In the midst of some intense political happenings in Washington, DC, it seems appropriate to ask: how does a teacher responsibly and ethically handle, or remember regarding, politics in the classroom?
Here is the fruit of my research:
- Recognize your own positions. We all develop beliefs in response to our perceptions, feelings, interpretations of the past, interpretations of our own lives, and what we hear from family, friends, colleagues, the media, social media, our culture, etc. We must know our own positions and values, the evidence and causes behind them, and be conscious of how these positions and values affect our teaching and presentation of material.
- Remember and acknowledge how our values affect our course design and lesson planning. If we talk about slaves, we are influenced by a Marxist approach to history that encourages discussion of the subaltern. Depending on how we structure the lesson or where the conversation goes, issues of race and economics will be involved.
- There is an uneven power dynamic between students and teachers. Most teachers develop the assignments for the students. Teachers evaluate and grade students. Ethical teachers cannot give points to students with whom they agree politically.
- There is a difference between “settled issues” and “open issues.” Franke Wilmer uses the example as the Holocaust as a settled issue. It happened; it’s very sad a historical fact. Diane Hess uses the example of climate change. It is a settled issue that the climate is changing, but the appropriate response to climate change is the open question. Similarly, regarding an issue we might encounter in a Latin or Classics class, it is a settled issue that rape is bad, but the punishment for the rapist seems to be at the core of the debate raging today. It is important to differentiate between these for ourselves, and for our students. It may foster more constructive dialogue and it help us recognize that we are more similar to one another than our current polarization implies. Wilmer, though, acknowledges that drawing the line between “settled” and “open” can be difficult.
- Focus on issues, not events. Often, we do not have enough knowledge of specific, very recent events, such as a police officer shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, to discuss them adequately or fairly; but we do have sufficient knowledge to focus on issues, such as racial inequality, the militarization of the police, police wearing body cameras, etc. This will also help students see the historical context and systemic issues behind current events.
- There is a difference between “public”/”civic” values and “private” values. To quote Tom Huddleston, “The kind of values that characterise a pluralist democracy, such as ours [referring to the UK, but the same applies to the USA], include: social justice; political equality; tolerance; human rights; respect for the rule of law; and a commitment to negotiation and debate as the ideal way of resolving public conflict. This difference [between public and private values] allows a distinction to be made between the values that may be legitimately taught in schools–indeed, which schools have a duty to teach–and those that are more properly the province of the home, particular interest groups and religious or political parties. Thus, … [teachers] may quite legitimately condemn and prohibit injustices which contravene our community values, such as racism and human rights abuse – wherever they take place.”
- Provide all points of view regarding an issue, and present them in a neutral manner. You can play ‘devil’s advocate’ to challenge what seems like an early emerging one-sided consensus, or encourage students to share and explain their own thoughts. You can invite a variety of community members into the classroom (especially if they are parents who are worried about you indoctrinating their children).
- Do not establish yourself as the sole authority on a subject. This will demonstrate your open mind and the value of other opinions, and it will help students see that there are a variety of opinions.
- Ask students to actively engage in a discussion of the issues. To quote Tom Huddleston again, “If children become accustomed to discussing their differences in a rational way in the primary years, they are more likely to accept it as normal in their adolescence. Citizenship education helps equip young people to deal with situations of conflict and controversy knowledgeably and tolerantly. It helps to equip them to understand the consequences of their actions, and those adults around them. Pupils learn how to recognize bias, evaluate argument, weigh evidence, look for alternative interpretations, viewpoints and sources of evidence; above all to give good reasons for the things they say or do, and to expect good reasons to be given by others.” In other words, do not just teach the issues, but teach the skills of being a good citizen.
- Have rules for discussion. Students should be respectful and attentive, and they should approach the discussion with open minds. Opposing opinions should not be dismissed but respectfully interrogated so that they are better understood. The discussion should be based on fact-checked evidence, and arguments should be critiqued on their merits (not on whether or not the teacher agrees). Teaching students these rules for less controversial, political issues will establish a safe, respectful environment for discussing more hot button issues.
- We must model approaching issues with an open mind. Do not reveal your own preferences unconsciously through facial expressions, gestures, tones of voice, choice of respondents during a discussion, etc. Do not make sarcastic comments or jokes that are political or partisan in nature–that polarizes students.
- If you share your opinion, make it clear that it is your opinion. State that it is “in my opinion.” Step out from behind a podium. State that students must make up their own minds.
- Do not focus on cynicism and fear. Find upbeat messages and the good side of what may seem like crazy times, and share them with your students.
- Are students initiating the discussion because they want to talk about it? or are you? There are differing levels of comfort that come with each cause.
- To what extent are your students, their families, and their communities personally affected by an issue? Emotional levels will run high or low depending on your answer, or you may need to devote more or less time to issues that directly affect students before their learning can take place.
- Should students be allowed to opt out of the discussion if it is particularly hard for them due to their religious background or personal past? Considerations similar to those for trigger warnings apply, on the one hand. On the other hand, Paula McAvoy mentions that we don’t let students opt out of tests, democratic discussion allows participants to walk away, and democracies rely on participants overcoming their discomfort regarding discussing their opinions.
- Is the issue something all students ought to know about, regardless of whether it is in the curriculum?
- We are a very politically polarized country at the moment. Current political polarization may mean that some comments are interpreted as political even though both sides agree on the idea (despite caricatures on the media or social media) or even though you did not mean them to be political, and it may mean that emotions will run high during discussions. However, respectful discussion is what is missing in our national discourse, so it may be beneficial to encourage it in our schools–to teach students how to be good citizens.
- Remember there are difficult balances to maintain here, and success will not be immediate with every group of students. Don’t give up trying. It is important and engaging to connect Classics to the modern world, and to acknowledge the modern world’s effects on our perceptions of the ancient world. These attempts show why Classics matters. But the questions of whether and how political to be–that’s up to you, your students, and your administration.
- Russell Chun, “Politics in the Classroom: Reflections on Teaching in a Divisive Election,” MediaShift
- Steve Drummond, “Politics in the Classroom: How Much is Too Much?” NPR (interview with Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy about their book The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education)
- Brian P. Gatens, “When Politics Comes Up in the Classroom: 5 Tips for Teachers,” From the Principal’s Office
- Ted Huddleston, “Teaching about controversial issues: guidance for schools,” for the Citizenship Foundation, 2003 (PDF)
- Andrew Jones, “From Brexit to Trump: Should teachers talk politics in the classroom?” The GuardianItalia Krahling, “Opinion: Why teachers should help students inaugurate a discussion of politics in the classroom,” The Hechinger Report
- Franke Wilmer, “Pedagogy and Politic: Democracy in the Classroom” (PDF) – more focused on ethics