The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How to teach in a political firestorm

Pro-Trump rioters breach the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

The teaching profession is under assault, plain and simple. Culture warriors are trying to restrict what educators can say and do in the classroom about vital subjects such as racism and gender, pay remains low in too many places, teachers are retiring in some places in big numbers, school districts are having a hard time filling positions, and some states are now allowing unqualified people to teach.

Even with all of that, a majority of Americans still say they trust their public schools. The 2022 PDK poll of American views on education tells the story. This poll has been conducted for nearly 50 years — and in 2022, a national representative group of adults gave the public school in their community the highest rating ever. A majority of Americans expressed trust and confidence in teachers. Yet fewer than ever in the history of the poll say they would want their child to work as a teacher in a public school.

Teachers still have to do their jobs amid all the turmoil in public education, and this post is aimed at helping them do that. It was written by Roxanna Elden, who combines 11 years of experience as a public school teacher with a decade of speaking about education-related topics with humor, nuance and practical advice.

Her guidebook, “See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers,” is a staple in school districts and educator training programs throughout the country. Her satirical workplace novel, “Adequate Yearly Progress,” follows several teachers as their professional lives crash into their personal lives and vice versa. She also works one-on-one with teachers nationwide in virtual Office Hours sessions. This essay is adapted from an issue of her weekly newsletter, which you can find at her website, roxannaelden.com.

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In recent weeks, several of my one-on-one sessions with teachers have touched on some version of “how to teach in the current political environment.” The exact nature of this concern plays out differently for different teachers, which is one reason I'm going to try not to wade into specific political debates here. Do I have opinions? I always have opinions! But if there's one thing teachers never have to worry about, it's having access to enough opinions.

That's especially true when teachers and schools are in the news more than usual, or when media outlets are lighting up with stories about how current events might play out in the classroom: Are teachers scared? Demoralized? Defiant? Looking for new jobs? Fired up and ready to turn all of this into a teachable moment?

The answer, of course, is all of the above. There are more than 3 million teachers in the United States. There will always be someone to offer a quote or write an opinion piece or create a meme supporting variations on any of these reactions, all of which are then available for people to forward to you or ask you about or tag you in when they comment on social media.

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This would be overwhelming even if social media sites weren’t constantly tweaking their algorithms to maximize “engagement,” which sounds like a synonym for “interest” but more accurately translates to “feelings of outrage, envy, or impending doom so intense that you can’t turn away from the targeted ads in between posts until you look up from the screen an hour later and aren’t quite sure how that half-empty party-sized bag of M&Ms got into your hand.” It’s not a coincidence that after an hour on the app of your choice, you feel too drained to tackle the tasks ahead of you. Which is too bad, because there always are plenty of tasks.

So, what to do? Here are a few possibilities.

Budget your emotional energy

It can be simultaneously true that there are issues worthy of our attention and that our brains are not built for a 24,000-hour-a-day information cycle. Yes, you want to be informed and involved. And, also yes, shoving infinite hot takes directly through your eyeballs and into your brain can drive you insane without necessarily accomplishing anything.

Fortunately, there are strategies you can put in place to budget your emotional energy. If there’s a productive way you feel you can get involved, block off the time and energy for it as part of your week. The rest of the time, mute the group chat. Turn off the news alerts. Back slowly away from the faculty-lounge gripe session. You may find it helpful to consider this an actual job responsibility, which I would argue that it is. Teaching is an emotional-energy marathon; you can’t afford to get dehydrated.

Perspective

The issues facing teachers at this moment are new, but the cycle they're part of is ongoing. The situation has always been urgent. It has always been a good time to write your congressperson. Your car's warranty has always been about to expire. Things have always never been like this before.

One of the more influential nonfiction books in my research for “Adequate Yearly Progress” was Dana Goldstein’s excellent history book, “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession.” The book illuminated how many of the “brand new” ideas in education have come around in different forms over decades, generating missionary zeal and backlash before fading into the disillusionment that leads to the next “brand new” idea. I’m not necessarily saying you should read a history of education politics in the middle of the school year; that’s a decision you should make with the help of a trained mental health professional. But the subtitle of Goldstein’s book is telling: If you’ve started your career at any time in the past 200 years, you’ve always been part of “America’s most embattled profession.” And that means whatever new challenges this year brings, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll rise to meet them.

Tackle the uncertainty head-on

Why is uncertainty so exhausting? Because it keeps our brains running on a hamster wheel, trying to prepare for the future without having enough information to work with. To keep an uncertain situation from driving you (quite as) crazy, make a list of what you know, what you don’t know and what specific questions you’d like answered. Then try to find as many solid, on-the-record answers as possible so you can move more of your questions to the what-you-know list. For everything you really can’t answer, try to set some guidelines for yourself. What are your options if situation X should arise? And what are the personal policies that guide you no matter what situations you are facing? By narrowing the range of possibilities and making at least some decisions in advance, you may be able to find more clarity.

Make your voice heard

If you think other people are getting the story wrong and find yourself having imaginary arguments with them, write down your thoughts and start thinking about the wisest way to share them. (Remember the two Golden Rules of the internet: 1) nothing that goes on the internet is private; and 2) everything on the internet lives forever.) Here’s a summary of the media training basics I teach in public-communication sessions for teachers. These tips can help you communicate with parents or others who ask you about touchy subjects. You may also worry less about the spotlight unexpectedly swinging in your direction if you know what you’d say just in case it does.

Information is power, and communication builds communities. That’s why teachers are important. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. And as always, whatever you do, don’t read the comments.

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