Yes, Politics Do Belong In The Classroom

Jan 7, 2020 12:00:00 AM


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.

In fact, [pullquote]it is imperative that we prepare students for the society in which they live, one where the ability to spread information—as well as misinformation—is literally at their fingertips.[/pullquote] Moreover, it is our job to equip students with the tools necessary to support their claims and beliefs with reputable sources, as well as to prepare them for responsible civic engagement. This means that they must also learn how to respectfully disagree with one another and, unfortunately, it’s something that isn’t currently modeled by most adults.

We should teach our children to have difficult conversations for the very fact that political dialogue has become so polarizing and overheated. These divided times require a different strategy because we have lost the ability as a society to see things from multiple viewpoints.

[pullquote]Our job as teachers is to develop critical thinkers who can see all sides of an issue so that they can find the nuanced solutions needed to solve tomorrow’s complex problems.[/pullquote]

Tips for Fostering Civil Political Discourse in Class

Having political discussions requires that we be extremely conscientious about how we structure and facilitate the conversations which occur in our classrooms. This requires research and experience in best practices. 

  • Conversations should be political, not partisan. Additionally, teachers should create a dialogue, not perform a monologue. 
  • 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 Jensen

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 Plus Policy Alum, and she is an Advisory Board Member for the Region 9 Comprehensive Center. She has over 15 years of educational experience, holds a bachelor’s degree in speech communication from Southern Illinois University, a master’s degree in secondary English education from Oakland City University, and she is finishing her doctorate in the fall of 2020 in teaching and learning from Illinois State University. In her free time, Lindsey travels the country speaking and engaging in educational advocacy. She has delivered over 100 keynotes at Northwestern University, SXSWEdu, The National Association of Teacher Educators Conference, The Raising Student Achievement Conference, and WITCon. She is a proud public school teacher and academic dean in Dwight, Illinois.

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