Classrooms have always been places of debate, a safe space for arguing ideas, making intellectual connections, and solidifying values that carry into adulthood. But classrooms just got a little more heated after the election of Donald Trump, a man whose rhetoric has emboldened racists and greenlighted other troubling, and sometimes illegal, behaviors. Young people are especially impressionable and, as they find their footing in a shifting world and divisive political landscape, the role of educators has never been more important—or stressful.
Schools are ground zero for instilling values such as respectfulness and inclusivity—values we’ve come to understand as the bedrock of our society. But in a post-election article on the website Broadly, a teacher in Charleston, West Virginia, was quoted saying: “We tell [students] to act a certain way—to be kind, treat each other fairly. That all people are equal, that bullies don’t win. And then Trump won.”
Educators have often focused on the “teachable moment” — extrapolating a critical lesson from an unplanned event — while remaining ideologically neutral or nonpartisan. Now, with Trump’s presidency underway and his recent executive order barring travel from seven Muslim countries, what was once seen as a universal norm — religious freedom and equality, for example — can now be interpreted as taking a partisan stand. This shift is forcing educators to explicitly define values and engage their colleagues in difficult conversations that merge the moral, political, and pedagogical.
Yet when the current administration doesn’t back fundamental and long-held civic values, it’s increasingly more difficult for educators to maintain neutrality in classroom discussions. It’s a teacher’s duty to encourage healthy, even heated, debates on potentially hurtful and controversial topics like transgender bathrooms or even same-sex marriage. But “Trump talk” on Muslims, Mexicans, and women has prompted teachers to be extra deliberate about what’s not up for debate and when it’s imperative to draw a clear line. What’s remarkable is how these actions were previously taken for granted—teachers now fret over unreliable First Amendment protections and even job loss for reinforcing equality, tolerance, and other long-held civic values.
So, how do we define educators’ obligations in politically and normatively unsettled times? In collaboration with a team of graduate students, Meira Levinson, a political philosopher and professor at the Harvard School of Education, has developed comprehensive case studies of controversial scenarios to help teachers and school administrators more effectively face the challenges ahead.
In one fictional scenario, teachers discuss whether to use a current event that’s potentially divisive or painful to some students — Trump’s proposed registry for Muslim immigrants, for example — as material for a student debate. This exercise allows educators to be reflective about developing guiding principles for how they choose to foster critical thinking in their classrooms. Other dilemmas include whether teacher neutrality with the goal of promoting open, balanced conversation can unintentionally legitimize intolerance. Another scenario addresses school culture, bullying, and harassment, and outlines how teachers can provide safe spaces and support for marginalized groups and students feeling ostracized because of their political stance.
In today’s fraught and emotional climate, it’s clear that educators will increasingly have to be articulate about their decision-making. But they must also foster nuanced classroom conversations that require patience, listening, empathy, and understanding. Levinson says that civic educators must continue to avoid partisanship and indoctrination while teaching fundamental civic values; encourage perspective-taking and an open classroom environment; and prepare students for responsible civic engagement.
Trump indeed won — and the game has undoubtedly changed. Yet this is nothing new. Educators have historically persisted during eras of social upheaval — the McCarthy era or the Civil Rights Movement come immediately to mind. As there may be more heightened sense of fear and mistrust as the ground shifts under our feet, preparation is vital.