Column: Helping students understand the 2016 election results
Editor’s note: Teachers across the country continue to deal with a variety of emotional reactions from students following the presidential election. We asked teachers to provide us with some examples of how the election has impacted their instruction and how they approach these discussions with students.
Disagreement on policy is okay, personal attacks are not
The negativity and vitriol that have been employed on both sides of the 2016 presidential election have given my students and I pause. During the past two years, I have had to reinforce conversational norms, especially in the context of what a candidate says does not mean it is appropriate for you to do. Disagreement on policy is okay, but personal attacks on students for their point of view are not. Be respectful.
As I watched the election returns come in on election night, I knew there would be much to debrief, and student emotions would be varied. Some students came in jubilant that Donald Trump had won, and others were saddened and concerned by Hillary Clinton’s loss. Some of my students came in fearful about certain topics under a Trump administration, including immigration, LGBT rights, abortion and climate change.
In attempting to alleviate fears, we discussed that we have a Constitution and a system of checks and balances to which Trump will be held, which much of his campaign rhetoric will not pass. Additionally, I reiterated the sentiment of President Obama: “Everybody is sad when their side loses an election, but the day after we have to remember that we are actually all on one team.”
— Liz Ramos, high school social studies teacher at Alta Loma High School, Southern California
Even remarks made in jest can be misconstrued
I won the first three campaigns that I worked on, and it was an incredible feeling. Making phone calls, canvassing, persuading voters, and winning is validating and exhilarating. I’ve also worked on losing campaigns, and those feel like you’ve been punched in the gut. The pain and anger of losing an election stays with you for a good while. The important thing to take away from any election is that the winning side needs to demonstrate dignity and empathy, while the losing side needs to mourn and be open to reconciliation.
Regardless of the outcome of contentious presidential elections, rhetoric and actions that are racist, sexist, homophobic and generally toxic to the fabric of our country are not acceptable, period. That is especially true in schools. Even remarks made in jest can be misconstrued by people and can prolong the agony of people unhappy with the election result and make it more difficult for us to come together as a nation.
Where do we go from here? I’m a firm believer that civics is a lifestyle and that we need to be active and engaged citizens. Whether you are happy or enraged by the outcome of the election, get involved and stay involved. The 2018 election will be here quicker than you think. Find a candidate you agree with and work to get them elected. Register yourself, your friends and your family to vote. Find a cause that you support, and raise money, volunteer your time, and raise awareness in your community. Lastly, have faith in our Constitution, it’s a lot stronger than people realize.
—Ryan Werenka, social studies teacher and department head at Troy High School in Troy, Michigan
And then there were my students.
I struggled on November 9 and in the period since to articulate and negotiate my own feelings. And then there were my students. The reality was sure: the divisive rhetoric of the campaign reflected actual social and political divisions, and everyone seemed to see things in terms of winners and losers. But, like a lot of political rhetoric, that’s just too reductive for being a human and for being an American. As a gay teacher, I couldn’t say with confidence after the election if I felt safe. How then could I meet that most basic need of students, safety, where learning begins?
On Monday, November 14, two students, representing themselves explicitly but also the African American and LGBT communities implicitly, stood in Western Reserve Academy’s chapel to address the whole school. In the same chapel where Frederick Douglass delivered the 1854 commencement speech, they didn’t talk politics or agendas aside from this radical reminder: We love you. These most powerful of words, delivered sincerely and vulnerably, reminded everyone that more than tradition, proximity and affiliation, what binds us together is love and respect. I walked out of the chapel, thanks to the light and wisdom of these students, feeling safer and ready to love.
—Douglas Ray, English teacher at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio
‘We would’ve voted — swear.’
I watched with deep, burdened disquiet as Donald Trump gained the majority of America’s electoral votes. It felt like a stamp on a continuous divisive fate the rest of the country was only just waking up to. I teach 9th and 10th grade English at a public high school with a 97 percent black population in the Arkansas Delta — a school desegregated by law only in 1971. A few miles down the road is a private school with a 99 percent white population, built in 1969. After the election, we sat relaxed in class, and we talked, looked at red and blue maps, questioned the popular vote and wondered loudly why young people have no voice. (“We would’ve voted – swear.”)
Mainly, we wrote letters: “Dear Donald, We are not our great-grandma’s and pa’s. We as the people will not take any bull from you, we will fight back,” H.W. warned from a place outside her years. M.M., another 10th grader, spoke hope into the pile with: “I know that some of you may fear for your future and the future of your children, but I beg that you do not break.” And, with poise, T.M. wrapped everybody’s feelings up with, “Dear Barack Obama, You have laughed with us when we were happy. You have cried with us when we were sad. You have been with me since the 2nd grade. I never thought you would be leaving us so soon. You said, ‘Yes we can,’ and I can say we truly did.”
–V.A. Sellarole, 9th & 10th grade English Language Arts teacher, Central High School, Helena-West Helena, Arkansas
My students will not hit the proverbial snooze button
My students know disappointment. I work at an urban school whose population is over 85 percent Hispanic, and I have spent the last nine years of my teaching career addressing the needs of immigrant, documented and not, first-generation college-going, and free and reduced-lunch program students. They can identify adversity without hesitation. Teaching lessons of grit and resolve after the 2016 presidential election was not out of context for me and my colleagues. One female student put it candidly: “I feel he [president-elect Trump] isn’t ready to become president of such a diverse country.”
Surprisingly, these conversations were not all cynical. I didn’t expect their overwhelming sense of compassion for all Americans. “There is always something we can look forward to,” assured a student enrolled in JROTC courses; “he is only the face of the government. We still have constitutional rights and the American dream.”
There are very few occasions when I have felt vulnerable when standing with my sophomores, but these circumstances provided the context for modeling acceptance and tenacity when facing overwhelming frustration. It’s been a few weeks since the election results, and I still don’t have a solution for my dissatisfaction. I do, however, feel optimistic that my students will not hit the proverbial snooze button. Instead, they may become more politically active and empowered to overcome adversity.
— Suzanne Vogt, AP world history teacher, Maryvale High School in Phoenix, Arizona
No place in my classroom
The 2016 Election was long and brought out the absolute worst in the American people. It highlighted the impact a presidential candidate could have on young people as teachers across the country reported increases in bullying incidents. Throughout the campaign, and throughout our month-long elections unit, it was my goal to make one thing clear: bullying, racism, misogynistic beliefs, xenophobia and homophobia had no place in my classroom.
Let me make one thing clear. I often hear that a teacher’s job is not to be political. I agree to an extent. My job is to present my students with the information and give them the resources to think critically and make an informed decision. We have a lot of influence on our students, and we should not directly tell them whom to vote for and how to feel about an issue. I do, however, believe that it is and will always be my job to highlight social injustices that people in this country face each and every day, and I will continue to do that.
Throughout this election season my students have analyzed the impact of Voter ID Laws in North Carolina, the ramifications of white privilege, and the police brutality crisis that continues to plague our nation. As an educator, it is my job to make sure that my students are informed citizens and critical thinkers who can go out and use what I’ve taught them to change the world. I will continue to do this no matter who our president is.
–Ricky House, 7th grade civics teacher, Arlington, Va.