Talking Politics with Students

I was raised to believe that it was best to avoid talking about religion or politics in mixed company. The political environment of the United States has become particularly rocky in recent years, making such discussions a potential powderkeg. The election of Donald Trump, billed as an attempt to bring an end to that divisiveness, has only served to exacerbate existing hostilities.

As a teacher, my decision not to discuss religion was an easy one. Multiple Supreme Court cases have interpreted the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to apply to public school teachers. For instance, in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), the Court ruled that teachers could not lead voluntary prayers. As the writers for Oyez describe, “The Court held that Alabama’s passage of the prayer and meditation statute was not only a deviation from the state’s duty to maintain absolute neutrality toward religion, but was an affirmative endorsement of religion.” I choose to avoid discussing my own religious beliefs to support that.

However, the matter of politics is less clear. The First Amendment is about religion, not politics. The Hatch Act places certain restrictions on federal employees discussing politics, especially elections, but I’m not aware of interpretations that would prohibit public school teachers from doing so. Some cities and states have guidelines restricting the political speech of teachers. However, in Pickering v. Board of Education (1968), the Supreme Court ruled that teachers cannot be barred from discussing “matters of public concern,” in accordance with the First Amendment.

So, legally, it certainly seems as if teachers can engage in reasoned, civil discussions of politics, including expressing their own viewpoint. But… should they?

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When I first started teaching, I avoided talking about politics. As a student teacher, I was advised against discussing my personal politics with students, in part because it’s a legal gray area. However, the larger issue is that there’s a high potential for offending students, parents, and administrators. I tried to hold to that.

My first placement was during Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, and all my students were African-American. Metro Detroit is one of the most racially divided areas in the country, and white people are understandably viewed with suspicion by many of the city’s black residents. So I struggled with hostility.

As the election approached, my students sneered that I must certainly be supporting Mitt Romney. It became a consistent distraction until I brought in my Obama/Biden magnet from the 2008 election and stuck it to my desk. That convinced them, but also ended my commitment to avoiding political expression with my students.

During the rest of Obama’s tenure, the discussions were fairly quiet. I’m a math teacher, so the topic of Presidential politics rarely came up in class. I honed the art of speaking calmly, discreetly, and respectfully about politics.

And then, last year, Donald Trump was elected. I’m currently working in a school where nearly every student is at serious risk of having their lives touched by his policies. Many of them are Muslim immigrants, first- and second-generation residents from Yemen, Bangladesh, or Bosnia. Many of them are black; Trump’s solution for the continued racism and urban blight was the lackluster pandering of “What do you have to lose?” And, as a whole, my school relies on federal support funds, which are at risk under Secretary DeVos.

The day after the election, I made it clear to my students where I stood. I was also clear that any students who disagreed with me were welcome to do so. I was speaking as myself, not as a representative of the school district.

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The decision of whether a teacher ought to discuss politics with their students should not be a casual one. When I decided to open up, I weighed several factors. In both cases described above, I was in the position of having a student body that was somewhat homogeneous. Other topics, such as gay marriage and abortion rights, are far more contentious in my student populations. As such, I avoid disclosing too much of my personal positions on those topics.

For instance, on the issue of LGBT rights, I once placed a GLSEN sticker in the window of my classroom. The sticker was torn off, and I heard multiple students making snide comments about me. For the rest of my placement at that school, I overheard occasional questions about my sexuality. I don’t know if my action had done any good, but it was clear that it had alienated several of my students. When students are alienated, they become harder to reach.

On the other hand, I do not and never have tolerated bullying in my classroom, and have been clear that that includes sexual orientation. So if the cost of staying quiet on gay rights is having to abide gay-bashing and toxic masculine behaviors like boys questioning each other’s sexuality as a form of insult, I choose to stand up against homophobia.

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The easy route for a teacher is to avoid hot-button, politically charged topics. With the exception of social studies teachers, there’s rarely a content-based reason to discuss these issues, and there can be a high cost. Students, school administrators, and parents can respond negatively to political disagreements.

At the same time, I feel that a significant portion of a teacher’s job is to role-model. One reason our political rhetoric is so divisive right now is that people struggle with how to address disagreements. If adults are not modelling respectful discourse to students, where will students learn it?

There are ways to handle sensitive topics with students. I’m not arguing that teachers should emblazon their walls with their political positions, but political topics come up from time to time, and I think it’s better to show youth that there are ways to discuss challenging topics, rather than shying away from them and hiding behind “I’m a math teacher.”

For teachers and parents seeking ways to guide challenging conversations, there are many excellent resources on the internet. I particularly recommend the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance site and magazine.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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