You Can't Sit This Election Out. Your Students Are Watching.

Oct 20, 2020 12:00:00 AM


Wednesday, November 9, 2016. 

I arrive at school bleary and unfocused—up too late the night before, fitful sleep, early rise. Class hasn’t started yet, students aren’t even officially supposed to be on the halls. But one approaches me anyway—a young man I know and so I try to pull myself together and smile.

He looks out at me from the recess of his hoodie. There is no return of my attempt at a smile. “Did you vote for him?” he asks, almost a whisper, as if he is trying to solicit a secret from me, catch me off guard, get me to admit something nefarious. Or maybe he is looking for reassurance—I don’t know. The building is charged today in a way I have not yet experienced in my decade as an educator; there is an energy I can’t quite decode.

I am one of three white teachers in a school building almost entirely filled with Black students and staff. Given the moment, his question feels perfectly reasonable, no breach of propriety or privacy at all. Had I voted for Donald Trump?

I will spare you the drama of waiting on an answer: of course not. I voted for Clinton. But thinking back on that morning now four years later raises a few points worth hashing out in these weeks before our current election. Here are three.

This Election Won’t Happen On One Day

First, we have got to stop saying “Election Day.” Our collective experience four years ago of waking up in the pre-dawn hours, hoping for a miracle, only to find out that the election was over and Clinton had indeed conceded—nothing like this will happen in 2020. 

Too many absentee ballots are going to slow down the counting process, especially in a few key swing states. It is likely that we won’t know the results of the election until closer to Thanksgiving, and we would do our students, colleagues, friends and family well if we would set that expectation ahead of time. I’ve recently heard it called “Election Month”—let’s follow suit.

We Must Vote

Second, we must vote. I don’t care if you are lukewarm about all the candidates at the top of the ticket. We have to get out there anyway. 

In 2000, I skipped Election Day—I was never going to vote for a member of the Bush family, but I was completely uninspired by Gore and the legacy of the Clinton Administration. I was 24 years old and felt busy; I was registered in another town and forgot to apply for an absentee ballot. To top it all off, I lived in a deep red state and knew my vote mattered little under the Electoral College. Perhaps some of you can relate.

Even still, I regret not voting that day. And again, in 2004, when I made a similar choice to abstain. There is so much more going on the second Tuesday in November than just a Presidential race—there are Senators, Representatives, sometimes Mayors and Governors. And, usually, school board members. 

It is worth considering that very few elected officials have played as great a role in this current pandemic-virtual-education environment than school board members. It is our job to elect the people that we think best represent us and our students’ interests; as educators we cannot abdicate this responsibility. Even if you are still hoping somehow for a Bernie or a Booker comeback—you can’t sit this one out.

Our Students Will Want To Know How We Voted

For my third point, I need to return to my story. If you are an educator with good classroom chemistry your students will ask you for whom you voted, and we do a disservice as role models when we refuse to answer. 

In the same way that we can and should tell them what church, mosque or synagogue we might attend—this without proselytizing or denigrating their own choice—we can and should tell them who we vote for. Full disclosure, if you will. To do otherwise pretends at a false neutrality that the students will see through at some point. It betrays the educative relationship.

In 2008, I finally got off my couch and voted again—for Barack Obama. I stayed up late that night too, mesmerized by the jubilation and soaking in the speeches. It remains one of the great joys of my life that I got to walk into an almost all-Black school the next day and share in that celebration, even if just a little bit. It was liberating for me as a white man to enjoy something so salient from the outside.

And yet, we didn’t just watch Obama’s acceptance speech. I also showed my classes part of John McCain’s concession speech, each time giving a full-throated voice to my belief that he, too, would have made a good president had he won. He wasn’t some vanquished enemy for us to mock; he was a fellow worker in this American experiment, and we should have been proud that we had such solid candidates running for the highest office in the land.

A good educator should be able to do something similar. You might find Trump to be a bit of a monster—I certainly do—but I can talk kindly at least about Republicanism and why he has been so elevated. 

If you vote for Trump, you should be able to speak to his failings and the other side’s strengths as well. This is what it means to educate children—we must present multiple points of view. Otherwise we are rearing disciples, not scholars.

“Did you vote for him?” he asked, and I shook my head. “Nah, man, you know I voted for Clinton,” I replied, again trying at a smile.

He walked off without a word and I got ready for class. I had an entire lesson plan centered around a Clinton victory and needed some time to adjust. Again, perhaps some of you can relate. 

Students came to class eager to talk, full of questions, wanting to know what I thought would happen next in America. Much later, on Twitter, I saw a girl’s post from that day, 

“Better be on time today, Wamsted’s going to be off the chain with this election stuff!”

 It remains my most treasured social media mention.

How You Talk About This Election Matters

Something similar will happen this year, too. It will take until December possibly. But eventually I will come to class and we will have a new president and the students will want to talk about it. Almost certainly this will happen to millions of educators around the country.

It remains our job to handle that discussion well. Let’s get ready. 

Jay Wamsted

Jay Wamsted has taught math at Benjamin E. Mays High School in southwest Atlanta for fourteen years. His writing has been featured in various journals and magazines, including "Harvard Educational Review," "Mathematics Teacher" and "Sojourners." He can be found online at "The Southeast Review," "Under the Sun" and the "TEDx" YouTube channel, where you can watch his 2017 talk “Eating the Elephant: Ending Racism & the Magic of Trust.” He and his wife have four young children, and he rides his bicycle to and from work just about every day. You can contact him on Twitter @JayWamsted or by email,    

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