As I reflect on a controversial piece I wrote shortly after Donald Trump Jr. referred to educators as “loser teachers,” I remember one specific comment from the aggressive back-and-forth online banter. A part of a thread that featured a gamut of both praise and backlash—and very little in between, because such is the nature of online political discourse these days. The criticism was offered by a bold, anonymous critic, and it featured one simple, exclamatory sentence: “Politics don’t belong in the classroom!”
Political Conversations Are Key to Civic Education
The opinion offered by my online critic is held by many, and it’s one with which I adamantly disagree. For starters, everything about the makeup of a classroom is political—how it’s funded, what resources are available, the elected boards of education who make decisions that impact students and more.
Furthermore, it’s important to note just how much the political landscape has shifted in the past four years. As my current seniors entered high school as freshmen and began to cultivate their own worldviews and grapple with complicated concepts—their personal morals, ethics and core beliefs—we simultaneously digressed into a society that views virtually every political issue as binary.
What’s most concerning is we have completely abandoned our acknowledgment of context and nuance. If you don’t believe me, simply spend five minutes on Twitter to witness this phenomenon. My seniors entered high school at a time when “conservative” gradually became synonymous with “racist,” and “liberal” with “socialist.” Again, note the lack of nuance. This is an absolute problem because here’s the deal: Every political issue is not binary.
And to be clear, individuals should be held accountable and even associated with, the values of the candidates whom they endorse. For this reason, there is tremendous responsibility in voting and civic engagement, which requires that individuals do their homework, so to speak. All the more reason to talk about politics in the classroom.
Political discussions require an intentional, specific series of ground rules which students must both understand and respect.
Encouraging students to engage in conversations free from sexist, racist and classist commentary should not be a partisan issue. When such instances occur, we have to identify them for what they are, address them and capitalize on the spontaneous teachable moments as they arise in our classrooms. We shouldn’t shy away from opportunities to educate students about license and privilege.
Our students want to be heard. They want to be understood. My senior students, especially, are on the brink of adulthood and they want to be treated like the young adults they are. They don’t want to be stereotyped by their peers because of their political affiliations.
If we cultivate safe spaces where students can discuss their experiences, as well as how those experiences contribute to the development of their beliefs, we provide them with an incredible opportunity to understand one another—even if they don’t agree with one another. And this important criterion for meaningful dialogue is what I see lacking in so many of the debates happening in our current political climate.
Allowing students to engage regularly in conversations with peers who don’t necessarily agree with them cultivates an appreciation for nuance. And maybe, hopefully, by establishing the proper parameters for students to engage in political conversations within our classrooms, and by encouraging them to respectfully challenge one another, they just might find common ground. After all, shouldn’t that be our objective?
Lindsey L. Jensen is the 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year and the 2020 National Education Association Foundation for Teaching Excellence Illinois Awardee. She is Vice-President of the Illinois State Teachers of the Year Chapter, and she serves on the Illinois State Board of Education State Preparation and Licensure Board as an Illinois Education Association Representative. Lindsey is a Teach ...