Teachers, Don’t Keep Quiet on Trump’s Sexist, Xenophobic, Racist, Abhorrent Language
Kids need to understand that this isn’t normal or acceptable behavior. Your silence, however well-intentioned, sends the opposite message.
Editors’ note: In light of President Donald Trump’s recent tweet (below), this story has been updated.
As a high school history teacher, I had always felt strongly about remaining opaque politically.
For the following reasons, I justified my stance to my students.
1. Indoctrination. I believe that much of the nation automatically identifies teachers as liberals. While there might be some truth to this stereotype, as with all stereotypes, there are exceptions. Moreover, a teacher who may hold liberal sentiments is not necessarily out to recruit new party members. That is ludicrous thinking, but to avoid the headache of defending against accusations, I have refrained from sharing my personal views.
2. Perceived bias. Each year, I’m aware that many new students assume I lean left, an impression for which they have no evidence, other than that I am a teacher in Massachusetts, a liberal state. Still, I am unwilling to provide ammunition for those of any political affiliation, who, unhappy with how I assess academic work, might point to my political views rather than a student’s struggles as the reason for a lower-than-expected grade.
3. Independence of thought: A more compelling rationale for retaining the appearance of political neutrality is my larger concern that outing myself politically would tempt students to agree with me. I am fully aware that as a high school humanities teacher, I have significant influence over how students think and feel about anything under the sun. I am not in this business to foster like-minded young people.
But we’ve never had somebody quite like Donald Trump in the Oval Office, who makes frequent use of racist, sexist, and xenophobic langauge. With his election, I came to the conclusion that I had a duty to speak out against his behavior, or else risk students taking my silence to mean apathy or support. Unless I expressed my own stance clearly and firmly, I risked creating a gap between me and my students, who, understandably, wouldn’t feel as safe or supported in the learning—or having me as their teahcer.
Curious for his take, I reached out to Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood, also affectionately known as the dean of American historians.
“I believe that teachers should not reveal their political leanings no matter how much the students want to know,” Wood told me in an email exchange. “They want to know a lot of things about a teacher (their love life, their eating habits, etc.), but we don’t indulge their desires. I think we can talk about the early Republic without the students knowing what our political views of the present are. It’s a challenge, I know, but I believe it is essential that they see their teacher as above the current political divisions.”
Wood isn’t wrong, but after reflecting on his words and my own practices, I don’t know if he is entirely correct either.
I gained valuable insight from reading an award-winning book, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education by academic researchers Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy. In the introduction, they touch upon one of my biggest concerns: “Many teachers choose to avoid using political deliberations and discussions with students, often because they are unsure about how to negotiate accompanying pedagogical challenges. Further deterring teachers is the polarized climate outside schools. Fear of parental and public backlash leads some teachers to retreat to lectures and textbooks.”
While I embrace students’ engaging in political deliberation, I often fear the possibility of backlash from what is or isn’t said in my classroom. For her advice, I recently spoke with McAvoy, a professor of social studies education at North Carolina State University. I didn’t pull any punches, immediately asking if I am justified in feeling rattled about doing the right thing, and what, in our political climate, “the right thing” even means.
McAvoy said that teachers have competing and often shifting responsibilities, depending on the students in front of us. Moreover, she said, teachers have an obligation to prepare students for democracy, and how to engage in the deliberative process. At the same time, teachers are also constantly thinking about following school policy, which may or may not permit them to express differing views, while weighing that against their beliefs of what constitutes effective teaching.
“To teach is to sit between these competing responsibilities,” McAvoy told me. “What teachers are constantly doing is trying to think about what’s the best choice in any given situation. Sometimes, it’s, ‘Okay, I have to follow policy because that’s the policy.’ Sometimes, it’s ‘No, there’s room here for judgment, and I’m going to go this way.’ This is just the challenge of teaching.”
McAvoy’s words provide equal comfort for those who decide to share or conceal their political leanings, but I still worry. Right now, feelings about politics are so exacerbated that everything that comes out of my mouth might be perceived as partisan or unfair. I told McAvoy about my frustration, and once again, I was soothed by her response.
McAvoy says, “It’s one thing for a student to say to a teacher, ‘What do you think of Trump?’ or ‘Did you vote for Trump?’ That’s very different than a teacher’s standing before a class, without invitation, saying, ‘I can’t believe what this guy just did yesterday.’ I don’t think teachers are on solid ground very often if they’re standing in front of the room and just being part of the partisan rhetoric.”
Recently, I pulled no punches when my students asked me for my thoughts about Trump’s abhorrent tweet in response to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s announcement of her presidential bid.
In a Jan. 14 story, The New York Times reported on Native American backlash to Trump’s remark, which also conveys his complete lack of empathy.
Storm Reyes, 69, who is Coast Salish and lives on a reservation in Washington State, said on Monday that Wounded Knee and other such massacres are deeply ingrained in the memories of Native Americans.
“As a Native, Trump’s tweet was equivalent to making a ‘joke’ about 9/11, Pearl Harbor or the Holocaust,” she said. “I found it awful that not only did Trump use this tragedy as a joke, weapon and insult, but that his ignorance of American history is so great that he didn’t even know that Wounded Knee was a massacre and not a battle.”
I’m with Reyes.
During his 1986 commencement address at Middlebury College, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough said, “As we have a language requirement for the Foreign Service, so should we have a history requirement for the White House.”
As a high school history teacher, I’m embarrassed for our nation when our commander-in-chief speaks ignorantly of the past — contorting the truth to accomplish political goals or rally his base. Still, through such errors nobody has done more than President Donald Trump to reinforce the importance of history education. For that, I am eternally grateful.
Still, a teacher sharing their political views in class is a tight rope to walk. As Joel Sohn, Director of Community and Equity at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, recently wrote me, good judgment extends far beyond what teachers say in the classroom.
“If we acknowledge that bias exists within our own teachings, then can any classroom ever truly be apolitical? Depending on what language I use, what texts I select, or what topics I bring up in the classroom, each one of my choices stems from a political ideology,” he writes.
Sohn shares his political beliefs with his students, but always in the context of the learning environment he has fostered, one in which students challenge and explore each other’s beliefs, while searching for a greater understanding of truth and underlying issues. Sohn tells me that he wouldn’t simply come out and urge students to share his convictions. “Absolutely not,” he makes clear to me. But he sees value in the open exchange of opinions, including affording sufficient time for productive dialogue and research about why individuals hold distinct beliefs. According to Sohn, this has gone a long way toward making his students more politically aware, and more invested in their own learning.
In line with Sohn’s philosophy, McAvoy’s research reveals that most students want to know where their teachers stand politically. But what’s most important, she told me, is that students know that teachers care about them: “Teachers need to be on the side of their students, and I don’t mean political side. I mean that it’s clear to students that I’m here. I take my role as a teacher seriously, and I care about your growth and development,” she said.
McAvoy’s research also reduces my fear that if I did share my political views, students would feel pressured into echoing my opinion for a higher grade. Mostly, McAvoy said, students who report that they hear their teacher’s views also say that the instructor expresses those views responsibly, without alienating or penalizing students who disagree.
After speaking with McAvoy, I feel more confident about how to hold political discussions in the classroom, while doing my best to avoid partisan, polarized behavior in the classroom.
“That’s way too easy,” she tells me. “We can’t make the world seem as simplified as the parties do. High-level academic talk is what we’re going for.”
That’s something I hope all teachers, regardless of political affiliation, can agree on.