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Teaching Opinion

‘Keeping Politics Out of the Classroom Is Like Keeping the Water Out of Rain’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 13, 2020 13 min read
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best ways to respond when teachers are told we should keep politics out of the classroom?

In Part One, Dr. Angela M. Ward, Holly Spinelli, Rocio del Castillo, Ed.D., and Keisha Rembert shared their responses. Angela, Holly, Rocio, and Keisha also were guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Abeer Shinnawi, Jennifer Hitchcock, Matt Renwick, and Leah B. Michaels added to the conversation.

Today, Jen Schwanke, Dr. Carolyn M. Shields, Timothy Hilton, and Bill Ivey contribute their commentaries.

“Politics are part of everything we do”

Ms. Jen Schwanke has served as a teacher and administrator at the elementary and middle school levels for 20 years. She has established her voice in school leadership by contributing frequently to literacy and leadership publications and has presented at multiple conferences at the state and national level. She is the author of the book, You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders, published by ASCD:

Keeping politics out of the classroom is like keeping the water out of rain.

After all, what is politics if not a gathering of debatable opinions and perspectives from a group of people?

And what is school if not a place to consider opinions and perspectives of others?

Politics is part of everything we do. Even when we think it isn’t there? Well, yes, it is. Much like other things we can’t see or accurately define—racism, classism, elitism, love, hate—"politics” is layered with meaning, emotion, and history.

I recently wrapped up teaching a graduate school class titled Curriculum Development and Instruction. My entire syllabus was waylaid mid-semester when I asked the class, “What are your thoughts about politics and curriculum?” Several class sessions later, we were still discussing the topic, immersed and engaged in relentlessly thought-provoking conversation led by some frustrated but articulate social studies teachers. As a group, they said, “We facilitate student thinking. We interject facts, as we know them, from history. We rely on journalism that’s been vetted and historically sound.” Yet, they’d seen an uptick in parent challenges in recent years because of things they’d allegedly said. A comment from a student and, then, the teacher’s effort to offer a bipartisan perspective, could spiral quickly, become fodder at someone’s dinner table, and end up as a fierce phone call to the principal about the political leanings of the teacher.

When teachers are told to keep politics out of the classroom, it is usually related to someone’s version of a misstep directly tied to a specific topic, book, conversation, person, or assignment. When challenged, it’s time for both “sides” to do some asking and answering. Here is a way teachers can respond, either in an inner audit for themselves or to respond to others:

  • What is the educational purpose of the conversation?

  • Is there alignment to curriculum standards?

  • Are there multiple, diverse perspectives being provided as part of this work?

  • Does this discussion support open, valid social, emotional, or academic needs in the classroom community?

  • Is there evidence that student responses and engagement reveal creativity, curiosity, and independent thought?

  • Does it foster a depth of understanding about the world?

  • What are the specific concerns behind the request (or demand) to keep politics out of the classroom? Are the concerns partisan in nature?

  • Is there a formal process to handle complaints of this nature?

  • What does our board of education policy say?

It’s no secret that teasing out fact from fiction is terribly muddy these days, and there doesn’t seem to be an end to it. But challenges can quickly lose traction when the response is based on a cool, clinical, policy-based approach and remains bipartisan.

As I told my class, “It’s never about who we vote for. It’s about how we think.”

“We must take up controversial issues”

Dr Carolyn M. Shields is a professor of educational leadership at Wayne State University in Detroit. Her teaching and research have been widely acclaimed for their emphasis on the provision of inclusive, equitable, excellent, and socially just education for all. Her recent work includes the companion books Transformative Leadership in Education (2017) and Becoming a Transformative Leader (2020), both published by Routledge:

When people say it is necessary to keep politics out of education, they are usually thinking about the negative connotations associated with partisan politics, and it is generally appropriate for educators not to advocate for or against any particular party or person. However, Title 1 of the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 begins: ''The purpose of this title is to provide all children significant opportunity to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, and to close educational achievement gaps’’ (sec.1001). Achieving these goals necessitates political acts that include determining what comprises a fair or equitable or high-quality education.

Paulo Freire, scholar, community developer, and former secretary of education for Sao Paulo, Brazil, believes that “all education is political” and that “teaching is never a neutral act.” Hence, he suggests that we must teach students to both “read the word and read the world.” Basic literacy alone is not enough. Students also have to learn to think critically about the world in which they live and about who benefits and who is disadvantaged by current policies and practices.

Neutrality is itself a political choice and one that leads to ignoring and marginalizing the fears, insights, and circumstances of many students. Providing a fair, equitable, and high-quality education requires us to examine for whom education is not at the moment fair or equitable. Fulfilling the multiple goals of education is political as this involves preparing students for citizenship, cultivating a skilled workforce, and teaching students to think critically.

Understanding and closing educational achievement gaps are political activities as they force awareness of how opportunity gaps and resource gaps negatively affect the ability of some students to succeed. This requires educators to take responsibility for the education of all children without blaming those whose circumstances or home lives may be less conducive to supporting educational achievement than others. No child wants to be poor or hungry or homeless although these are political situations, socially constructed and maintained by current policies and practices. Educators need to understand how conditions like these arise and how to support children from various circumstances and situations. Closing educational achievement gaps requires educators to make the sometimes controversial decision not to treat every child in the same way. Instead, it requires educating children with varying needs and from diverse circumstances by adopting different resources, approaches, and supports. These are political decisions.

