Months after the 2016 presidential election, a majority of educators polled say that national politics have created a sharp divide among students, leaving teachers grappling with how to handle classroom conversations about controversial issues.
But most said they aren’t shying away from politics, despite the topic’s contentious nature.
That’s according to a survey conducted in February by the Education Week Research Center. More than 830 K-12 teachers and other school-based instructional staff members who are registered users of Education Week’s edweek.org website responded to an email invitation for a survey about their experiences teaching about controversial topics in a time of division.
President Donald Trump’s win last November over Hillary Clinton capped the most divisive presidential election in recent memory, and the first few months of his tenure have been marked by controversy. In addition, a number of issues have made their way into the classroom as current events, including immigration; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights; and issues related to race, religion, and gender.
While most teachers said that it’s important to talk about these topics in the classroom, 42 percent noted that it was difficult to discuss national politics with students—more so than any other controversial issue. And while the vast majority of teachers are at least moderately confident in their own ability to have civil conversations with their students, 66 percent said they have noticed an increase in uncivil political discourse at their school since the presidential campaign began.
About half the teachers said the number of bullying incidents related to national politics has increased in the past year—more so than for any other topic, although about 30 percent of teachers pointed to spikes in bullying related to immigration or language and race and ethnicity.
Alethea Patterson-Jahn, the head special education teacher at an Albuquerque, New Mexico, middle school, recalled seeing a student tell another that Trump would deport the student’s father.
“I have never heard that before,” she said. “It was kind of a slap in the face.”
Many teachers said they feel obligated to make sure all their students—regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity, or religion—feel safe and secure, and that has made conversations about politics and other current events feel necessary.
Those conversations give students “an outlet and a space to talk about what’s going on,” said Candice Simon, a 6th grade teacher in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. “[After the election], we had to have a conversation about feelings. … I try to make sure I’m staying calm and reassuring in these moments.”
While 55 percent of teachers said they have not avoided discussing controversial current events with their students this school year, another 28 percent did avoid talking about national politics with their students. Smaller percentages of teachers have refrained from discussing politically charged topics like LGBT issues, race and religion.
Twenty-six percent of teachers said they did not discuss any controversial events with their students because the topics are not relevant to the subject area they teach. That’s the philosophy of Robert Williams, a 4th grade teacher in Delano, California, who teaches mostly Hispanic and Filipino students.
“The only issue we had was right after the election — students came to school and they were upset about what their parents had said. … They feared immigration [policies], they feared the unknown,” he said. “I said we’re not going to talk about it, because we’re here to deal with reading, writing and math.”
Talking about controversial subjects could bring “undue feelings to the students,” Williams added. “I wanted them to feel safe.”
Other reasons that teachers chose for veering away from controversial topics include wanting to avoid dissension in the classroom, knowing that their personal views are not in line with students’ views and not knowing how to handle such discussions in class.
“[Teachers are] fearful of teaching some of the current events for fear of parental pushback, fear [they’ll be seen as] pushing their political views, fear of student pushback,” said Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, an education project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Still, she said, it’s critical that civil discourse happens in the classroom. “If, as educators, we’re not going to model what it looks like to talk about politics, … we’re not supporting what is an essential democratic practice,” she said.
For the most part, teachers seemed to agree. Almost 70 percent said it was important to discuss national politics with students — a little less than the 79 percent who said it was important to discuss race and ethnicity and the 75 percent who think it’s important to discuss immigration with students.
In interviews, teachers cited the rise of fake news as a reason for talking about politics in class — they felt a responsibility to help their students learn how to critically evaluate what’s on the internet. DiAnne Bredvick, a social studies teacher in Texas who works at an alternative high school 20 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, said her students have been interested in Trump’s immigration policy, but often get their news from unreliable sources, including social media. “A lot of times what they heard isn’t correct information,” Bredvick said. “My role is to provide them with the facts as we know them.”
While most educators said they could discuss controversial issues with their students in a civil manner, only 44 percent said their training adequately prepared them to handle those discussions, and 23 percent said they have received no such training. Most teachers said they have not received guidance from administrators on how to talk about such issues with their students.
When asked where they did receive guidance or ideas, just 40 percent cited their fellow teachers, administrators, and other staff members; 27 percent said news articles; 17 percent cited curriculum from social justice organizations like Teaching Tolerance; and 13 percent said they drew from their own experience and common sense.
While teachers generally try to stay politically neutral in front of their students, 18 percent said they have become more likely to share their political views with their students in the past year.
Jolene Vincent, an 8th grade social studies teacher in Phoenix, said she was open about her political beliefs with her students during the election. She had originally been a Trump supporter, but voted for Clinton after disavowing Trump’s more inflammatory comments. “It’s great to debate, because a lot of times, I’m like, ‘Prove me wrong,’ ” she said. “We talk about how they’re approaching adulthood, and it’s important [for them] to know what their political views are.”
The majority of survey respondents — 61 percent — voted for Clinton, while 17 percent voted for Trump, 12 percent voted for a third-party candidate, and 10 percent did not vote at all. While the survey does not statistically mirror the nation’s teachers, the respondents’ hail from geographically and demographically diverse school districts.
The survey found that Clinton voters were slightly less comfortable than Trump voters discussing the election results with students who hold differing views. Overall, 22 percent of teachers said they were uncomfortable discussing the election results with students who supported the other candidate.