School Climate & Safety From Our Research Center

Survey: Teachers Talk Politics to Students, Despite Divisive Atmosphere

By Madeline Will — April 04, 2017 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Months after the 2016 presidential election, a majority of educators say that national politics have created a sharp divide among students, leaving teachers grappling with how to handle classroom conversations about controversial issues.

But most said they aren’t shying away from politics, despite the topic’s contentious nature.

That’s according to a survey conducted in February by the Education Week Research Center. More than 830 K-12 teachers and other school-based instructional staff members who are registered users of Education Week’s edweek.org website responded to an email invitation for a survey about their experiences teaching about controversial topics in a time of division.

President Donald Trump’s defeat last November of Hillary Clinton capped the most divisive presidential election in recent memory, and the first few months of his tenure have been marked by controversy. In addition, a number of issues have made their way into the classroom as current events, including: immigration; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights; and issues related to race, religion, and gender.

While most teachers said that it’s important to talk about these topics in the classroom, 42 percent noted that it was difficult to discuss national politics with students—more so than any other controversial issue. And while the vast majority of teachers are at least moderately confident in their own ability to have civil conversations with their students, 66 percent said they have noticed an increase in uncivil political discourse at their school since the presidential campaign began.

Data: Discussing Hot Topics in School

BRIC ARCHIVE

More than 830 educators took part in a survey on discussing controversial topics in class. National politics, rather than perennial hot-button issues like race and religion, seemed to be the most divisive this year—more so than in previous years, educators said. Even so, 56 percent said they were no more—and no less—likely than before to share their own political views with students.

SOURCE: Education Week Research Center, 2017

About half the teachers said the number of bullying incidents related to national politics has increased in the past year—more so than for any other topic, although about 30 percent of teachers pointed to spikes in bullying related to immigration or language and race and ethnicity.

Alethea Patterson-Jahn, the head special education teacher at an Albuquerque, N.M., middle school, recalled seeing a student tell another that Trump would deport the student’s father.

“I have never heard that before,” she said. “It was kind of a slap in the face.”

Many teachers said they feel obligated to make sure all their students—regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity, or religion—feel safe and secure, and that has made conversations about politics and other current events feel necessary.

Those conversations give students “an outlet and a space to talk about what’s going on,” said Candice Simon, a 6th grade teacher in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. “[After the election], we had to have a conversation about feelings. ... I try to make sure I’m staying calm and reassuring in these moments.”

While 55 percent of teachers said they have not avoided discussing controversial current events with their students this school year, another 28 percent did avoid talking about national politics with their students. Smaller percentages of teachers have refrained from discussing politically charged topics like LGBT issues, race, and religion.

Twenty-six percent of teachers said they did not discuss any controversial events with their students because the topics are not relevant to the subject area they teach. That’s the philosophy of Robert Williams, a 4th grade teacher in Delano, Calif., who teaches mostly Hispanic and Filipino students.

“The only issue we had was right after the election—students came to school and they were upset about what their parents had said. ... They feared immigration [policies], they feared the unknown,” he said. “I said we’re not going to talk about it, because we’re here to deal with reading, writing, and math.”

Talking about controversial subjects could bring “undue feelings to the students,” Williams added. “I wanted them to feel safe.”

Teachers Are ‘Fearful’

Other reasons that teachers chose for veering away from controversial topics include: wanting to avoid dissension in the classroom, knowing that their personal views are not in line with students’ views, and not knowing how to handle such discussions in class.

“[Teachers are] fearful of teaching some of the current events for fear of parental pushback, fear [they’ll be seen as] pushing their political views, fear of student pushback,” said Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance, an education project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Still, she said, it’s critical that civil discourse happens in the classroom. “If as educators we’re not going to model what it looks like to talk about politics, ... we’re not supporting what is an essential democratic practice,” she said.

For the most part, teachers seemed to agree. Almost 70 percent said it was important to discuss national politics with students—a little less than the 79 percent who said it was important to discuss race and ethnicity and the 75 percent who think it’s important to discuss immigration with students.

