Opinion
Social Studies Opinion

We Don’t Know Who Won the Election, But I Know What I’ll Say to My Class Today

By Chris Dier — October 30, 2020 6 min read
A vintage illustration of ballot counting following the disputed 1876 presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden.

Editor’s Note: Before the election, Louisiana state Teacher of the Year Chris Dier was already planning what he would say to his class if uncertainty prevailed on election night. Here’s how he will be approaching his high school U.S. history class today:

Waking up to teach the day after the presidential election of 2016 was one of the most surreal moments of my more than decade-long teaching career. The demographics of the high school where I was teaching four years ago were roughly 50 percent white and 50 percent Black, Indigenous, and students of color. That morning, some of the students were excited; others were visibly upset. And as they walked into class, I handed them a sheet of loose-leaf and asked them to jot down whatever thoughts they had about the election. There was no rubric.

Students eagerly took pen to paper. I noticed one student write something brief and put her pencil down as other students continued to write. Her paper read, “I want to be in this country because I love it. I don’t know if this country wants me back now though.” I’ll never forget those words or the emotions on her face. I still have all of their writings from that day.

What followed was an interesting conversation. By that point in the year, I had taught my students for almost four months, and we’d had meaningful discourse about a variety of topics. Fortunately, despite the range of political opinions and emotions, the class was a safe space for dialogue. We felt comfortable with each other, and we trusted each other.

Contested elections have dire consequences, especially on already marginalized populations, and that is worthy of exploration."

Regardless of the outcome, we educators must show up for our students, especially as history tells us that contested elections have lasting consequences.

This time around, I still plan to let my students process their emotions; addressing their social-emotional needs takes precedence over finding teachable moments. Regardless of our political leanings, events of this magnitude take a toll on these young people. My students are already feeling the pressures of high school while navigating a pandemic, attending virtual or hybrid classes, and witnessing protests addressing racial inequities and police brutality. Many are in families bearing the economic burdens brought on by COVID-19. They are listening to the adults in their lives and on screens pull them in different directions. It’s all-encompassing and trauma-inducing.

After providing them with an outlet to release their thoughts, I will discuss the election head on.

Educators should not ignore controversy solely because it’s challenging. Generation Z already understands how politics can meaningfully shape their lives. Students feel the weight of hot-button issues. They comprehend the climate is changing to an extent that will damage their futures if we do not act now. They feel the impact of systemic racism, homophobia, and transphobia. Many who want to attend college are aware that they will accumulate significant debt to achieve that dream.

Apolitical classrooms are not a viable option. As long as we prioritize the emotional well-being of the students, the possibilities for teaching this election are endless.

So, on Wednesday I plan to allow my students to drive the conversation with their own questions, concerns, and thoughts. We already have established discussion norms centered on tolerance, understanding, and empathy. Although I’ve never met many of them in person, I have developed a relationship of trust with my students. I begin every virtual class with an opportunity for them to share news about their personal lives. I start it off by opening up about mine.

They know that my dog pesters me while I’m trying to teach them. I know the sports they play, the music they listen to, the books they read, the Netflix shows they enjoy, the video games they play, and other tidbits about them. These human connections make the difficult conversations easier.

As a high school U.S. history teacher, I want to use this election as a way to educate them about previous presidential elections when the results were not immediately known. We might explore the origins of the Electoral College and debate its relevance today. If we have no clear winner by Wednesday morning, I plan to push the conversation toward an exploration of the contested presidential election of 1876.

My students have taken a particular interest in Reconstruction--the era after the Civil War which was marked by large-scale efforts to address the social, political, and economic inequities of African Americans following the abolition of de jure slavery. During Reconstruction, the federal government occupied the South and offered protection to freedpeople. Black men were granted suffrage and hundreds of Black Americans filled political positions across the nation.

Although there were advancements to improve racial equality, Reconstruction efforts were ultimately defeated by racist restrictions on freedpeople, violent and widespread backlash from white supremacists, and the North’s increasing apathy toward the South. Reconstruction ended with the heavily contested election between Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, a Republican, and Gov. Samuel J. Tilden of New York, a Democrat. (The ideological alignments of the two parties was significantly different in the 19th century compared with today.)

The outcome of the race depended on the disputed returns from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina--the last remaining states where Reconstruction-era Republicans maintained power. Tilden won the popular vote, but was short on the Electoral College votes needed to win. A secret committee negotiated a shadowy, backroom compromise in which Democrats conceded to a Hayes victory on the condition that Republicans withdraw all federal troops from the South.

The Compromise of 1877 marked the end of Reconstruction and left African Americans across the South unprotected. And it allowed southern states to solidify Jim Crow segregation, leading to a dramatic increase in lynchings. It ushered in a new wave of voter suppression policies through the levying of poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests. The results of this contested election uplifted white supremacy, reversed Reconstruction gains, and set the template for race relations until Civil Rights movement—almost a century later.

Contested elections have dire consequences, especially on already marginalized populations, and that is worthy of exploration--then and now.

There is enormous hype surrounding our national elections, especially one as controversial as this year’s. As educators, we have an opportunity to harness that energy, to make it productive for students and their growing understanding of our history, particularly as it pertains to their young lives. There is no question that teaching this election will be a challenge, but we will only do our students justice by addressing their legitimate concerns and engaging them in unbiased ways that support their emotional well-being, intellectual growth, and human dignity.

Our students are already empowered. This November, I intend to use the space we’ve cultivated in our virtual classroom to allow them to best assert their power for the change they wish to see. The future of our democracy depends on it.

Follow the Education Week Opinion section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Opinion in your email inbox.

Events

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
Law & Courts Webinar
The Future of Criminal Justice Reform: A Sphere Education Initiative Conversation
America’s criminal justice system is in crisis and calls for reform are dominating the national debate. Join Cato’s Sphere Education Initiative and Education Week for a webinar on criminal justice and policing featuring the nation’s
Content provided by Cato Institute
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
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education
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
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS

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

Social Studies Opinion Civics Ed. Is on the Precipice of Becoming Common Core 2.0
Recent efforts to promote civics education suggest little was learned from the Obama-era dispute around the common core.
3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Social Studies GOP Leader: Biden Grant Plan Referencing Anti-Racism, 1619 Project Is 'Divisive Nonsense'
Sen. Mitch McConnell's letter to the Education Dept. about a small history program amplifies a political scrum dating back to last year.
3 min read
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., talks on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 20, 2021.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., talks on Capitol Hill in Washington earlier this month.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Social Studies Biden Administration Cites 1619 Project as Inspiration in History Grant Proposal
The Biden administration's proposal is part of a heated battle over racism and what students should learn about America's past.
6 min read
The statue of President Abraham Lincoln is seen at the Lincoln Memorial on June 4, 2017 in Washington.
The statue of President Abraham Lincoln is seen at the Lincoln Memorial on June 4, 2017 in Washington.
Cliff Owen/AP
Social Studies Supreme Court Justices Call for More Civics Education Amid Risk From 'Domestic Enemies'
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil M. Gorsuch, both boosters of civics for years, renew their concerns amid deep divisions in the country.
3 min read
Image of people at voting booths.
LPETTET/E+