For Teachers, Election 2016 Is a Fraught Subject

By Madeline Will — September 13, 2016 7 min read
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If Donald Trump were in school, many of his comments would earn him a trip to the principal’s office.

That’s according to many educators across the country, who say they are struggling with how to teach an election cycle that has inflamed racial and ethnic tensions, sparked name-calling between the Republican presidential nominee and Democratic standard-bearer Hillary Clinton, and drawn stark lines between—and even within—the parties.

Some teachers say they have found themselves trying to strike a balance with their own code of ethics as educators: They feel they have a responsibility to condemn some of Trump’s controversial remarks, despite their wish to maintain objectivity in front of their students.

“I try to be very neutral in class—that’s always been my philosophy,” said Erik Anderson, a U.S. government teacher at Valley View Middle School in Edina, Minn. “Probably for the first time, there have been some things said in the campaign that I can’t just ignore. I have to say, ‘This isn’t right.’ I don’t remember ever before being unable to play it right down the middle.”

Trump’s comments on immigration, in particular, have struck a nerve with Anderson and other teachers. The GOP candidate has called for large-scale deportations of undocumented immigrants, the construction of a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, and an outright ban on Muslim immigration.

Students in a 9th grade U.S. government class at Valley View Middle School in Edina, Minn., work amid past campaign posters. Teachers say this year's divisive presidential election has proven hard to teach.

“It’s not so much the policy—it’s some of the words used, some of the hyperbole that’s thrown out there, and the personal nature of things. I would have a hard time looking some of my kids in the eye if I didn’t say anything,” Anderson said.

In an unscientific survey conducted in April, Teaching Tolerance, an educational project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, found that 40 percent of 2,000 teachers who participated were hesitant to teach about the campaign at all. As the new school year gets underway, many teachers are still reluctant, said Maureen Costello, the director of Teaching Tolerance.

For the most part, the concern is not coming from administrators, she said. Rather, classroom teachers are wary of their own ability to navigate the tensions.

Protective Instincts

Of course, not all teachers are unsympathetic to Trump. There are several Teachers for Trump social-media groups, for example. But teachers from those groups did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Sean Hiland, a high school social studies teacher in Atlanta who tweets and blogs under the handle Conservative Teacher, plans to vote for Trump. He said he tries not to broadcast his political beliefs to his students but, instead, encourages them to look past the rhetoric coming from both parties.


“I don’t let my kids take anything a politician says at face value,” Hiland said. “I don’t want to breed cynics, but I don’t want them to be naive voters either.”

Indeed, having students analyze issues beyond the campaign rhetoric is one of many ways that teachers are approaching the 2016 election, said Meira Levinson, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has been holding professional-development sessions on the election with teachers.

Some teachers have decided to facilitate strictly issue-based discussions, she said. Others have tried to put the election—and Trump’s rise in popularity—in historical context.

Some teachers say they will teach about the election as in previous years but be more careful with setting the ground rules on acceptable classroom discourse. Still others are focusing on teaching their students how to analyze media reports and notice biases.

Students in Erik Anderson's 9th grade U.S. government class at Valley View Middle School in Edina, Minn. discuss different forms of political systems.

Justin Christensen, an Advanced Placement U.S. Government teacher at St. Ignatius College Preparatory in San Francisco, put it this way: “In my classroom, we’re not here to say, ‘I like this person, I like that person.’ We’re here to be political scientists.”

Still, Levinson said, many teachers “are still wrestling and stuck. Grown men started to tear up as they talked about this. They said, ‘I’ve been thinking about this all summer long. What am I going to do?’ ”

Such teachers, she said, are committed to ensuring that their classrooms are safe spaces for their students, particularly those of color or from marginalized communities. At the same time, they’re worried that parents might complain to the school’s administration if they take a stance against a candidate in the classroom.

Educators say the divisive and inflammatory rhetoric in this campaign cycle has caused some students—particularly undocumented students, children of immigrants, and Muslim students—to feel unsafe and concerned about their futures if Trump is elected. That has sparked teachers’ protective instincts.

“It doesn’t feel like I can say, ‘There are two candidates and you should make up your own mind,’ ” said Luke Carman, a math teacher at Albany Park Multicultural Academy in Chicago, which is almost 80 percent Hispanic. “It’s obvious, but I still feel like they should hear, ‘No, I’m not voting for Donald Trump. No, I don’t support the rhetoric that’s coming from his campaign, because I fundamentally love and care about you as human beings.’ ”

At the same time, teachers are concerned about making sure students who support Trump feel protected to voice their views.

