Teaching Profession

Teachers Face Backlash—and Discipline—for Political Stances on Israel-Hamas War

By Elizabeth Heubeck — December 08, 2023 8 min read
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Last month, a Queens high school teacher hid in a locked office on campus for hours to avoid hundreds of the school’s students who had taken to hallways in what news reports called both “premeditated” and “raucous” protest aimed at the teacher, whose profile photo on Facebook pictured her at a pro-Israel rally raising a poster that read, “I stand with Israel.”

In California this week, a teach-in by a group of teachers in the Oakland district on the lives of Palestinians in Gaza and its history drew sharp opposition from the district’s superintendent, who sent an email to parents and staff members saying the lesson is “neither sanctioned nor approved by the district,” according to news reports.

Also this week, in Maryland, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) announced it has filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the Montgomery County district, alleging the school system placed a Muslim teacher of Egyptian national origin on administrative leave because of her email signature tagline, which expressed support for Palestinians. Before the teacher was placed on leave, someone tore a Palestinian flag from her car, according to CAIR.

As these examples illustrate, the Israel-Hamas war has ignited strong passions—and has put many students and educators in a painful position of trying to process their own feelings and views of the crisis in an already deeply polarized political environment.

Teachers, especially those who teach social studies and history, likely will find themselves navigating conversations related to these fraught subjects and how they relate to previous historical events. They also may have their own strong opinions on the conflict, as well as other current national and global events. And as recent events show, they could be targeted for attacks because of those public stances.

But there’s a fine line between teachers presenting information to students about politically charged current events, and these same teachers expressing how they feel about them.

A variety of constraints shape what teachers can and can’t share about their personal perspectives about the Israel-Hamas war or other polarizing topics—in classrooms or during their personal time.

For one thing, teachers’ free-speech rights aren’t absolute. Generally, teachers can share their personal opinions about their political beliefs outside of school. But while they’re in classrooms, they represent the school district—and courts generally have given states and districts wide latitude to prescribe what content is covered. Teachers can be punished for deviating from that content.

Second, new laws place restrictions on how educators can teach certain subjects deemed controversial, including racism and sexism, and in some cases, current events. The nation’s largest teachers’ union notes that, even when collective bargaining agreements allow teachers to present controversial issues to their students, they typically ask them to follow guidelines that include this one: “the teacher must be fair, balanced, and not advocate a particular viewpoint.”

And finally, educators’ opinions diverge. Consider, for instance, this unscientific LinkedIn poll in which Education Week last week posed the following question to K-12 school and district leaders: Do you have guidelines around staff expressing their personal opinions about the Israel-Hamas war? Among the 201 respondents, 78 percent said “no”; just 22 percent, “yes.”

It’s impossible to know why most survey respondents reported not giving teachers any guidelines around this sensitive issue. Independently, educators—from those responsible for guiding teachers on best practices to classroom teachers—weighed in on the topic in phone interviews. Despite varying opinions, they each espoused information sharing, mutual trust, and student-centered guidance.

Classroom conversations

Few educators said academic discussions of the war should be off-limits in the classroom, especially in social studies classes.

“We don’t tell people what they can and cannot say in the classroom. We look to them to use their professional judgment,” said Cheryl Logan, the executive director of the new McGraw Center for Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a K-12 administrator for more than three decades.

Wesley Hedgepeth, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies and a history teacher at a private school in Richmond, Va., explained what that kind of professional judgment means to him. “When it comes to civic-type issues, as a classroom teacher, I will present multiple sides within a classroom and let the students decide based on the sources I provide them,” he said. “As far as the Israel-Hamas conflict, I give students sources to digest from multiple perspectives. I give them the chance to drive the conversation,” Hedgepeth said.

He admits that this isn’t always easy. “Everyone has bias. Even those who earnestly try to be unbiased cannot completely escape unconscious bias without significant training. One of the safest ways to mitigate this in the classroom is to ensure multiple perspectives are presented,” Hedgepeth said. For him, that involves drawing from sources that fall around the center of media bias charts, such as those from AllSides.com and Ad Fontes Media. But figuring out which sources are trustworthy can be challenging.

