by Sonya Barnes January 25, 2019
As teachers, we spend a great deal of time with our students and they learn our preferences just from how we talk bout things. They know favorite foods, drinks, TV shows—all because of conversations we have and anecdotes we may share during our lessons. And sharing a part of who we are is an integral part of being an educator. It is what makes the personal connections real and connects theoretical classroom knowledge to real life application.
One area that I believe personal preferences should never be shared in a classroom, though, is the area of politics. I am not saying we should avoid political discussions—it is important for students, at least in secondary education, to be aware of the issues being discussed and changed and to learn about varying opinions and ways of thinking. A classroom with a diverse grouping of people is a fantastic place for these conversations to take place. Sadly, we see teachers that are using their classrooms for political platforms. Their students are keenly aware of how they feel about issues and politicians. Students who agree with them feel empowered to speak out, but students that may be opposed can feel disconnected or even shunned by the teacher, even if they are not.
Having taught reading for many years, one of the units I had to cover included research, analyzing non-fiction, and learning whether information was valid and authentic. I often used political elections as the platform for this. One of my favorite lessons was during my first year teaching with 6th graders when we used candidates in a primary election but removed face and names and only gave them a number. The students completed a profile on primary issues based on their own beliefs, ranked those based on which were most to least important, then noted each of the other candidate’s stance on those issues. From that data, they saw the candidate they most aligned with. Once all had the data, we revealed which candidate they aligned with. It was a great lesson that I hope stuck with them. We had real conversations about issues, they learned to listen to another’s point of view without judging or getting defensive because it was different—sometimes even refraining from sharing their ideas publicly and learning that it was okay to do so.
But they never once found out which side I was on for an issue or which candidate I supported, a practice I have intentionally continued to this day. You see, I could talk to any kid about any issue or topic and they new I’d be open to their idea. I found myself explaining things that came up from current events as they related to articles and stories we were reading or topics we were writing about but doing so on both sides of the issue. When directly asked by students, I would refuse to share my beliefs or ideas because I didn’t want to skew their free thinking. Don’t go thinking I am noble or bragging—I am just a firm believer that young people should have a safe environment to try out different ideas or versions of themselves without feeling judged, and I tried to make my classroom that place. How else was I going to get authentic and real writing from them?
But I have also known teachers that were extremely political and used their classrooms as a way of sharing their views every chance they could. And students would come to me having felt very uncomfortable or left out if they didn’t see it that way. It wasn’t that the teacher did anything wrong necessarily, it was just an opinion-based connection the student couldn’t make or disagreed with. I have no doubt that there are teachers that use their classrooms as a soapbox for their opinions and push them hard on their students and impacting the grades and learning of their students. I have seen it firsthand as both a student and an educator, and more often at the post-secondary level than in middle or high school level.
Educators have a responsibility to present information with facts and all the varieties of opinions that exist. We should, discussing political topics as they relate to our subjects and at a level our students can handle based on knowledge and age/maturity level. Far too many people of all ages these days don’t know how to have a difficult conversation about a topic with someone that has an opposing viewpoint and truly listen for the sake of learning. Most listen for the sake of arguing (I am guilty of this myself, on occasion). As educators, it is so important that we learn to separate teaching from influencing based on our own beliefs. We must teach them to think, find evidence, analyze the details, ask questions, discuss at every opportunity with all viewpoints within our classroom. But it is so important that we leave the opportunities for drawing conclusions to the individual students to do privately or safely in an anonymous way.
Parents, this part is for you. I encourage you to do the same as I am asking of educators. Remember that reading unit about researching candidates I mentioned earlier? Many of the students found their views aligned with a candidate perfectly, but when it came time to write their conclusions and participate in our mock election, most voted differently. When we had our wrap up discussion about the mock election, some students said that their parents would be mad, even disown them, for supporting someone else. Some just wanted to do what everyone else was going to do and not be left out. I grew up with family that has strong political beliefs. I changed political parties as an adult and had close family members sever all ties with me because of it. But, in my household, three of us are of voting age and are all registered in different parties—yet we can have many political conversations about hot topics, openly listening and considering each other’s points of view, and still respect each other if we continue to differ in our views. It’s what I envision for the community to be like, and eventually the world. But you must play an integral part of this. Listen to your children, encourage them to think for themselves and reassure them that it is okay to support a different ideal than you—and truly mean it. Together, we can raise children that can truly make the world a better place.
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