Friday, January 30, 2009

The teachers' dilemma

Pandora raised this issue from a parental perspective at Delawareliberal:

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.


Anonymous said...

I am a teacher and this dilemma is often on my mind. We were talk in education college to avoid sharing our political views with students. Children often make judgments based on what those they respect believe. I really like your approach, which avoids sharing your beliefs, encourages the students to form their own views as part of the learning experience, but acknowledges that there are times where you just need to be open. Making a rude comment about a politician is way over the line. Admitting a view on a particular issue is in the gray area, and I think a professional presentation can make it acceptable.

This election season, many students were asking me if I was voting for Obama or McCain. I usually avoided answering, but occasionally I could not resist saying that I was not voting for Obama or McCain. I said this because it brings to their attention the fact that there are not only two choices (I did not reveal my specific choice). There are third party candidates and there is the option of not voting.

I hate to see children being trapped in the two choice paradigm so early in their lives. From what I can tell, at least 90% of elementary teachers stick to that paradigm and never even mention the idea that one could chose to vote for neither the Democrat or Republican. The only time I saw a third party candidate mentioned in my school was when a student came across it and brought it to the attention of the class. That happened in two classes out of probably a dozen that I observed this year. Scholastic Magazine and other publishers and media outlets that provide resources for schools also leave out any mention of the possibility of voting for something other than the two major party candidates. That is dishonest education.

a most peculiar nature said...

I understand Pandora's concern, but agree with Steve: deal with it. That's what parents are for.

My sister with a HS senior in South Carolina was extremely upset about the forced-attendance to the inauguration ceremonies in the school auditorium. Luckily, they had a snow day and didn't have to deal with it.

My poor nephew (named Jefferson Davis) must be leading a lonely life right about now ! Eh, he can handle it.

The same situation happens in work situations, and as adults we have to handle it. I did it in my usual way: avoidance. There were big-screen TV's set up and no one was going to be doing any work anyway, so I arranged some medical appointments for that day.

From what I heard afterwards, the hallways of my workplace were practically orgiastic.

I do not wish to observe anyone's orgasm other than my own.

Hube said...

I've written about this quite often at CoR. The ironic thing is, pandora's anecdote much more often works in the ideological reverse. But that certainly doesn't make what this science teacher did right, natch.

It seems that this teacher said this to himself or to another adult, not as an announcement to the class. Still, he certainly needs to be careful with what he says and watch his volume level.

I'm pretty much in agreement with Steve's conclusion; however, if a parent DOES feel the need that he/she absolutely MUST contact a teacher over something like this, PLEASE begin without assumptions and don't start with something like "I understand [this] happened in your class the other day, because my daughter told me ..."

I always hear that, as adults, we teachers -- rightly, obviously -- are held to a higher standard for what we say in class and our classroom behavior. However, somehow that expectation doesn't seem occur as often regarding OUR versions of what actually occurred during a controversial comment/incident. As noted, it's frequently "Well, my child said you ..." and then "Well, it seems we have a he said/she said situation."

(Indeed. When I was a 14 year old, I NEVER embellished or lied about something to keep my hide out of trouble!)

So, again, my advice to pan is the latter half of my 3rd paragraph. If you contact this guy, don't proceed with your anger and treat your daughter's version of what happened as canon.

George Donnelly said...

Teachers that refused to acknowledge their own views on something always irritated me. It's like they simultaneously wanted to be a part of the discussion, and not be a part of the discussion.

A teacher is a whole person and they bring all that to bear on the classroom experience whether they wish to or not. Better to acknowledge and live with it rather than to pretend politics does not exist and claim some sort of bogus de facto neutrality.

For those involved in politics, political comments are inevitable. Just as someone who likes fishing will bring that up in their teaching inevitably. The only thing that makes the former a bone of contention, and not the latter is that the fate of the institution is controlled by the former and not the latter.

Why were they watching the inauguration in science class? That seems like a more basic and important question to ask.

Hube said...

George: Many schools, like my own, took time off in the middle of the day to stop and watch the inauguration.

Anonymous said...

My main concern about this situation was my daughter's reaction. She was upset and nervous that if Mr. XXXX found out that her family supported Obama it would change the way he felt about her.

Now had she taken the comment in stride I would have moved passed it, but she didn't. She internalized his comment, and, rightly or wrongly, let it impact her on a personal level. And that's where my dilemma arose.

I have no problem with political discussions is the classroom - as Steve put forth. But this wasn't a discussion. The teacher was wrong. Mainly because he was in the position of power.

Now, I'm not on the warpath against this teacher. I like him and the energy he brings to his classroom. I'm not looking for his head on a platter.

My concern was my daughter's concern. Funny what things kids latch onto, what upsets them.

And... deal with it? Isn't that what I'm doing? Or did I write a post declaring how I stormed the school and took that teacher out?

Hube said...

You obviously know better than anyone, pan, how to deal w/your daughter and what the teacher is all about. I just recommend taking the advice found in my first comment. It's based on 18 yrs. of experience.

But it seems you have already, based on your comments, so the point is moot!

Good luck on resolving this. It is indeed a delicate matter.

George Donnelly said...

