Tuesday, June 17

Should teachers let their politics come to school?

With the Obama/McCain showdown claiming more above-the-fold newspaper space and primetime television minutes each week, I have been considering the delicate relationship between teachers’ personal politics, and their educational obligations to their students. Children have no qualms about asking blunt questions, including “who did you vote for in the last election?” which I was often asked when I taught sixth and seventh grade social studies at IS 143 in Washington Heights.

My students really wanted to know what I believed. Most of them were immigrants or first-generation Americans, and they were learning about democracy and politics for the first time in my class. They struggled in particular to understand modern political parties, and they wanted to know what the adults they looked up to believed, so that they could begin to build their own political opinions.

But is it fair for teachers to share their personal political views with students or is it a teacher’s job to present the all of the ideas and arguments and teach the students the skills they need to form their own opinions? According the chancellor’s regulations, it is forbidden: all DOE employees “shall maintain a posture of neutrality with respect to all candidates,” while on the job, but in reality, this is not always followed. And remember what happened when a Bronx high school teacher and his students made a video for the Obama campaign this fall?

Stanley Fish, a distinguished professor who has worked at several prominent universities, would also argue against bringing politics into the classroom. Fish writes in his New York Times blog that it is not only possible but critical that teachers don’t share their personal political opinions with their students. Gray Lady readers, particularly those who are also professors, have responded in force, igniting a vigorous debate that Fish has now responded to twice (I have even noticed some of my own professors from college chiming in).

But the relationship between politics and teaching is not just confined to higher-education. The commentators who complain that kids don’t know enough, or care enough, about the democratic process are usually quick to blame elementary, middle and high school teachers. If teachers are passionate about politics, should they share that with their students? I am inclined to side with Professor Fish and argue that politics need to be taught but not partisan ideas.

In this presidential election year, do you think that teachers’ political opinions should be shared or silenced while they are at school?


Anonymous said...

In school, I think teachers should do what I do at home with my child: these are my beliefs, but it's up to you to decide what you believe. We live in America where we all have the right -- and the responsibility -- to examine the issues and make up our own minds. Just because I believe this (religion, politics, support for a political candidate) doesn't mean that I am "right" or "wrong." You have to decide for yourself. Teachers are people too, and it's OK for students to know that teachers hold particular beliefs, as long as they also emphasize that it's each student's responsibility to investigate issues and come to their own decisions, and that it's OK to disagree with your teacher/parents/classmates/neighbors.

Anonymous said...

A debate where all sides are represented would be ideal and probably would fit the guidelines of neutrality. But how many schools could find enough teachers to fully represent even the two major parties? The schools I taught in were incredibly left-leaning (and me with them!)

Anonymous said...

It may be interesting to pose this very question to the students and see how they react. If students understand why this issue is controversial I'd guess they're ready to hear and contextualize a teacher's beliefs. A discussion of the issue will prepare them for any subsequent political talks.

Will politics in the classroom undermine the teachers educational/informational authority by allowing or encouraging dissent? More relevant with younger students or less sophisticated classes.

If so, is that desirable from the teachers/administrators

If a teacher discloses their political leanings could he/she be discredited in a students eyes if the student or the student's parents have divergent opinions?

Opinions on politics can be deeply rooted, emotionally charged, and very contentious, all attributes that can be corrosive to the teacher/student relationship.

Anonymous said...

If students understand the issue of the DOE insistance on neutrality then teachers must abide, otherwise the would spend the next 10 months explaining why some rules can be broken while other must be honored. Thus offsetting total Anarchy in the classroom.

Anonymous said...

I work in a private school and the environment around the election and politics is very different. Students are encouraged to express what they believe as well as faculty members (in a well-thought out and academic way, of course). I am sure there will be several political forums and classes centered around the election in the upcoming school year. I believe that teachers should try to keep their political beliefs neutral but if asked, should be able to express their viewpoints. This may encourage healthy debate and show students that everyone is entitled to a separate opinion, however popular or unpopular. Debate and politics are part of the current climate and it would be a shame to take this out of schools or the classroom.

dr. Monty Weinstein said...

A teacher should be allowed to express his/her personal views on a plethora of issues so long as it is made clear these views are personal and are made in a non-threatening way. The older the student gets, the more they expect their teachers to have opinions. This is a way to foster debate and diversity as opposed to teachers being automotons who read the script of so now, aim, pivotoal question and collect data.