The study concludes that teacher training programs need to better prepare educators in adapting their classrooms to help students understand current events and political upheavals. Katy relates to the other athletes at school, but wouldn’t call herself a “jock” or part of any particular clique. One educator from Massachusetts summed up the dilemma this way: “Trump unlike any other presidential candidate stands for everything I work to combat: racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia. Roughly two dozen of the Cavaliers’ neighbors joined them for the question-and-answer session. (Read the Albuqurque Journal’s report on the event and a full transcript of the New Mexico event. Quirk Theory Calling herself a “total geek” in high school, Robbins says the pressure to conform to the more traditionally “popular” cliques can squelch the creativity that makes us successful as adults.
Also, unlike popular students, quirky kids don’t waste time or energy on image control. The job is also to prepare people with multiple points of view to survive and thrive in self-government. I know I have students whose parents supported both candidates passionately and I do sort of feel a responsibility to respect their parents’ views (no matter how much I may disagree).” It doesn’t help that so much of our discourse is labelled “political” or “partisan,” including discussions about human rights and social justice. All this neutrality or avoidance may work for the teacher – but what about the student? Alyssa Hadley Dunn, Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Michigan State University, believes that a strict adherence to “neutrality” – not expressing your views to students and/or avoiding political topics – is a tactic that can actually marginalize many students. To be clear, Dunn is not talking about a teacher who stands in front of the class and reads aloud endorsements for local, state, and federal political office and then urges students to go home and tell their parents to vote accordingly. Kelly has a bit of experience with this, too. “A girl I have known since middle school will only hang out with the cheerleaders and the guys who everyone thinks are hot,” she says. “She’ll never talk to anyone she thinks isn’t cool enough for her or her friends and basically thinks she is above everyone.” Like Ceballos and Han, Kelly doesn’t want to be labeled, but also like them, she seems wistful about the social lives of the popular crowd. “I guess her social life includes way more partying and obsessing over guys than mine does,” says Kelly, referring to the girl who hangs with the “cool” students. “My social life has to be balanced in between getting good grades, a busy volleyball schedule, and finding a job.
The challenge is to help students grapple with controversial issues without turning into enemies. She hosted President Barack Obama today for a backyard talk on the topic. Touching on everything from the U.S.’s fall in global academic competitiveness rankings to the right of students to get an affordable higher education, Tuesday’s meeting reflected how integral education is to the upcoming elections. “This issue of education gives you a sense of the choice that I think Democrats are trying to make and the choice that the Republicans are trying to make,” Obama said. My students fall into categories of people he wants removed or controlled, in his America. The kind of neutrality that concerns Dunn is, for example, a decision to avoid discussion of “controversial” issues – racism, inequity, climate change, or gun violence, for example – out of fear of appearing political or partisan.
We can’t pretend that teachers can leave these contexts at the door.” Especially after the election of Donald Trump. NEA EdJustice engages and mobilizes activists in the fight for racial, social and economic justice in public education. For example, an elementary teacher from a predominantly white school in Michigan explained, “I always feel nervous explicitly discussing politics in my classroom due to the variety of views of my students’ parents and my own fear that parents will be upset or complain about me if my own views come up explicitly in classroom lessons/discussions. The researchers recommend that current teachers, especially those “ideological outsiders,” seek out networks across schools and districts that can serve as “restorative and supportive communities.” While Dunn and her colleagues are careful not to downplay the pressures educators face, they emphasize that, ultimately, teachers are charged with preparing their students to work toward a more democratic society. Cavalier currently works in the Los Lunas Public Schools. Still, many of the respondents in the survey did not feel particularly well-prepared to take this on, let alone publicly challenge the presumed virtues of a neutral classroom.
Education, at its core, is inherently political, says Dunn. “Everything in education—from the textbooks to the curriculum to the policies that govern teachers’ work and students’ learning—is political and ideologically-informed,” she explains. “Both what is taught and how it is taught is shaped by the cultural, social, political, and historical contexts in which a school is situated. Alexandra Robbins Robbins also points out that kids who have the ability to move freely between groups will be better prepared for more success as adults—kids like Myles Kelly, a sophomore who plays volleyball for Osbourn Park High School, in Manassas, Va., and also plays on a state travel team. The researchers surveyed 730 teachers from 43 states to gauge how their pedagogical choices were affected after the election. The president touted his $4 billion Race to the Top competitive grant program, expansion of early childhood education programs and changes to student loan programs that will help make college more affordable for many. Although political polarization didn’t begin with his candidacy, Trump’s incendiary, crude, and divisive rhetoric about race, religion, gender, and immigration that marked his campaign (and his presidency) has been deeply unsettling to many, if not most, Americans. “I don’t care what my school administration says. My loyalty is homework market to my students and their lives, . . . not to administrator requests to avoid conversations that are uncomfortable.’’ According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the 2016 presidential campaign had a “profoundly negative effect on children and classrooms…particularly acute in schools with high concentrations of minority children.” Yet, as Dunn and her colleagues Beth Sondel of the University of Pittsburgh and Hannah Carson Baggett of Auburn University concluded in a recent paper, many teachers continue to feel pressured to remain neutral when discussing Trump and are generally uncomfortable addressing racial and social justice issues in the classroom. “This pressure (to stay neutral) is reflective of the lack of trust, autonomy, and professionalism for teachers in our current climate,” the study, published in the American Educational Research Journal, concludes. Teaching the ‘Hard History’ Behind Today’s News For educators, uncomfortable discussions come with the territory.
The country ranks 21st in science education and 25th in math education globally. In only one generation, the U.S. has slipped from first to 12th in the number of college graduates it produces. But in adulthood, that which makes you different makes you interesting, fun, and often successful. Some respondents made it very clear they did not adhere to what they saw as misdirected directives from school or district officials to stay away from anything Trump-related. It’s a trait that will serve them well, Robbins says.
