Student Well-Being

After Election, Students Express a Mix of Emotions

By Madeline Will — November 14, 2016 6 min read
Teacher Emily Silver helps kindergartners at the Co-op School, in New York City’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, write letters to mail to President-elect Donald Trump.

When teachers walked into their classrooms the morning after Donald Trump claimed the presidency in a stunning victory, they had their work cut out for them.

Some students were jubilant, with many wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and shirts in celebration. Others were angry and upset, with some crying in class. Immigrant students, or those from immigrant families, expressed fear that they or their family members would be deported under the Trump administration.

In a handful of schools, including in Berkeley, Calif.; Phoenix; and Des Moines, Iowa, students—and in some cases, teachers—staged walkouts in protest of the Republican nominee’s win. Educators even reported physical outbursts and confrontations as emotions ran high.

Students pen letters to President-elect Donald Trump in a New York City classroom.

Now, teachers must work to ease divisions in their classrooms. They must soothe the fears of their students of color, while giving all students space to process their feelings about the election’s outcome.

For many educators, that seems like a hefty task after the long, bitter campaign season. And while there are certainly teachers who supported Trump, many others said they were reeling from the outcome themselves while trying to comfort their students.

“I normally draw a big sense of hope from my kids. Even when the world is awry, being a teacher gives me a lot of hope,” Christina Torres, who teaches 7th and 9th grades in Honolulu and who supported Democrat Hillary Clinton, said the day after the Nov. 8 election. “I think today, that’s going to have to be my job. That feels like a big ask of my own heart.

"[Teachers need to give students] space to process, space to be afraid, space to love them, but we’re going to be the ones to help provide them the tools,” said Torres. “That just feels hard today.”

A victory by Clinton, which most opinion polls had pointed to, would have provided a ready-made lesson about the nation’s first woman president—the successor to its first black president. The victory by Trump, the tough-talking real estate mogul and political novice, told a more complex tale about America and its anxieties and aspirations.

While some teachers opted to remain quiet about the election results, many said they felt they had no choice. Students were deeply invested in this election, teachers said.

Jessie Sennett, a 5th grade teacher on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, said her students, who were “distraught,” knew the results when they walked into the classroom: “They didn’t have to be told, which is surprising, because a lot of them don’t have internet, TV, phones. But they knew.”

Students pen letters to President-elect Donald Trump in a New York City classroom.

Many teachers said they devoted some class time on Wednesday to reflection, via journaling, drawing, or talking.

Elizabeth Simison, who teaches high school English in rural Colchester, Conn., said Trump won her county by just 96 votes. That almost-even division made a conversation with her students feel even more necessary—and difficult.

She began each of her classes with 15 minutes of open discussion. Students were quiet at first.

Then, they started talking—questioning the Electoral College, voicing fear for LGBT and minority communities, evaluating media biases, and considering the effect of the new president on foreign and domestic policies. They wondered how long it might take the country to get back on track, and then tried to define what “back on track” meant.

“Just knowing that this is so important and giving students the floor to embrace that and talk about it in such a reasonable way felt really important to us,” Simison said.

Worries About ‘Trump Effect’

In recent months, educators have pointed out a “Trump effect” in schools: a spike in anxiety among students of color, particularly immigrant students and students from immigrant families, which teachers have attributed to the Republican candidate’s inflammatory words about Muslim and Mexican immigration. Teachers say they fear an uptick in racially or ethnically motivated bullying. And indeed, in the days after the election, some educators have already reported instances of students telling their Hispanic peers that they will be deported, or their Muslim peers that they are not welcome in the United States.

See Also

Complete Coverage: 2016 Election

“What do you tell kids about being a bully when the president is a bully?” said Torres, who is also an opinion blogger for Education Week Teacher. “What do you tell kids about mocking disabled people when he has done that?”

RaShawna Sydnor, who teaches 6th to 8th graders in Baltimore, said her students were “astonished” that Trump was elected president after his sexually crude or derogatory comments about women and allegations that he had committed sexual assaults.

“They are troubled by the idea that a man who has these attributes could be the president. Some of the things he does, they could get in trouble for,” said Sydnor.

That discrepancy bothered Anne Gunden, an 8th grade teacher in Valley Center, Kan., so much that she started crying in class on the day after the election. Her students largely support Trump, she said, but she thought it was important for her to tell them that regardless of politics, mimicking Trump’s language is inappropriate.

"[I told them] I was struggling to understand how on earth I would be able to demand respectful communication from my students if they were to have an elected leader who uses such divisive rhetoric,” Gunden said in an email.

Latino students from Carl Hayden High School and other Phoenix-area schools protest President-elect Trump as they walk toward the state Capitol.

“I voiced my hope that we might hear less of this kind of language coming from Mr. Trump now that he has been elected,” she said, “but I also pointed out that even if his language doesn’t change, it does not make it OK to use in our classroom.”

Ciara Miller, a 10th grade social studies teacher in Pasco County, Fla., had to defuse a confrontation between two students—a Trump supporter and a Clinton supporter—the day after the election.

“I said, no ... we talk about how much we want tolerance and expect it from others,” Miller said. She told both students to be respectful of other opinions. And she asked the Trump supporter to consider that students who supported Clinton were hurting. It was at least an opportunity to teach students how to handle conflict, Miller said.

Coming Together

In the weeks ahead, teachers should focus on reassuring all students that they’re safe, said Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, an educational project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

And, she said, teachers should work to rebuild their own classroom communities while trying to return to a sense of normalcy. “In a sense, really echoing what the president-elect has said [in his victory speech]: It’s a time to come together,” Costello said.

Teachers Tweet

Some reactions to the election:

@zdeibel

Having difficulty teaching engagement, empathy, and understanding when opposite traits win the presidency.

@BethTimbal

My plan is to... 1. Give students a safe place and time to debrief their emotions. 2. Pose some thoughtful and guiding questions. 3. Listen

@jharalsonedu

My teaching plan for today includes reminding #ELL Ss that our school is always + forever a safe space for them to learn, grow, be, do.

Kyle Redford, a 5th grade teacher in Corte Madera, Calif., and an opinion blogger for Education Week Teacher, said she played Clinton’s concession speech for her students. Upon viewing it, her students, who were initially upset about Clinton’s loss, said they felt more encouraged about the future and were willing to give Trump a chance.

One student, Redford recounted in an email, said: “Even if we are young, we can still make a big change because we live in a democracy. We can still fight for the things we believe in.”

Teaching Tolerance’s Costello said teachers should now focus on encouraging their students to be active citizens. “Voting is not the only thing citizens do,” she said.

Reminding students of the checks and balances in government feels particularly important, teachers said. Deborah Gesualdo, a music teacher in Malden, Mass., said she has been reassuring her students of a peaceful transition of power.

“I keep reminding them that no matter who you support in an election, it’s important to respect each other,” she said. “And I think we as adults have to set that example, because we’re seeing a lot of disrespect in general in the country right now.”

The role of education, teachers said, will be especially important as the country tries to move forward.

“How do we as a nation begin to heal from here?” Torres, the teacher in Hawaii, said. “There’s never been a more important time to be an American teacher.”

Coverage of policy, government and politics, and systems leadership is supported in part a grant from by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, at www.broadfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as A Day After Election, Classes Are Awash in Emotions

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