When I first started teaching high school history, government and journalism a decade ago, I worked hard to appear politically neutral. I belong to one of America’s two major political parties, but I took pride in controlling my bias and selecting readings that (I hoped) would allow my young charges to make up their own minds regarding right and wrong, fair and unfair.
People at both ends of the political spectrum are quick to accuse teachers on the other side of unfairly influencing students. I refrained from sharing my political leanings even after students graduated, not out of a sense of intellectual superiority or to ignite frustration, but to curtail accusations of indoctrination and perceived bias.
Students have accused me in the past of not having faith in their intellectual maturity. Quite the contrary. My job is to expose young minds to new ideas. I respect their intellectual maturity so much, I go to terrific lengths to avoid exerting untoward influence on what they choose to support or believe.
I was certain of that approach until my juniors and seniors expressed their disgust with Donald Trump’s 2015 presidential announcement speech. It promoted xenophobia and racism, they told me. Several pointed to an especially egregious line often cited during the following president campaign: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
I started to wonder: Do students take my silent and neutral behavior as a sign of apathy or endorsement of Trump’s views? Does that alter the way they perceive me as their teacher?
These conversations became more frequent and urgent in my classroom after Trump’s election. My journalism class expressed outrage over one of the president’s tweets in February 2017, which read, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”
I once believed in concealing my political thoughts unless I couldn’t in good conscience keep quiet. Trump’s remarks have repeatedly crossed that line for me, and as Abraham Lincoln said, “It is a sin to be silent when it is your duty to protest.”
My students asked for my take, so I told them, but rather than focus on venting what appeared to be a collective disdain, I urged them to look into why others felt differently.
Sharing my personal view left me conflicted; if I taught in South Carolina vs. Massachusetts, it’s likely many students would disapprove of my criticizing the president’s behavior. And part of me feels they would be justified in challenging me for it. As a mentor recently told me, “one teacher’s sense of ‘social justice’ is another teacher’s sense of ‘irresponsible judicial activism.’”
So, as back-to-school season ramps up, this is the question educators across the country face: In the age of Trump, should teachers refrain from sharing their own political views, or does our current political schism call for a different approach?
“Instead of 'appearing neutral' (a species of mild dishonesty, after all), let’s admit our biases openly.”
As the legendary Bob Dylan sang in his 1964 album, “The times, they are a-changin’.” Just one year later, the first “teach-ins” occurred at the University of Michigan and Columbia University. Professors worked alongside students to hold antiwar seminars, and this political activism by teachers spread to college campuses around the country.
I’m not suggesting today’s teachers and professors do something similar by protesting or publicly supporting any of Trump’s policies. But I am suggesting that educators of students of all ages re-examine how we hold political discussions in the classroom.
Whether I decide to share or withhold my personal views about anything, my main concern should be with establishing a productive learning environment with students, treating them as people who have concerns that should be listened to, and helping them fashion their understanding of the world.
Teachers should know their students as individuals, not just as learners, before deciding whether to be open or opaque politically. I wouldn’t advise a teacher of any student to come out in favor of the president’s immigration remarks, for example. This would be insensitive, all the more so to our Latino students, and it would also lack academic value. But students would benefit from learning about and debating policies for and against immigration, undocumented or otherwise.
This year, I will continue refraining from making or repeating partisan humor or making off-the-cuff remarks that politically savvy students could pick up on. But I’ll also adopt a new approach as to how I handle politics in the classroom ― and I encourage other educators to consider doing the same.
Instead of “appearing neutral” (a species of mild dishonesty, after all), let’s admit our biases openly. Let’s express them, explain why we have come to hold them, clarify what is troubling to us about them, and then articulate our best version of our opponents’ arguments — all in the spirit of encouraging our students to examine their own beliefs, scrutinize their own biases, and thereby move to higher levels of understanding.
This is something I hope all teachers, regardless of political affiliation, can agree on.
David Cutler teaches history, journalism and government at Brimmer and May, an independent PK-12 school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter at @SpinEdu.