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Students and Teachers Anxious, Hopeful at Trump Inauguration

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 20, 2017 5 min read
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Washington, D.C.

Democracy can sometimes be “nasty,” but it’s important to take part in public dialogue, said Leigh Smith, the federal programs administrator with Gaston County schools in North Carolina. She brought her 13-year-old son, Jack, to Washington to witness the nation’s tradition of a peaceful transfer of power.

“I want to teach my child that I value and support the office of the presidency, regardless of who is in it,” Smith said. “You’re going to hear a lot of different opinions, a lot of different views that you don’t agree with. That’s okay.”

Teachers and their students who attended the inauguration of President Donald Trump expressed mixed feelings about the changeover.

Some were hopeful about the changes Trump could bring about to the power dynamic between Washington and the rest of the nation, while others worried that he would exacerbate political and other divisions in the country. They also discussed his pledges on the campaign trail, his use of social media, and things he has said about education policy.

Ben Lewis, a social studies teacher at Brenham Middle School in Brenham, Texas, said he was determined for his students to see Trump’s inauguration because “I’m a fan of his office.”

Asked what he hoped to hear from Trump, Lewis responded, “I’m like everyone. I want to be inspired. I want to be hopeful.”

However, Lewis said he was skeptical about Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee to be education secretary and a school choice advocate.

“His pick for secretary of education is not popular with any teacher, from both sides of the aisle,” he said. “I’m from Texas. I’m surrounded by conservative teachers.”

Bobby Howard, a social studies teacher at Gainesville Middle School, a charter school in Gainesville, Ga., said he was hoping for “a unity message, not partisan politics.” And of his students’ attitude to the inauguration, Howard said, “We’re looking to see if they’re more relaxed after his speech.”

“I like the sound of having more local control,” said Sylvia Puckett, another social studies teacher at Gainesville Middle School, referring to Trump’s promise to reduce Washington’s oversight of education. She added that in terms of his general rhetoric on schools, “From the statements he’s made, they sound like good ideas.” However, Puckett also said she wasn’t sure they would be implemented without being twisted or watered down.

After the inauguration was finished, Howard said he was still looking for more specifics from Trump about what he would do.

“He started out kind of negative. We got a little more unity towards the end,” Howard said of Trump’s speech, adding that when he got his students back together in his class. “We’re definitely going to go home and kind of dissect it a little bit.”

‘Decent Option’

The Trump inauguration is the third for Anne McCandless, an Advanced Placement government teacher at Providence High School in the Charlotte Mecklenburg district in North Carolina. Everyone can watch the ceremony on TV, McCandless said, but she wants her students to be in the crowd and get the “feel and experience” of inauguration.

“This is the way American works, the smooth transition of power. It’s right there for them to see” concepts that are often abstract to them, like patriotism and nationalism, said McCandless, who also attended inaugurations in 2009 and 2013.

After Trump was inaugurated, McCandless said Trump had the potential to be a “great president” if he kept key promises. But she was upset about how he discussed education in his inaugural speech.

“We have such a teacher shortage nationwide,” McCandless said. “If you’re going to tell everybody how bad it is to be teaching and be working in that field, when so many of us don’t feel that way, what is he doing to recruit more teachers and to make it a better situation for them?”

Her students, when asked about Trump and his inauguration, focused on his use of social media, and how he might not be their top choice but was preferable, in their view, to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

“I support the Republican Party,” said Dan Gershen, a senior at the school. “I’d say he was a decent option.”

And Aidan Seidman, a sophomore, said he was excited to see a “strong leader with strong opinions” like Trump become president.

“I think we’re tired of this Washington BS. We need to drain the swamp,” said Seidman, a sophomore, who said he was confident Trump would renegotiate bad trade deals and bring more money back to America. “He can run our country through Twitter.”

But other students worried that Trump was divisive in several ways, and that his behavior on social media was clumsy and foolish. Saniye Wilson, a Providence High senior, said her mother is a Muslim immigrant. She finds Trump abhorrent.

“How can I get over him completely destroying me as a person?” Wilson said.

Nick Stathopoulous, a supporter of Jeb Bush during the GOP primary, a senior, said before the inauguration he was hoping to hear a unifying message from Trump, and “that he’s about bringing people together.”

After Trump’s inauguration, Stathopoulos was pleased.

“Honestly, I thought it was pretty impressive. It sounded a bit more under control,” Stathopoulous said. “Now he’s getting a better sense of his responsibility. There should have been a better sense earlier on. He just sounds like he is just looking for the best interest [for] everybody in general, not just the government but the people.”

The same couldn’t be said for Tray Childers, an 8th grade student at Gainesville Middle School, who said the speech didn’t really have a hopeful tone.

“Putting America first is a great thing, but we do have to worry about other people” around the world, Childers said. “It was not the greatest speech I’ve heard. ... Most of it is not positive.”

Photo: Sylvia Puckett, front row center, a social studies teacher at Gainesville Middle School in Gainesvilla, Ga., poses with some of her students in Washington, D.C., before the inauguration of President Donald Trump on Jan. 20. (Andrew Ujifusa/Education Week)

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