That which makes you different in school usually makes you a geek or a nerd, she says. Located about 20 miles west of Annandale, where Han attends school, Osbourn Park has the typical “popular” cliques and the sports cliques, but Kelly intermingles with all of the students. Etta Cavalier, a 36-year veteran of the public schools and member of NEA-New Mexico, and her husband Andrew, a disabled military veteran, found themselves in the national spotlight as the president talked about the needs for public education in the U.S. during a stop in Albuquerque. So she probably has more of a social life than I do and more opportunities to have fun.” But Kelly also understands that despite the parties and the appearance of having a lot of good friends and more fun, some students are just afraid to break down barriers of cliques simply because they’re afraid to break out of their comfort zones. “Some kids have a really hard time making new friends and feel a sense of protection with people that they’ve hung out with forever and would rather not worry about having to find new friends,” she says. “…they’re afraid to branch out and meet new people.” But when teenagers are afraid to break away, they lose their identities, their uniqueness, and what Robbins would call their quirkiness—in other words, what makes them, and all of us, special. “Being different is what makes you awesome,” Robbins says. The boundaries get more rigid because the students believe they have more invested in keeping others out of the group, and keeping themselves in. And while too many parents still believe the classroom door should always be shut to any political discussion, they may be “ignoring the reality that such a move is never really possible,” Dunn says.
Pedagogical choices, the researchers argue, should not be confined by this false construct. “Making justice-oriented pedagogical choices is not about partisanship or controversy but, rather, is reflective of an overarching commitment to equity,” they write. “Both what is taught and how it is taught is shaped by the cultural, social, political, and historical contexts in which a school is situated. One middle school teacher explained that despite the fear many of his students had of deportation and harassment, “my school, tied by a never-ending desire to remain ‘unbiased,’ did nothing and told teachers to limit conversations about the elections because such conversations were not included [in the standards].” “I don’t care what my school administration says,” the teacher continued. “My loyalty is to my students and their lives, . . . not to administrator requests to avoid conversations that are uncomfortable.” Generally, however, responses from educators were littered with words such as “fearful,” “anxious,” “unsure,” and “scared,” even as they acknowledged that a more engaged, proactive approach in the classroom may be necessary. I do not know how to talk to my students about this and be neutral (as per country policy).” According to the study, teaching after the election was most challenging for those who were “ideological outsiders” – Clinton voters in areas where the majority of voters were pro-Trump and vice versa. “Teachers had to negotiate if and how to talk about their own beliefs knowing that their students’ parents and/or colleagues may disagree with them,” Dunn says. He posed a question to those gathered in the Cavaliers’ yard, and to all voters heading to the polls in November: “Who’s going to prioritize our young people to make sure they’ve got the skills they need to succeed over the long term? Nothing is going to be more important in terms of our long-term success.” Never have the stakes been higher. It’s what she calls “quirk theory” in her book. “Quirk theory is this: Many of the differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the same characteristics or skills that others will respect, admire, or find compelling about that person in adulthood and outside of the school setting,” Robbins says. With so much pressure to conform, how can we encourage children to break down the barriers and out of their comfort zones?
Broadening Social Boundaries Short of overhauling the social atmosphere of our high schools, Robbins has some common sense ideas for getting more kids to broaden their social boundaries: Set out loose chairs in the cafeteria so that groups of all sizes can sit together and so that floaters can mingle; Try assigned cafeteria seating at least once a month; Make sure that every student has the opportunity to run for student office and to vote; Never discount ticket prices for dances or other school events to groups or couples; Have a rotating patrol of adults (possibly parent volunteers) in the hallways between classes to monitor for aggression; And most important, reach out to students as often as possible, even if just to ask how they’re doing and what might make their school a more welcoming place for them and for everyone. “The label does not define the person,” says Daniel Han. “It’s time to ignore the labels and see all people as equal human beings.” When teaching about U.S. elections or politics, many educators will strive for neutrality. With 2019 and 2020 shaping up to be just as tumultuous as the previous few years, what are the chances more educators will feel empowered and better prepared to talk politics (for lack of a better word) in their classrooms? Don’t count on the administration to lead the way, at least not yet. “Districts are still issuing bureaucratic demands on teachers that take their time away from the most important thing they can do in the classroom: create responsive and relevant curriculum for their students,” explains Dunn. What results is a classroom that potentially ignores the fears, interests, and concerns of many students. While educators nationwide are imploring political leaders, policymakers and media to bring them into the conversation as they debate what’s best for public education, a New Mexico school counselor went one better.
They recognize and understand the labels, but still hold onto their unique interests. In this hyper-polarized political climate, that’s a line that’s easy to stumble across. She simply looks for friends who are nice and decent people, regardless of who else they hang out with or their level of popularity. “Floaters—the kids who can move freely among groups—are actually using a more sophisticated, adult form of socializing,” says Robbins. “The way cultures get transmitted across adult groups is through floaters, these melding kinds of liaisons.” There aren’t as many floaters in the popular cliques, she says, because the higher a teen group is in the social hierarchy, the more likely it is to force its members to conform. We can’t pretend that teachers can leave these contexts at the door.” – Alyssa Hadley Dunn, Michigan State University Anchoring discussions to a justice and equity framework can provide educators with a path forward. Neutrality is itself a political choice, Dunn argues, and is one that bolsters the status quo. After graduation, the quirky kids therefore have a much better sense of their identity. They may insist these discussions have no place in the classroom, while others argue that standardization and a lack of time make them a non-starter.
Even if there was an opening, the slightest hint of bias could attract the ire of an administrator or parent.