should hear, ‘No, I’m not voting for Donald Trump. No, I don’t support the rhetoric that’s coming from his campaign, because I fundamentally love and care about you as human beings.'”
At the same time, teachers are concerned about making sure students who support Trump feel protected to voice their views.
“The challenge of this election is how do you respond in the moment to a kid who says something that violates your school’s norms, or the norms of the classroom, without silencing the student or leading them to accuse you of endorsing the other candidate,” said Jonathan Gold, a middle school history teacher in Providence, Rhode Island.
Mock election troubles
Kyle Redford, a 5th grade teacher at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, California, and an opinion blogger for Education Week Teacher, said she wants to make sure both her students from Republican families and students who might feel personally threatened by Trump’s rhetoric feel supported. But if those two sides come into conflict, she said, she would feel comfortable stepping in to defend the latter group.
“We’ve already seen kids using Trump’s language against each other. … ‘If Trump gets elected, your family has to go home.’ It’s really hurtful,” Redford said.
Costello noted her group, Teaching Tolerance, has created a Speak Up for Civility contract for educators, other school staff members, and parents to sign, asking them to refrain from name-calling and stereotyping to model good citizenship for students.
Teachers had requested a resource like this, she said. On the day of its release, about 1,000 copies were downloaded.
The 2016 presidential campaign has also put a damper on one of the civic-minded traditions in U.S. schools: the mock election. This year, the exercise could lead to problems, some educators say, particularly if students are given the roles of impersonating the candidates and trying to win classmates’ votes.
“I would not recommend it this year, because it encourages caricature and it just opens the door to the kind of language that doesn’t belong in school,” Costello said.
Kelly Wickham Hurst, a former educator and the founder of the advocacy group Being Black at School, started a Twitter hashtag, #blockthemock, to discourage educators from hosting mock elections, particularly for the sake of children of color.
“To impersonate candidates—I think it would be very, very dangerous and damaging to children,” she said. “It would inflame some of the racial and ethnic tensions that kids are already hearing on the news.”
Some schools are finding alternate ways to conduct mock elections. Hiland, the Atlanta teacher who supports Trump, said he will continue to host his school’s mock election but will conduct it in a panel format, with a student moderator and two panels of students representing both Trump and Clinton. He did that in 2008 and said it resulted in a greater a focus on the issues, as opposed to the candidates’ personalities.
Even the National Student/Parent Mock Election is discouraging the impersonation element.
“Discretion is the better part of valor,” said Gloria Kirshner, the co-founder and president of the program (of which Clinton has been a board member since 1987). “We’re never mentioning the candidates by name this year. We’ve given teachers a great deal of thoughtful ideas for kids to think about, rather than the usual ‘he said, she said.'”
Despite the myriad of challenges of teaching the 2016 election, however, many teachers also see it as a unique opportunity.
“I think I’m going to have students who have never cared more about history class,” Gold, the Rhode Island history teacher, said. “They’re going to want to understand all of this, and they’re going to want to talk to someone about this.”
And the stakes are high, educators say. “You can’t go into autopilot this year,” Redford said. “Everything is so potentially explosive that it makes you feel unsafe getting near it, but it’s too important. It’s our democracy; it’s our election. You can’t pretend it’s not happening. It’s not going away.”