Teachers already were having a difficult time teaching about a deeply polarizing presidential campaign that included foul language, adult themes and cultural insensitivity. On Wednesday, they awoke to potentially more complex task: How to explain what a Trump presidency could mean for their students.
Emotions ran high at many of the nation’s schools, with some students arriving to class in tears while others were celebrating the promise of change that comes with Trump’s election. Educators sought to channel the energy into lessons on civility, democracy and on America’s system of checks and balances on power, explaining that many of Trump’s policy proposals — love them or hate them — might not come to be without congressional approval.
Some teachers, particularly those at schools with large immigrant and minority populations, faced classrooms full of anxious and distraught students. Many scrapped lesson plans in favor of class discussions about the election, seeking to ease fears that the students or their family members might be deported or that Trump might target Muslims.
“They are worried and scared about the uncertainty surrounding their community,” said Tyler Alabanza-Behard, who teaches English at a charter high school in Houston, where many students are undocumented immigrants. He canceled plans to do ACT prep on Wednesday and led a class discussion instead. “They were asking questions I couldn’t answer: ‘What will happen to my family? What will happen to my friends?’”
Jake Zebley, a high school teacher from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, said a Hispanic student approached him with a defeated look Wednesday morning.
“I guess today is our last day,” Zebley recounted the 9th grader saying. “Because Trump won, my family might be deported.”
Zebley, like many other teachers, said he sought to reassure the student and started a class discussion about the branches of the U.S. government and explaining how they balance power.
“Students started to be far less fearful and a little more optimistic because they knew it was not one person who could set the course of their future,” he said.
Some high school students channeled their angst through protest. At Berkeley High School in Berkeley, Calif., about a third of the school’s 3,000 students gathered in the courtyard and then marched to the nearby University of California-Berkeley campus. Situated in a city with a long history of protest, Principal Sam Pasarow said students have about one walkout a year and he anticipated students would demonstrate, sending out teachers to keep an eye on them. He believes it is important to allow students — upset over the outcome of the election — to express themselves.
“Kids got to process it in a community of peers,” Pasarow said. “Kids are still upset, hurt, freaked out.”
Mary Akeley, who teaches fifth grade at Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Fairfax County, Va., said she avoided talking about this campaign cycle in class because she thought her students were not mature enough to handle it. On Wednesday, as tearful students streamed into school, she and other teachers decided to confront the election results head-on. At an assembly early in the day, Head of School Jeff Sindler reminded students to be civil and sensitive to one another’s feelings.
Akeley said that before she began a class discussion about the election, she pulled a student who appeared gleeful about Trump’s victory aside to tell her not to gloat. Akeley said some girls broke down in tears, crestfallen after seeing their hopes of Hillary Clinton in the White House dashed.
“There were a number of girls who were really looking forward to a woman president,” Akeley said.
To give students a sense of hope, Akeley steered them toward talking about their passions; some said they support same-sex marriage, others talked about raising funds for a local animal shelter. They came up with the idea of starting a letter-writing campaign.
“When something like this happens, children feel like they have no voice,” Akeley said. The letter-writing campaign project “gives them hope and they know they can make a difference.”
Far from D.C. in solidly Trump country, some schools had subdued responses to the election. David Freligh, who teaches world history at Forrest City High School, in the rural farming community of Forrest City, Ark., said the election has raised anxiety for some students on both sides of the aisle: some students, for example, were fearful that Hillary Clinton would take away their guns.
Freligh said hallway banter on Wednesday largely centered around more typical adolescent topics, such as the school’s football team as it heads to the playoffs and teenage romance. He said many of his students are not deeply engaged with politics and that many are apathetic about the election.
“The kids are not really upset about it because it’s a long way away,” Freligh said.
Megan Osborn teaches social studies at Sunset Ridge Middle School in West Jordan, Utah, where middle schoolers elected independent Evan McMullin in a mock election on Tuesday. Osborn said her students have been civil to one another, but on Wednesday, one student walked into class and said: “Anyone who voted for Hillary Clinton should die!”
Osborn approached it as a teachable moment.
“We talked about why comments like that are inappropriate and how saying things like that can really cause a lot of problems in our country,” Osborn said.
Chris Murray, a teacher at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., said his world history class analyzed polling data to understand Trump’s support by race, gender and education — as a way to look deeply at who supported him and to think through why. He sought to bridge the divide cleaved open by this election, asking his students to put themselves in other people’s shoes, rather than just label Trump supporters as bigots.
“The reality is this is our future for four years and we need dialogue rather than more debate,” he said.