Political discussions can be sensitive for teachers to lead — especially when young students ask direct and personal questions. How much should teachers reveal about their personal political views? How heated should political discussions be allowed to get in a classroom?
A teacher at one independent school in California e-mailed me recently saying that she and her colleagues were told by administrators to show respect to all views, including those of Donald Trump, who has become known in the campaign for his strong views on building a wall to keep illegal immigrants coming from Mexico and for not allowing Muslims into the United States for an unspecified period of time. This teacher — who requested anonymity because she feared for her job — said she wanted to distinguish Trump’s views from those held by some of the other candidates but felt that she couldn’t.
Here is a post about one such classroom political discussion by Mary Sypek, a student teacher at a Boston elementary school, who makes clear to her students her negative opinions of Trump. This appeared on the Edushyster website of Jennifer Berkshire, freelance journalist and public education advocate who worked for six years editing a newspaper for the American Federation of Teachers in Massachusetts. She gave me permission to run this post.
Do you think teachers should express their political views in the classroom, as this teacher does? Do you have examples of similar conversations about any of the current candidates for president? Share them with me: Valerie.firstname.lastname@example.org
By Mary Sypek
“Ms. Sypek, what do you think of Donald Trump?” a male student asks. I try to think of an answer that’s both diplomatic and clear. “I don’t really like Donald Trump,” is what I decided to say, to which he promptly responds, “I don’t like Donald Trump either.” I exhale, hoping I have managed to escape the topic of Trump without too much of a hassle. I am wrong.
It’s literacy time in a fourth-grade teacher’s classroom. Students are working with partners and in small groups to read nonfiction books about the U.S. government, and I am working with four struggling readers in our classroom. I am a student teacher at an urban public school in one of the most diverse cities in Massachusetts. In our classroom of 26, we represent 22 countries.
Our short nonfiction piece is called “Meet the United States Democracy,” and it describes the branches and basic functions of the United States government. As we read, my kids notice and point out all the pictures of George W. Bush, who was president when the book was published. I am surprised because they are only 9 and 10 years old, so the only president they have really known is Barack Obama. Inevitably, our conversation turns to the current presidential election.
“Ms. Sypek, if Donald Trump gets elected, will me and my family be deported?” the boy asks, picking up where he left off. His family is Muslim, with roots in Morocco. They visit often, and he frequently tells stories about “my country.” He is an artist, and he struggles to be engaged and productive at school.
My first instinct is to correct him sternly. No. Donald Trump never said that. I’m not sure where you heard or read that, but it’s only a rumor. Donald Trump would never deport families who live in our country. Then I remember his plan to stop Muslims from entering the United States. Words like, *vigilant,* *surveillance,* and *eliminate* come to mind. Suddenly his question does not seem all that far-fetched.
I actually have no idea what to say to him. In the end this, or something very similar, is how I respond: If Donald Trump is elected, I’m not sure what his plan for our country would be.
My student continues talking about this. “I don’t talk about my feelings that much, but when I think about this my heart starts beating really fast. I sometimes have nightmares about if Donald Trump is president. My parents watch the news and I hear them talking about it.”
Another student asks him, “Are you about to cry?”
“No. Well, a little.”
I do my best to allow the conversation to continue to its natural end, only answering questions that are asked directly to me. More students join in, discussing what they have heard about Trump and his plans.
Some people say that Donald Trump “tells it like it is” or “talks about the issues no one is talking about.” Many others say that they think he is racist, sexist, and dangerous for the well-being of the United States. Ultimately, many of the loudest and most visible commenters are people who hold immense privilege in our country. They are U.S. citizens, native English speakers, white people.
My students are 9 and 10 years old, and many of them are neither white nor native English speakers. They believe in ghosts, play with Yu-Gi-Oh cards, and are concerned with whether I know how to “Whip” and “Nae Nae.” In class, they are learning about perimeter, capitalization, and volcanoes. Judging by conversations such as the one I described above, it is clear that they are also learning a great deal about Donald Trump. They know he has called some immigrants dirty, lazy and dangerous. They know he is interested in tracking them, stopping them, moving and removing them. They are learning that Trump’s plan for our country may involve much less freedom for people like them than our reading about democracy in the United States describes:
The Constitution gives the President enough power to lead the country. The Constitution also gives the country enough power to lead the President…The founding fathers made sure that no one person could take control of the country.
For the sake of my students, I hope this continues to be true.
(Clarifying: What the teacher told the student)