Posted by: Steve J. Moore | April 22, 2009

On Staying Relevant, Politics, and Opinions in the Classroom

I’ll start with a question:

“How do you deal with politics in your classroom?”

People become emotional about certain issues very quickly if they have strong beliefs, and political affiliation, if announced, can be a key to Pandora’s box. During this past election year, I found myself in a precarious position: student teacher in someone else’s classroom in a school very different from the one I went to. Kids want to talk to you about everything (the ones who want to talk) all the time in high school, including (and sometimes especially) politics. They desperately want to know every detail of your thoughts whether it is out of respect, curiosity, or an attempt to find a weakness they can exploit.

“Who are you going to vote for Mr. Moore?!”

I heard this 100 times a day this past Fall and it was a seemingly different challenge every time. I had a basic conception of Republic High School as a place comfortable for kids of Republicans and a bit more challenging for kids of Democrats. I phrase it this way because no one* knows for sure what they believe in high school, but everyone knows what their parents tell them. That being said, many teachers I met were ready to thrown down for their beliefs in the lunch room, or even in class I was surprised to find out. Was this appropriate? I began to ask myslef, how should I deal with this polarizing challenge in the best way for students, teachers, and the preservation of a learning environment. I came to one conclusion time and again:

Hold the center.

I made it my goal to keep my personal politics private. I taught students that they were welcome to ask questions as long as they respected my answers, which were usually allusive in nature and directed right back at the student. I played devil’s advocate, asked tough questions, and tried to show them that respect of opinion is democratic glue, no matter what kind of fighting they saw on TV. I told them they should ask everyone questions, with one condition in mind, don’t think you know what their answer is beforehand (or even directly afterwards). I wanted kids to learn to think for themselves rather than through assimilation of others’ opinions. A good democracy can’t function when people with opposing views are shut out; it thrives on diversity of opinion. Looking at my school’s mission, I thought that’s exactly what “productive members of society” meant.

Kids would ask me if I watched Fox News or MSNBC or CNN (trying to brand me) and I always answered that I did a few things for keeping up with news and trends. I told them I listen to National Public Radio, The News Hour, Charlie Rose, and CSPAN because of their open and publicly held nature. I tried to encourage them to think objectively about what they watch and hear. I told them to ask themselves if they listened to people differently depending upon the letter in front of their name (D, R, I, etc). Since I had a good reputation with the kids for being intelligent and caring, they usually took a moment to think critically. Even if that moment was singular or short, I hoped that it would plant a seed in them to search answers out for themselves.

Many of the staff all have strong opinions as well. I recall many lunchroom arguments about who was right and wrong; and too often people said things they didn’t intend to. I usually played the roll of peacekeeper. I tried to ask an exit question, maybe rhetorical, that could lead into something else (like football) that was safe. Conversing about loving or hating team X is much more comfortable than doing so about person or party X.

How does your political affiliation (whether openly shared or not) affect your dialogue with students and other staffmembers? I invite everyone to consider this often high pressurized topic. We may be “in the clear” for another two years or so until election season rolls around again, but emotions will run high again. How will you deal with it then?

Administrators, the challenge isn’t the same I would assume (not having experienced your position), but perhaps there is something you can add to this discussion. Do partisan politics on a state or national level affect the temperature of your school board meetings, your administration, or something else?

I’ll start with a question:

“How do you deal with politics in your classroom?”

People become emotional about certain issues very quickly if they have strong beliefs, and political affiliation, if announced, can be a key to Pandora’s box. During this past election year, I found myself in a precarious position: student teacher in someone else’s classroom in a school very different from the one I went to. Kids want to talk to you about everything (the ones who want to talk) all the time in high school, including (and sometimes especially) politics. They desperately want to know every detail of your thoughts whether it is out of respect, curiosity, or an attempt to find a weakness they can exploit.

“Who are you going to vote for Mr. Moore?!”

I heard this 100 times a day this past Fall and it was a seemingly different challenge every time. I had a basic conception of Republic High School as a place comfortable for kids of Republicans and a bit more challenging for kids of Democrats. I phrase it this way because no one* knows for sure what they believe in high school, but everyone knows what their parents tell them. That being said, many teachers I met were ready to thrown down for their beliefs in the lunch room, or even in class I was surprised to find out. Was this appropriate? I began to ask myslef, how should I deal with this polarizing challenge in the best way for students, teachers, and the preservation of a learning environment. I came to one conclusion time and again:

Hold the center.

I made it my goal to keep my personal politics private. I taught students that they were welcome to ask questions as long as they respected my answers, which were usually allusive in nature and directed right back at the student. I played devil’s advocate, asked tough questions, and tried to show them that respect of opinion is democratic glue, no matter what kind of fighting they saw on TV. I told them they should ask everyone questions, with one condition in mind, don’t think you know what their answer is beforehand (or even directly afterwards). I wanted kids to learn to think for themselves rather than through assimilation of others’ opinions. A good democracy can’t function when people with opposing views are shut out; it thrives on diversity of opinion. Looking at my school’s mission, I thought that’s exactly what “productive members of society” meant.

Kids would ask me if I watched Fox News or MSNBC or CNN (trying to brand me) and I always answered that I did a few things for keeping up with news and trends. I told them I listen to National Public Radio, The News Hour, Charlie Rose, and CSPAN because of their open and publicly held nature. I tried to encourage them to think objectively about what they watch and hear. I told them to ask themselves if they listened to people differently depending upon the letter in front of their name (D, R, I, etc). Since I had a good reputation with the kids for being intelligent and caring, they usually took a moment to think critically. Even if that moment was singular or short, I hoped that it would plant a seed in them to search answers out for themselves.

Many of the staff all have strong opinions as well. I recall many lunchroom arguments about who was right and wrong; and too often people said things they didn’t intend to. I usually played the roll of peacekeeper. I tried to ask an exit question, maybe rhetorical, that could lead into something else (like football) that was safe. Conversing about loving or hating team X is much more comfortable than doing so about person or party X.

How does your political affiliation (whether openly shared or not) affect your dialogue with students and other staff members? I invite everyone to consider this often high pressurized topic. We may be “in the clear” for another two years or so until election season rolls around again, but emotions will run high again. How will you deal with it then?

Administrators, the challenge isn’t the same I would assume (not having experienced your position), but perhaps there is something you can add to this discussion. Do partisan politics on a state or national level affect the temperature of your school board meetings, your administration, or something else?

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