By Patrick Kelley, author of Teaching Smarter
Like it or not, contentious political discussions are probably going to happen in your classroom this year, even if you’re a math teacher! When they do, how will you react? Language will be loaded and emotions will be on edge when students engage in a political conversation—after all, they are good at imitating what they see on TV and at home. And what do students see when a political issue is raised? They see people talking over each other and throwing personal insults rather than giving reasonable explanations. When politics come into the classroom, educators typically face three challenges:
- The discussion will often become personal and no longer be about the issues, and students will attack each other.
- Students will repeat inaccuracies, misquotes, and speculations.
- Quite frankly, you will hate every minute of the discussion because you will worry about getting a phone call from a parent claiming that you are trying to turn his or her child into a _______ (liberal, conservative, republican, democrat . . . or something worse).
Here are some tips for handling each of these three challenges.
1. The discussion will often become personal and no longer be about the issues, and students will attack each other.
Your job is to keep the focus on the issues and not allow discussions to get personal. How? Begin with a teacher-led discussion regarding the difference between attacking the issue vs. attacking the person.
For example, attacking the person looks like this: “John likes this candidate because he doesn’t understand that the Second Amendment is for his own good.” Attacking the issue looks like this: “The Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms. That right is important to me because . . .”
Present these two statements and talk about why the second is less offensive than the first and, more importantly, would lead to a productive and interesting discussion. The key point is to leave personal attacks out of the equation. Give students several more examples to analyze. In each example, show how insults can easily be disguised, such as demonstrated above: “John . . . doesn’t understand . . .” In this example, help students see that a productive discussion is not about John’s understanding (or lack of it) but about the Second Amendment. Take a look at the image on the right for some Peaceful Conversation Starters (click image for a larger view).
2. Students will repeat inaccuracies, misquotes, and speculations.
For example, “If this guy gets into office, he will start a war with Mexico in his first 100 days.”
When you hear something like this, you have an excellent opportunity to teach students how damaging a misquote or speculation can be. Direct a discussion about how misquotes or speculations have hurt the reputations of people students know personally. Have students describe such scenarios in their personal lives and how those scenarios turned out for them.
In addition, this is a great time to explain what it means to quote someone out of context and how the media will often sensationalize what a candidate says. Always allow students to see these concepts unfold in their personal lives. For example, all of us have felt the damage of someone misquoting us to a friend. How much more damage can be done when a political agenda is added to the equation?
On a whiteboard, write several examples showing how politicians have purposefully distorted the facts throughout history. Not only will you teach a much-needed lesson on politics, but it is also quite entertaining to see some of the tactics and quotes from past elections. This politically neutral strategy will help students understand that politics is not always truthful or ethical.
3. Quite frankly, you will hate every minute of the discussion because you will worry about getting a phone call from a parent claiming that you are trying to turn his or her child into a _______ (liberal, conservative, republican, democrat . . . or something worse).
You have every reason to fear a political discussion if students are not prepped properly. I taught AP American government and politics for over a decade without one single complaint from parents, whereas many of my colleagues suffered excessively every single time a political discussion erupted in class. Why the difference? I wish I could tell you it was just because I was a great teacher, but that wasn’t it at all.
The difference was this: I am very clear when I tell students that, in my class, I will not tell them my personal views on any of the issues. My job is to ask questions that stimulate thought and respect. Secondly, there will be no insults, subtle or direct. In other words, defuse the explosive atmosphere from the start.
In 25 years, I have never told a student my political views. Now, you may disagree with me on this, but I can assure you that staying politically neutral in class is in your best interest for your career and is what most parents expect.
Whatever reason you can think of for telling students your political leanings, know this: You will risk your credibility with half the student, parent, and administrative population because they will no doubt disagree with you the minute you take a side.
I think, though it may be tempting to express a political ideology, that it is our job as teachers to teach not our views but how to think critically about the evidence presented. I assert that there is an ever-present harm to your career and happiness as a teacher if you allow a contentious political discussion to go unchecked in your classroom or if you add fuel to the fire by taking a side. Moreover, your diligence in prepping and directing students without masked leanings will go a long way toward establishing your credibility as an educator.
Patrick Kelley, M.A., has a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from California State University, San Bernardino, and a bachelor’s degree in history from Castleton State College in Vermont. He has been a classroom teacher for more than 25 years. He has experience as a mentor teacher and an AP coordinator as well as 10 years of experience with the AVID program. He is certified in Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) and currently works with the International Baccalaureate program. Patrick provides workshops and presentations to districts, schools, and teams. Visit him at www.patrickkelleybooks.com.
Patrick Kelley is the author of Teaching Smarter: An Unconventional Guide to Boosting Student Success.
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