Anderson's classroom is filled with political signs and paraphernalia, but despite his enthusiasm for the subject, he says this year's presidential election has been tricky to navigate.

“The challenge of this election is how do you respond in the moment to a kid who says something that violates your school’s norms, or the norms of the classroom, without silencing the student or leading them to accuse you of endorsing the other candidate,” said Jonathan Gold, a middle school history teacher in Providence, R.I.

Mock-Election Troubles

Kyle Redford, a 5th grade teacher at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, Calif., and an opinion blogger for Education Week Teacher, said she wants to make sure both her students from Republican families and students who might feel personally threatened by Trump’s rhetoric feel supported. But if those two sides come into conflict, she said, she would feel comfortable stepping in to defend the latter group.

“We’ve already seen kids using Trump’s language against each other. ... ‘If Trump gets elected, your family has to go home.’ It’s really hurtful,” Redford said.

Costello noted her group, Teaching Tolerance, has created a Speak Up for Civility contract for educators, other school staff members, and parents to sign, asking them to refrain from name-calling and stereotyping to model good citizenship for students.

Teachers had requested a resource like this, she said. On the day of its release, about 1,000 copies were downloaded.

Teaching Election 2016

For teachers wrestling with how to best approach the election in the classroom, several groups are offering support, lesson ideas, and teaching materials.

Letters to the Next President 2.0. Students can write letters to the next president about the issue that matters most to them, and the National Writing Project and PBS member station KQED will publish the letters through Election Day.

Teaching Tolerance Election 2016 Resources. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s educational branch has compiled resources for teachers on the election, including a civility contract, civic activities for students, and webinars for professional development.

iCivics. The free provider of civics curriculum has a collection of election resources to teach students about the basics of democracy—including an interactive digital game where students manage their own presidential campaign to win electoral votes and popular support.

C-Span Classroom. This collection of election resources focuses on primary sources, including both historical and current video clips of various aspects of the election process, with related discussion questions, handouts, and activity ideas.

Join the Debates. This project provides teachers and students free curricular materials to have collaborative discussions on issues that are prominent in the presidential campaign and debates.

The 2016 presidential campaign has also put a damper on one of the civic-minded traditions in U.S. schools: the mock election. This year, the exercise could lead to problems, some educators say, particularly if students are given the roles of impersonating the candidates and trying to win classmates’ votes.

“I would not recommend it this year, because it encourages caricature and it just opens the door to the kind of language that doesn’t belong in school,” Costello said.

Kelly Wickham Hurst, a former educator and the founder of the advocacy group Being Black at School, started a Twitter hashtag, #blockthemock, to discourage educators from hosting mock elections, particularly for the sake of children of color.

“To impersonate candidates—I think it would be very, very dangerous and damaging to children,” she said. “It would inflame some of the racial and ethnic tensions that kids are already hearing on the news.”

Some schools are finding alternate ways to conduct mock elections. Hiland, the Atlanta teacher who supports Trump, said he will continue to host his school’s mock election but will conduct it in a panel format, with a student moderator and two panels of students representing both Trump and Clinton. He did that in 2008 and said it resulted in a greater a focus on the issues, as opposed to the candidates’ personalities.

High-Stakes Teaching

Even the National Student/Parent Mock Election is discouraging the impersonation element.

“Discretion is the better part of valor,” said Gloria Kirshner, the co-founder and president of the program (of which Clinton has been a board member since 1987). “We’re never mentioning the candidates by name this year. We’ve given teachers a great deal of thoughtful ideas for kids to think about, rather than the usual ‘he said, she said.’ ”

Despite the myriad of challenges of teaching the 2016 election, however, many teachers also see it as a unique opportunity.

“I think I’m going to have students who have never cared more about history class,” Gold, the Rhode Island history teacher, said. “They’re going to want to understand all of this, and they’re going to want to talk to someone about this.”

And the stakes are high, educators say. “You can’t go into autopilot this year,” Redford said. “Everything is so potentially explosive that it makes you feel unsafe getting near it, but it’s too important. It’s our democracy; it’s our election. You can’t pretend it’s not happening. It’s not going away.”


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