Social Studies

Teachers React to the Debate: ‘If the President Was in My Class, He Would Not Pass’

By Madeline Will — September 30, 2020 7 min read
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After the first presidential debate, Alex Bennett asked his 12th grade government students to populate a word cloud with their reactions. The most common words: childish, unprofessional, toddlers, unorganized, combative.

Over the course of the hour-and-a-half-long debate on Tuesday, President Donald Trump repeatedly interrupted former Vice President Joe Biden, questioned his intelligence, and attacked his son, Hunter. Biden called the president a clown twice, told him to “shut up,” and said he was the “worst president” in U.S. history. Moderator Chris Wallace pleaded with Trump to respect the agreed-upon debate rules to no avail. At one point, Trump refused repeated requests to condemn white supremacists and told a violent, far-right group to “stand by.”

Teachers watched, horrified. Many use the presidential debates as a teaching tool for civics. Teachers often encourage their students to tune in, and some use the event as a framework for mock debates and elections. But the display on Tuesday was anything but educational, teachers said.

“The students were very, very negative on what they saw—that was really disheartening to see,” said Bennett, who teaches at Woodgrove High School in Purcellville, Va. “We tell them that democracy is this wonderful process, and that their vote matters. ... They’re looking to adults for leadership, they’re looking for hope that things can change, and this is the first time [they’ve watched] two major candidates go head to head, and it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. ... Overall, they are stunned and sad.”

Said Adam Dyche, the social studies department chair at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Ill.: “We purposefully ask our kids and put our kids in a position to engage with the debates, and as I was watching, I was feeling guilty that I asked my kids to participate in something that did not represent a positive example of civic discourse. ... How can we hold them to a higher standard than what we are currently seeing? We’re really showing them the ugly side of politics.”

Clara Mattheessen, a civics teacher at A-C Central High School in Ashland, Ill., had her students watch the debate for extra credit. But when she saw them the next morning in class, she immediately told them that she does not support white supremacy. Students are coming to campus only a couple days a week, and she won’t see her next group of students until Monday, but she plans to tell them the same thing then, too.

“That was something that I felt while watching the debate—that all my students needed to hear that from my own face,” she said. Mattheessen teaches in a rural district where many of her students are Trump supporters.

While teachers generally shy away from partisanship in the classroom, white supremacy and racism are issues that should not be debated.

“It is doing a disservice to our profession if we accept certain issues as debatable or both sides,” said Manuel Rustin, a government and history teacher at John Muir High School in Pasadena, Calif., who teaches mostly students of color from low-income families. “As teachers, [our] No. 1 duty is to support all students. If I allow issues that dehumanize or do harm to my students, if I allow those to be framed as differences of opinion, I’m not doing my duty to all students.”

The Role of Mock Elections

The chaotic, acrid presidential debate has also raised questions about the staying power of one of the most civic-minded traditions in U.S. schools: the mock election. During the 2016 presidential campaign, there was a growing concern among educators that mock elections and debates would open the door to students repeating divisive and hurtful rhetoric from Trump about communities of color and could inflame racial and ethnic tensions. The National Student/Parent Mock Election, a voter education program, told Education Week then that teachers should avoid the impersonation element during a debate.

This year, students—and students of color in particular—are already traumatized from the coronavirus pandemic and the high-profile police killings of Black people, said Kelly Wickham Hurst, a former educator and a facilitator and organizer for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, which works with schools among other institutions. Having students debate these issues would be harmful, she said.

And Trump has showed a lack of compassion for those suffering while boasting about his handling of the coronavirus crisis, Hurst said: “That’s just horrible behavior for children to emulate—it’s actually childish behavior we try to train out of children,” she said.

Indeed, teachers say they wouldn’t tolerate the antagonistic behavior exhibited Tuesday on the debate stage in their classrooms. “While watching that debate, my first thought was that if the president was in my class, he would not pass it,” Mattheessen said, adding that students also wouldn’t be allowed to tell their opponents to shut up like Biden did.

If teachers do hold a mock debate, they also have to make clear that certain topics, like white supremacy and racism, are off-limits, Rustin said.

“If that’s not made clear for students, especially if you have a diverse classroom, you are setting it up for students to be traumatized,” he said, adding that as a Black man, he would have felt unsafe as a student if a classmate brought up white supremacy as “standard political fare” and his teacher allowed it.

If done carefully, however, educators say there can be real benefits from mock debates or elections. At Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School in Nashville, librarian Amanda Smithfield typically stages a mock debate and election that’s meant to emulate real life as much as possible.

For example, during the Democratic primary earlier this year, students held a mock debate in which they researched the different candidates’ platforms and took on their personas. Students could vote early or on Election Day, and they had to register and show their student ID. (Sen. Bernie Sanders won the school’s mock election.)

Smithfield said the mock election is a great way to teach the process of voting. But she’s not sure what she’ll do this November. Her school is entirely remote, which makes the logistics more challenging. And the tenor of the presidential campaign has been so combative that she’s wary of students personifying the candidates.

“The presidential debate [Tuesday] night was really bombastic,” she said. “I would be uncomfortable [with students] trying to model some of the behavior that I saw.”

Instead, she said, she will likely center a mock debate over Zoom around policy issues. Students could research the candidates’ platforms and debate the issues without pretending to be Trump or Biden.

“If you’re having a mock debate, what is the purpose of it?” Smithfield said. “A lot of the purpose is to inform kids of the democratic process, and you’re trying to help them make an informed decision. A lot of times, kids just vote based on what their parents are doing. You’re trying to help them develop as citizens. ... You want them to become critical thinkers, you want kids to become informed on policies.”

But with this divisive campaign,"it’s a hard needle to thread,” she said.

Future Debates

Now, teachers are grappling with the question of whether they’ll encourage, recommend, or require students to watch future presidential debates. Two more are scheduled, on Oct. 15 and Oct. 22. The Commission on Presidential Debates has said it will soon adopt changes to the format to “ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.”

Dyche, the teacher in Aurora, said he plans on hosting virtual debate watch parties with students next month. He wants to teach them deliberation skills and civic discourse, and he said watching the debates is a good way for students to learn what they want to see from the political process.

“It’s a difficult balance,” he said. “It’s balancing what’s good and healthy for kids, but at the same time not sheltering them from the reality of their current political climate. ... For you to be an effective [citizen], you have to know what your candidates are saying.”

Christine Jaegle, a social studies teacher at Lisle Senior High School near Chicago, said she hosted a voluntary virtual debate watching party on Tuesday. She was initially worried that she made a mistake, but the students were engaged and had thoughtful exchanges throughout the night. They asked if she would host a watch party for a future debate, and she said she would.

“Teaching civic discourse is something I work really hard to do in my civics class,” she said. “To see that not being modeled for students is certainly disappointing, but it gives me hope when I see the kids are able to [have that on their own], and they want to have good conversations. ... They know that this is not what it should be like, they want better.”

Image: President Donald Trump makes a point as Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden looks on during the first presidential debate Tuesday. —AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.