Hube, I'm sure that the primary and secondary schools I attended in the '80's did the same thing.

If the teacher can't handle disagreement, something new has been learned about him that should cancel out some or all of the respect previously earned.

Was the teacher wrong by speaking the comment? Or by occupying a post of such enormous power as was created for him by the state and/or the parents of the kids in his class?

I question the kind of schooling that is so commonplace today in the US. It's regimented and it's unnatural. It elevates the teacher beyond the post of teacher to that of judge, jury, executioner (in some cases) and ultimate decider of what is right and wrong. Kids are easily conditioned into overvaluing the opinions of teachers.

I'm not saying it's always like that or has to be like that, but it trends that way.

Anonymous said...

Hube, Sorry. I should have acknowledged your points. They are valid, and I'm not one of those "not my kid" sort of parents. And had it been my son (who's never met a story that couldn't be made better with embellishment) I wouldn't have written the post.

Hube said...

Not a problem, pan. :-)

Again, good luck. These are some tough years for kids, our own or otherwise. (My own daughter is 14.)

Steven H. Newton said...

The "deal with it" comment was meant as a snarky comment that the teacher with opinions might be a libertarian, not a conservative or liberal--it wasn't meant for you.

George (and Hube)
I think when we're talking about this issue that we sometimes forget elementary and middle school teachers (about whom pandora was speaking; her daughter is eleven) who deal with students who don't have fully formed opinions of their own and are pretty open prey for being brainwashed.

I agree, Hube, that it is quite often a liberal bias rather than a conservative one that emanates from these teachers. What I have found, though, through more than a decade of working with teachers across the country, is that such teachers fall unevenly into three categories:

10% hardline ideologues who are unrepentent in the need to "socialize" kids into the "proper" belief system

10% folks who are unwittingly simply repeating the "party line" as they have been taught it, and are genuinely unaware that "educated people" could have any different opinions

80% teachers who hold a decided liberal political ideology but who really aren't--at least consciously--trying to substitute that for teaching critical thinking to their students. Most of them simply don't realize the extent to which their language and their mannerisms undercut that attempt, and when they realize it, they can be worked with.

Here's the reason that, even with college freshmen, I don't always overtly state my beliefs: I want them to become libertarians (substitute your own ideology here) because it makes sense to them, not because an authority figure espoused it....

George Donnelly said...

I get where you're coming from Steve, that makes sense. I'm thinking more of teachers I've had who stubbornly refuse to admit their own beliefs while simultaneously allowing them to influence the discussion. I've had a few like that.

Anonymous said...

I actually got the snark when I first read the post. It wasn't until I read Shirley's comment that doubt crept in.

As a parent, especially one entering the teen-age years (son-14, daughter-11), you are continually surprised by what your children dwell on. Things you think will cause problems rarely do, while situations most adults would forget about immediately turn into great angst for the child.

The comments I received on my DL post were incredibly thoughtful and helpful. I really appreciated everyone (from all political spectrums) offering their insight and advice.

Hube said...

Steve: Based on my experience, I'd agree with how you broke down the bias "categories."

Nicely done!

Hube said...

Back to George's first point: I was badgered quite a bit by my students about for whom I was going to vote Nov. 4th. I told them (as an originally trained social studies teacher) that "if you wish, I'll tell you AFTER Election Day. But not before."

It was weird, this time out. When I did tell kids (upon request, mind you, post Nov. 4) it was one of almost utter disbelief. (Must be DE's deep blue nature these days!) But I tactfully and carefully explained why, all the while stating that I wholeheartedly recognized the historic nature of the election (and its winner), and 99% of my students were respectful and "got it."

Again, my soc. stud. training was REALLY imprinted on me (that, and it's my own deeply held philosophy out of a basic sense of fairness) that I cover ALL (or both, as the case may be) of an issue. Hell, I think, if anything, I OVERexplained myself when I discussed my vote and the election, mainly 'cuz politics is always delicate a topic in a classroom.

a most peculiar nature said...

Perhaps I am showing my age in thinking that all of this is being a bit over-analyzed.

I'll have to ask my Dad :)).

Anonymous said...

I'm a social studies teacher -- and a GOP party official (local precinct chair and election judge).

I handle the issue with a bit of honesty and a lot of humor.

At come point, politics will come up with my high school kids. When they ask, I tell them my party orientation -- and then truthfully tell them that I am married to a card-carrying liberal Democrat. I then point out to them that if I can love her and share my life with her, even though we disagree on many things, I certainly won't hold it against them if they disagree with me. I also explicitly tell them that I want them to challenge me if they ever feel I am being unfair during the course of a discussion that touches on a political issue -- and that I even award them extra credit points when their challenge has merit.

Interestingly enough, back when I taught English I faced a similar challenge. I gave students an assignment to write a persuasive paper on a political topic of their choice. My comment on one paper on abortion went as follows -- "I think you are absolutely wrong on the issue -- but you have also written the best paper in any of my classes. Fantastic job!"

In other words, my policy is not to deny the existence of a point of view -- it is to communicate the importance of respect and goodwill between folks who hold different perspectives. I've yet to have a parent complain -- not even when the topic was immigration and the parent was an officer in the local LULAC chapter.