In interviews, teachers cited the rise of fake news as a reason for talking about politics in class—they felt a responsibility to help their students learn how to critically evaluate what’s on the internet. DiAnne Bredvick, a social studies teacher in Texas who works at an alternative high school 20 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, said her students have been interested in Trump’s immigration policy, but often get their news from unreliable sources, including social media. “A lot of times what they heard isn’t correct information,” Bredvick said. “My role is to provide them with the facts as we know them.”

While most educators said they could discuss controversial issues with their students in a civil manner, only 44 percent said their training adequately prepared them to handle those discussions, and 23 percent said they have received no such training. Most teachers said they have not received guidance from administrators on how to talk about such issues with their students.

When asked where they did receive guidance or ideas, just 40 percent cited their fellow teachers, administrators, and other staff members; 27 percent said news articles; 17 percent cited curriculum from social-justice organizations like Teaching Tolerance; and 13 percent said they drew from their own experience and common sense.

While teachers generally try to stay politically neutral in front of their students, 18 percent said they have become more likely to share their political views with their students in the past year.

Jolene Vincent, an 8th grade social studies teacher in Phoenix, said she was open about her political beliefs with her students during the election. She had originally been a Trump supporter, but voted for Clinton after disavowing Trump’s more-inflammatory comments. “It’s great to debate, because a lot of times, I’m like, ‘Prove me wrong,’ ” she said. “We talk about how they’re approaching adulthood, and it’s important [for them] to know what their political views are.”

The majority of survey respondents—61 percent—voted for Clinton, while 17 percent voted for Trump, 12 percent voted for a third-party candidate, and 10 percent did not vote at all. While the survey does not statistically mirror the nation’s teachers, the respondents’ hail from geographically and demographically diverse school districts.

The survey found that Clinton voters were slightly less comfortable than Trump voters discussing the election results with students who hold differing views. Overall, 22 percent of teachers said they were uncomfortable discussing the election results with students who supported the other candidate.

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2017 edition of Education Week as Teachers Not Shying From Political Topics

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Accelerate Learning with Project-Based Learning
Earlier this year, the George Lucas Educational Foundation released four new studies highlighting how project-based learning (PBL) helps accelerate student learning—across age groups, multiple disciplines, and different socio-economic statuses. With this year’s emphasis on unfinished
Content provided by SmartLab Learning
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. If we

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Can Districts Legally Mandate Student Vaccines? No, Two New Lawsuits Claim
Two large California districts are being sued over policies requiring vaccinations for schoolchildren by the end of 2021.
5 min read
Diego Cervantes, 16, gets a shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena on May 14, 2021, in Pasadena, Calif.
Diego Cervantes, 16, gets a shot of the Pfizer vaccine at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena last spring in Pasadena, Calif.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
School Climate & Safety From Our Research Center Higher Student Morale Linked to In-Person Instruction, Survey Shows
Educators see student morale rising since last spring, according to a new EdWeek Research Center survey.
4 min read
Second-grade students raise their hands during a math lesson with teacher Carlin Daniels at Pulaski Elementary School in Meriden, Conn., Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
Second grade students raise their hands during a math lesson in Meriden, Conn., Sept. 30.
Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP
School Climate & Safety Law Against 'Disorderly Conduct' in Schools Led to Unfair Student Arrests, Judge Rules
The South Carolina ruling is a model for other states where students are still being arrested for minor incidents, an attorney said.
6 min read
Scales of justice and Gavel on wooden table.
Pattanaphong Khuankaew/iStock
School Climate & Safety A Rise in School Shootings Leads to Renewed Calls for Action
A return to in-person learning means a return to school shootings, advocates warn.
5 min read
Families depart the Mansfield ISD Center For The Performing Arts Center where families were reunited with Timberview High School Students, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021 in Mansfield, Texas. Police in Texas have arrested a student suspected of opening fire during a fight at his Dallas-area high school, leaving four people injured.
Families were reunited Oct. 6 in Mansfield, Texas, after a student opened fire at Timberview High School in Arlington, leaving four people injured. Data show that the start of this school year has been particularly violent compared to previous years.
Tony Gutierrez/AP