Last night over dinner my 11 year old daughter announced that her science teacher doesn’t like Joe Biden. After exchanging a look with my husband I asked, “Why would you think that?” She then proceeded to explain…
“When we were watching the Inauguration in class Mr. XXXX said that finally Delaware is rid of him.”
Now this isn’t the first time this science teacher has brought politics into the classroom, and I ignored his previous antics since I wasn’t sure what he said about this email - but I could guess. But now I’m angry. I’m also in a dilemma.
My daughter is a typical 11 year old, which means fitting in is important to her. She also really likes this teacher, which means I must take into account pre-teen mortification in whatever I decide to do. My other concern is, if I decide to speak with the teacher, altering the friendly relationship my daughter shares with Mr. XXXX. And yes, I know teachers aren’t supposed to treat children differently, but this post is based in reality - and teachers are human.
Teachers--at least the good ones--deal with this issue daily. For most the appropriate answer is, Keep your personal political views out of the classroom, and that's OK--except....
What if you are a social studies [or history] teacher and a large part of your responsibility is teaching about the political process and handling subjects like immigration, or modern history?
I spend 45-60 days a year traveling around the country working with history teachers, and it is a real issue with them. Many districts even have specific policies prohibiting the insertion of personal political views into the classroom.
But the very real problem is that your own political, social, and cultural beliefs always inform your teaching, and it takes a lot of conscious effort not to create lessons that are essentially designed to bring students around to your (obviously correct) way of thinking about an issue.
Think about it this way. You're discussing immigration--possibly as an offshoot of a lecture on 19th Century immigration and as the result of a student comparison. How do you refer to the people entering the United States without benefit of papers--without telegraphing to your students what you think about the issue?
If you refer to them as illegals, you've told them one thing.
If you refer to them as undocumented workers, you've told them another.
Is there a politically neutral term to use? Not really. So what do you do?
What I tell teachers is to explain to students that people who use illegals tend to view these folks as a threat, and see the need to control our borders, and that people who use undocumented workers tend to view these folks as people looking for a better life, and see the need to work at helping them integrate into our society.
Inevitably, students ask which one you believe personally.
What I do then is challenge them to figure out what I think, and very consciously alternate equally between using the two terms during lectures and discussions. And I tell them that their real job is to determine which term they will choose to use after we finish our lesson, or whether they should reject both terms and come up with something different.
It is very hard to do this, because you cannot afford to present information that clashes with your own political beliefs as straw man examples; you have to do your best to make the best possible arguments from both sides.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. When it doesn't, you approach it as honestly as possible, and tell students that your role is not to make them think like you do, but to make them think.
Sometimes you cannot dodge the issue, so you let the students know about your position up front, and ask them to help keep you honest.
[A college example: about ten years ago when gay marriage first became a real issue in Massachusetts, my students wanted to discuss it. I told them OK, and pointed out that every poll taken to that time indicated that 75-85% of the American people disapproved of gay marriage, and that truth in teaching required me to tell them that I was part of the 15% that didn't care if two men or two women got married. What happened then is that my students, who had never actually met somebody who approved of gay marriage, wanted to interrogate me. How did I explain gay marriage to my twins? How did I justify it while considering myself a Christian? Why didn't I think it would end western civilization? What was really interesting is that by allowing them to interview me about my own beliefs--rather than expressing those beliefs myself--the students were in control of the situation and didn't feel at all pressured to adopt my beliefs.]
Point being: as a parent, one of the things you really want to keep in mind is that--even when the teacher is trying really hard to do things right--it's not always going to work.
Your liberal kids are going to be exposed to conservatives.
Your conservative kids are going to meet liberals (if they aren't home-schooled).
And--occasionally--your liberal and conservative kids are going to fall afoul of a libertarian. Deal with it.