Teaching Profession

The Election Is Over, But for Teachers, Hard Conversations Are Just Beginning

By Madeline Will — November 09, 2016 8 min read
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This post has been updated. Education Week reporters Kavitha Cardoza and Denisa R. Superville contributed reporting.

Now that the 2016 election is over and Republican Donald Trump has won, some teachers feel like their work may be just beginning.

The presidential campaign was filled with divisive rhetoric that trickled down into schools. Students of color, particularly Latino and Muslim students, have been anxious about some of Trump’s campaign promises—to halt Muslim immigration or to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Now that the election is over, how can teachers begin to unite their classrooms? How can they soothe students’ fears?

Education Week reporters spoke to teachers throughout the day about how they were dealing with the aftermath of a historic and unprecedented election season. Reactions varied across the country—for instance, students and teachers at Berkeley High School in California walked out of school in protest. Meanwhile, a teacher in Ohio said she celebrated Trump’s victory in class, congratulating her students who wore Trump T-shirts and “Make America Great Again” hats.

But for the most part, teachers weren’t sure how to broach the topic. “There’s going to be a lot of anger in my classroom, and that just makes me really sad,” said Christina Torres, a middle and high school teacher in Hawaii who blogs for Education Week Teacher. “I just have a lot of kids who are going to be scared.”

Several teachers expressed the need for creating a safe space for students, especially those of color, to process the election results and how they feel about Trump’s victory.

Andrea Lugo, a resource specialist teacher at Canoga Park Elementary School in Los Angeles, wrote in an email that she is reeling from the results and she thinks her students will be, too. She said she plans to have whole-group discussions about how they are feeling, in which she will ask questions like: What are your fears? What are your hopes? What would you like to happen?

Then, she said, she will allow them to journal about their feelings, questions, and concerns, in case that is easier than verbalizing them. “I know my number one priority is my students and making them feel safe,” she wrote. “So I will emphasize acceptance and love with them.”

Immigrant students and students from immigrant families were some of the most concerned on Wednesday, teachers said. One ESOL teacher who wished to remain anonymous but teaches in a diverse urban high school in New York state said in an email that there were “innumerable rumors, worries, misconceptions, anger, and fear” in her classroom today. She heard students taunting others that they were getting deported.

Casey Fuess, a music teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a special enrollment high school in the West Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, said he never got around to music in any of his classes on Wednesday. After giving his prepared remarks, he opened it up for discussions that revealed “stunning response and devastating responses with regard to the fears that students have,” he said.

“The election seemed to bring back memories of trauma that students had experienced,” he said. He said he was moved by what he heard, and he tried to facilitate a dialogue to allow students to share how they were feeling. Students expressed fear about their family members losing health insurance, and immigrant students or children of immigrants were concerned that their families would be split up.

One student, who was born in Mexico, but had lived in the United States for 17 of her 18 years, was afraid that she could be sent back to a country she doesn’t remember, Fuess said: “She was crying. Other students were crying listening to that.”

Students tried to comfort each other, he said, and began discussing the political process. “I told them that I was proud of them for how articulate and honest they were,” Fuess said “that I loved and cared about them, and there are so many people who love them and are concerned about their well-being. I re-emphasized that education is such an important path toward political and economic empowerment.”

Some teachers, like RaShawna Sydnor at Rognel Heights Elementary School in Baltimore, said they tried to keep the post-Election Day conversation centered on the political process.

Her middle school students, who are all African-American, were concerned that they would have to “go back to Africa,” she said. She decided to take a step back and talk about the branches of government and checks and balance.

“We really have to start from scratch and take the next couple of weeks to ease their fears and let them know they have a voice,” Sydnor said. One way she plans to do that is by having her students write to their local elected officials.

Danielle Livoti, who teaches 9-12 grade studio art, drawing, and Advanced Placement drawing in Long Island, N.Y., said she asked her 9th grade students to draw how they felt. Some students drew the United States with tear drops or angry faces. Others drew a cartoon figure of Trump with hearts around him. Some students just left their pages blank, but Livoti said it was important to give students the chance to express their feelings.

“Visual art can be a cathartic tool to help unify and move us forward,” she said. “We can all appreciate each other’s opinions.”

Remaining Positive

Several teachers played Hillary Clinton’s concession speech to their students to show the transfer of power. Kyle Redford, a 5th grade teacher and an Education Week Teacher opinion blogger, said her students were initially upset, but after they watched the speech, they felt more encouraged about the future.

“In our discussion, there were tears and big emotions but several said that we have to give our new president a chance,” Redford said. “Most agreed with that. And one student said, ‘Even if we are young, we can still make a big change because we live in a democracy. We can still fight for the things we believe in.’”

Teachers tried to strike a balance between offering students who were against Trump a place to process their feelings and making sure that students who support Trump don’t feel isolated. Kathryn McCalla, an 8th grade English teacher in a liberal county of Michigan, said her students were mostly depressed about the election results and while she condemned some of Trump’s inflammatory comments, she tried to keep an even tone.

“I did not want to rain shame on the students whose parents voted for Trump,” she said. “I wanted to make sure they knew that a vote for Trump does not necessarily mean a vote for hate.”

Anissa Smith, an AP Government teacher in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, said her county is very conservative, and most of her students support Trump. She congratulated them in class, but told them, “This is great for you, but let’s be humble, let’s not gloat, there are a lot of students who are sad today.”

Teachers felt a sense of relief that the divisive election cycle was finally over—but said the campaign and its aftermath point to the importance of civic education and teaching in general.

Resources for Teachers

An essay published by Teaching Tolerance, an educational project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, offered suggestions for how teachers can handle the day after the election, including creating a space for reflection, discussing what respect means, and talking about how to lose with grace. Another essay published in the Huffington Post, “What Do We Tell the Children?,” explores how teachers can talk to their students about Trump’s victory.

In several school districts, including Los Angeles, Boston, and New York City, superintendents, principals, and other school leaders have sent out staff-wide emails or issued statements offering extra support to students who are feeling vulnerable. In an urban Iowa district, a middle school principal sent her staff an email that urged teachers to be mindful to how their students are feeling—"Today we are faced with a big teaching opportunity and responsibility,” she wrote.

“Let’s hold all our teachers up today as they walk into their classrooms and face the questions and concerns of our kids, big and small,” said Jill Ortman-Fouse, an at-large member of the Montgomery County Board of Education in Maryland, in an email. “We are going to take care of each other, be gentler, be more patient, and listen harder. We are going to be role models for our kids and model compassion in all we do. Together we will raise insightful, brilliant leaders for tomorrow. Support our schools as safe sanctuaries for learning without the worries and distractions of prejudice, harassment, and isolation.”

Educators, how are you discussing the election results today? Share your plan in the comments below.

Source: Image via Lorewn Elliott/The Tampa Bay Times via AP

Correction: This post previously misstated how long Casey Fuess’ student had lived in the United States. She has spent 17 years in the U.S. and only one in Mexico.

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