Teachers Shouldn't Tiptoe Around Politics When It Directly Impacts Our Students

Jan 22, 2021 12:00:00 AM


“Don’t talk politics and religion at the dinner table.” 

I presume I’m not the only one who was brought up with this unspoken rule. With a politically-neutral immigrant father and a politically silent mother, this taboo ‘p’ word was just not one brought up in our home.

I remember the first election I was of-age to vote. I woke up early with my college housemates, we drove outside of the university bubble and we cast our votes. I felt so proud but own that I had little to no idea what I was doing. By the time I reached college and the rise of social media was in full force, I was flooded by what I consumed from peers or stumbled upon online by my trusted sources at the time (which were "Buzzfeed" and "The Huffington Post"). 

It really wasn’t until the last four years that I’ve tried to tackle politics on a personal level. Especially now in such a polarizing season, I’ve struggled to internalize my own beliefs in a calm and rational manner. Additionally, I’ve been reflecting recently on my experience as a millennial. Even if it was through a slow dial-up connection, I grew up with the World Wide Web. Information has always been accessible at my fingertips. Then came the birth of social media, starting in the early-2000’s as I was beginning high school and soon transitioning into college. In contrast to other generations who have had to adapt to this new access to information as adults or are born into this fast-paced information-driven culture, I’ve ‘grown-up’ alongside the internet.

Part of me still is pulled by the “don’t talk” notion of the adults who raised me, while the other side is pulled by the vocal, brassy peers I see online.  It’s an odd time to navigate talking politics—particularly when adding the layer of being a teacher to it.

 So [pullquote]how do we equip the next generation to find their voice, while also teaching them the value of listening with intention?[/pullquote] How do we commission them to develop their own ideas while also being open to an ongoing empathetic dialogue? Whether or not we want to admit it, politics impacts our students, it impacts us too. Especially in a technology-driven culture, our students have ongoing access to information. We can perpetuate cycles by ignoring it, or we can help students with the tools to maneuver through it to create change.

Currently, I am a multilingual teacher. Essentially my job is to provide language services for students who are legally identified as “English Language Learners” by the state. This means that the demographics of the students I work with are predominantly children of immigrants, like myself, or refugees themselves. [pullquote position="right"]Political issues—like DACA, the Muslim travel ban and immigration laws—are not just headlines to my students.[/pullquote] My whole role is rooted in ‘politics.’ Then add that context into our larger school community of a charter school (another political buzzword) with a large Black population as well. In many ways, I can’t tiptoe around their wonderings or questions because they are aware that their communities are heavily impacted by politics. So we’ve learned to talk and, more importantly, how to listen. 

This 2020 election season has been an incredibly interesting time as my school has been predominantly online. There’s no playbook on how to answer student’s hard questions or how to educate them about what is happening in the world without infringing on boundaries. At the end of day though, students are aware that something about this season is different than the norm. They default to observing the adults in their lives, so how can we ensure that we are modeling healthy but authentic behavior for them? How do we support the next generation so perhaps they find a way to use their voice with the utmost empathy in order to find a balance between silence and stubbornness?

After asking myself many of these questions, reading, listening, and reflecting, I believe I’ve collected a sense of personal pragmatisms for how to speak with students about politics in a way that focuses on their social-emotional development.  

  • Set objectives and norms. In best teaching practice, I’ve been taught to always start with the “why.” Why are we learning or talking about this? What is the ultimate take away you want students to grasp? Then set norms. I’ve found success in writing them out and then giving students a space to discuss and agree upon them. This sets up the conversation to be more successful since it puts the class on the same track. 
  • Build community by bringing in outside speakers. A silver lining in this season is the number of people who are now working from home. This means it might actually be more convenient for people to take time to join a Zoom or online call. Take advantage of this exciting opportunity to bring in new and diverse voices. It’s great to tap into the expertise in your community whenever possible, but you can accomplish some of the same goals by sharing with your students some of the broadcasts and speeches that are a part of the historic events happening around them every day.
  • Answer student questions. Students have a keen radar on genuineness. They can read their teachers' mannerisms and see right through if we are acting out of our norm. So when students ask questions, yes even difficult ones or ones we may not know the best answer to give, they will pick up if we dismiss it. That can send a signal to them even if it’s unintentional or subconscious. If it’s a question that may be best answered privately then ask the student to hang back to have that one-on-one. It’s also okay to not know an answer and share that response. Again, they read our cues so encourage them to ask questions, even if they’re hard to answer. It probably means it’s a really good question!
  • Explain both arguments. Best practice in rhetoric or debate is to be ready for counter-arguments. That being said, it’s in a student's best interest to receive perspective from both sides of a discussion—again, even when it’s hard or contrasting to your own beliefs. It's vital to emphasize that both sides don’t always hold equal weight. It’s empathetic to listen, but that doesn’t mean you have to change or accept a countering opinion. Everyone can have an opinion without everyone being right. 
  • Teach about credibility. As stated in the beginning, my trusted sources during college were “Buzzfeed” and “The Huffington Post.” Now, in full transparency, I still follow both of these sites, but with the caveat that I recognize I need other sources for full validity. Before going into education my undergraduate studies were all about the societal relationship with the media. It’s complicated—and tense to say the least. We rely on news and media outlets to provide us—as citizens—with vital information. There’s a lot of trust involved. We are all media consumers, children too, so it’s a great time for them to practice cognition around what makes a credible source and how to navigate different sources.
  • Focus on making memories. When we look back at our own schooling experiences there are certain memories that jump out. I still remember making puppets and researching Robert Dinwiddie (a not very famous or important figure during Revolutionary War times) because our teacher made it the biggest deal. The day we presented those puppets made of orange juice cartons made me feel like a celebrity. So focus on how to create memories and experiences that students will look back on as adults and remember.  
  • Context > Content. Maya Angelou once said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” At the end of the day, students will likely not remember every statistic, fact, piece of news, policy, current event or person you teach them. What they will remember is the tone of the space and the level of empathy their teacher and peers used. The context of the conversation is vital. Setting up a safe space for dialogue (using an objective and norms) allows students to engage to a degree of which they feel comfortable. If they have positive experiences with the ‘p’ word, then the hope is they hold onto these tools as they get older and have full autonomy over their conversations.

This school year has been unlike any other, as we are all traversing through uncharted waters. There’s not one right way to go about it. To me, it’s a tremendously rich opportunity to trust students and to create a space for them to process and ask questions. [pullquote]If we equip them with tools to talk about political issues, then we have this time to build up their voices and empathy simultaneously.[/pullquote] There’s a chance to shift the norms and narrative where students can rewrite their generation. They will do that out of their own resilience either way, so let’s empower them with the social-emotional tools to be the most effective, empathetic, and engaging generation yet! 

Emma Volpe

Emma Volpe is an educator based in Nashville, Tennessee who has been with Rocketship United Academy since its starting year in 2015. She has had several roles with Rocketship including learning lab manager, founding third grade Humanities teacher, and is currently an EL specialist for upper grades. She is also a Teach For America and University of Virginia alum. Outside of teaching, Emma loves to spend time outside with her dog, drink coffee and sing-along to musical soundtracks while making breakfast.

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