Hedgepeth also said he and all social studies teachers try to follow guiding principles when it comes to developing curricular plans, implementing daily lessons, and establishing rapport with students and other educational stakeholders. They include such tenets as integrity, justice, authenticity, civic engagement, responsibility, and democratic values.

Like Hedgepeth, Chris Dier, Louisiana’s 2020 Teacher of the Year and a high school history teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, also mentioned the significance of teacher-student dialogue in his classroom. “I do feel this generation can have conversations with each other,” he said.

Dier described making an effort to provide relevant context to his students so that their conversations can be both informed and respectful. Even though current events in the Middle East are not part of his world history course at this time of year, Dier set aside time after the Oct. 7 massacre of Israeli citizens and soldiers and the subsequent war for discussion with students. He provided historical background and shared news articles covering the recent incidents. After students had a few days to digest the information, he initiated class discussions and gave students the opportunity to present questions and comments.

“With everything so polarizing and intense, I tackled it in all of my classes,” Dier said. Students asked a range of questions: What is Hamas? What was the Six-Day War? “Overall, students’ perceptions were incredible,” said Dier. So too, he added, was their cordiality.

Having respectful, two-way conversations about sensitive and polarizing topics with students is a challenging task that requires laying groundwork up front and doesn’t come naturally to all teachers. That’s where school leadership needs to play an active role, believes S. Kambar Khoshaba, a high school principal in Lorton, Va. In an opinion piece in Education Week, Khoshaba asserts “we can’t leave teachers alone and unequipped to direct these conversations.”

Khoshaba acknowledged the difficulty of initiating this type of dialogue, and recommended that principals get support from colleagues, supervisors, and others. “Let’s teach each other about ways to support and not offend each another. We might not be able to have a direct impact on a war happening so far away from us, but we can have an impact on immediate school communities,” he wrote.

Whether such conversations in the classroom should include teachers sharing personal viewpoints remains up for debate, though.

“I always tell students on day one: As objective as I’m going to try to be, there may be times when I will have a bias or view things in a certain light,” Dier said. “I encourage students to research and fact check everything I’m saying.”

Hedgepeth said he avoids inserting his own beliefs into the classroom conversation. “I tell my students that it doesn’t matter what I think; it’s what they think [that matters],” he said. But he supplies students with background knowledge before asking for their opinion.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Logan advises against teachers sharing their personal beliefs about public and polarizing issues. “I do not recommend that teachers share where they stand,” she said. “We all stand for humanity; that’s really what our statement as teachers should be.”

Outside of the classroom

Despite recommending that teachers remain as neutral as possible within the confines of the classroom, Logan believes in a more hands-off approach when it comes to teachers expressing their beliefs outside of school.

“We [administrators] are not going to wade into that,” she said. If administrators did, they’d likely come up against resistance from teachers.

“Outside of work, I’ve attended pro-Palestine protests, and publicly provided historical context,” Dier said. “I’ve tweeted and posted my thoughts. It’s no secret. We have the right to freedom of speech, especially on political matters.”

Dier also acknowledged the risk inherent in these actions, but strives to establish open and trusting relationships with students to prevent negative consequences. “I understand that if a student sees me protesting, I risk alienating that student,” said Dier. “But if that student got to know me, they would know I’m coming from a place of positive intent.”

It’s about establishing rapport and mutual trust with students, explains Dier, who added that he is confident his students know they are safe to express opinions different from his own in and out of his classroom.

Hedgepeth takes a similar stance, but is less overt about his alliances and related actions.

“Certainly, it’s within teachers’ constitutional rights to attend a rally,” he said. “If you are engaged in political activity, advocating for one cause or another, or sharing concerns about a given conflict, you have the right to do so as an educator.”

Hedgepeth added that, if students were inclined, they could do an internet search on him and learn where he stands on certain political issues based on his outside-of-school activities. “They can see that I’m modeling civic engagement,” he said, while cautioning, “You don’t want to take away from your credibility as a source of unbiased information in the classroom.”

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