To prepare students to become participating and engaged citizens, educators have to first acknowledge their own responsibility for teaching all children. They must become aware of how their own social positions influence the ways in which they understand the curriculum and how they choose to interact with students and families. By teaching only superficial “facts” but not ways to understand and interpret them, teachers do individuals and society a disservice.

In order not to shortchange students, we must introduce various perspectives and positions and help sstudents to choose among options. We must take up controversial issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia, or inherently political topics such as gun control or climate change and encourage a thorough exploration of the origins and outcomes, disadvantages and benefits of perpetuating current positions. We must help students to identify the underlying ideological perspectives of textbooks and curricular material, including which social groups’ positions are supported and whose are silenced or marginalized. And we must help students reflect deeply on how the status quo is perpetuated or how it may be changed.

In short, educators who are admonished to keep politics out of the classroom can respond by affirming that they will avoid advocating a particular person or party, but that to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States, they must help students understand how to support policies and practices that create a more perfect union of mutual benefit for all.

“Speak to the benefits of talking about politics”

Timothy Hilton is a climate and culture specialist with the Fresno Unified school district where he coaches teachers on classroom management and class climate. Timothy has over 10 years of classroom teaching experience at every level of social studies ranging from Advanced Placement to English-language development. Timothy is currently a doctoral candidate at Claremont Graduate University in the field of educational policy, evaluation, and reform:

Dealing with politics in the classroom is very tricky. Our role as educators is not to be one of indoctrination but instead to be one of enlightening. This is where having political conversation comes into play. The truth is, we must have these conversations to best prepare our students for their post-schooling world.

We are living in a highly politicized time. Politics has infiltrated every aspect of our life. To pretend it does not exist in our classroom is quite frankly not just a disservice to our students, but it is in fact dangerous. While we may feel as though our classroom is a nice little insulated bubble, it is not. Our classroom is just one part of our students’ lives. It is just one facet that they must navigate. Meanwhile, when our students are not in our classroom, they are navigating the rest of their world. A world filled with unknowns, a world that they will have questions about, a world that can be very scary. This is where we come in.

Our students come to us with concerns because they know they can trust us. They will come to us with questions because for many of them we are the only college-educated people in their lives. They will come to us because our experience is different from theirs. This is a responsibility we cannot take lightly.

Now to the crux of the question. How should a teacher respond when told to keep politics out of the classroom. This question comes with some other issues that need to be considered. Issues like student grade, content matter, and the political topic itself. Another piece to consider is who is telling the teacher to keep politics out of the classroom. Is it the administration or is this a fellow teacher?

The short answer is, “No, I will not keep politics out of the classroom,” assuming you feel comfortable talking politics. But to be more diplomatic, the best way I can think to respond to the statement is by looking back to the earlier paragraphs in this essay. Speak to the benefits of talking about politics. Speak to the role we play as educators in preparing our students to be civic-minded and be sure to explain what you will do to make political conversation meaningful.

Couple tips to meaningful political conversations:

1) As a teacher, try to remain as impartial as possible and take a near-clinical approach.

2) Seek to provide pros & cons for both sides. This will let students make up their own mind.

3) Structure political conversations in a way that ensures all voices are heard and everyone feels safe.

4) Highly charged conversations (abortion being the best example) should be handled with far more delicacy, possibly utilizing counseling staff or outside stakeholders.

It is important when dealing with the question of politics in the classroom that we as teachers take great care to allow our students to make up their own mind. We represent a gatekeeper for many students, and it is crucial we take this role and use it to best prepare our students rather then shelter or indoctrinate.

“Politics is in classrooms whether or not we want it to be”

Bill Ivey teaches Humanities 7, French 1, and rock band in an independent boarding/day school for students in grades 7-12:

Let’s face it, politics is in classrooms whether or not we want it to be, whether or not we think of it that way. All decisions affecting content are political. We study governments and their systems. And of course, politics affects our everyday lives in ways that don’t magically cease to exist when we enter class.

So one obvious response to being told to keep politics out of the classroom is to ask, “How exactly would that look?” And then the real conversation would start.

If it’s just a matter of not telling which candidates I support, that’s easy. My standard response if asked is that I vote based on my values, which include dignity as a basic human right for all people, and that my ballot is secret.

As for all the rest, I would talk about my Humanities 7 students’ reactions to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” and their immediate and intuitive understanding of the need to push past a dominant narrative. How we use Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” as a lens through which to examine the stories that enter our classroom, actively seeking and checking for diversity of perspective.

I’m delighted that my school recently adopted the four-pronged HILL model of Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, expanding our broad and specific curricular focus beyond skills and intellect to include identity, and criticality, the study of systems of power, privilege, and oppression and the resistance to and disruption of those systems.

So, we establish facts. We examine perspectives on those facts. We consider possible actions to take. And in those discussions, I insist on respect for basic human dignity for all people of all identities.

Those are the politics in my classroom. I’m good with that.

Thanks to Jen, Carolyn, Timothy, and Bill for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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