Fair and Factual: How to Navigate Important Political Discussions with Students

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 16: The U.S. Capitol is seen behind a fence with razor wire during sunrise on January 16, 2021 in Washington, DC.  (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

This story about political neutrality was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Samantha Palu, a high school government teacher in South Dakota, came to school on Jan. 7, 2021, armed with a plan to talk to all of her classes about the attack on the U.S. Capitol the previous day. When she started at the school in August, she was told not to say anything “political” in class — a difficult mandate for an educator whose job it is to teach about politics.

But for Palu, not addressing the Capitol violence would have been a dereliction of her duty as an educator. “I just knew that I couldn't stay silent, because that would just add to the problem,” she said. “This stopped being Republicans versus Democrats. These were domestic terrorists that did this and that’s what I told my students.”

During the discussion, a student walked out of her class. The school’s administration later received a phone call from the student’s family expressing concern that Palu was advancing a “political agenda,” she said. Palu’s principal backed her up, but she worries about backlash when she tackles controversial topics in the future.

Across the country, teachers like Palu have grappled with how — and whether — to discuss the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol and other seismic events with their students. While some districts instructed teachers to address the insurrection in class, others did not provide any guidance at all or asked that their educators remain silent on the issue, teachers said.

Sponsored

There is a longstanding principle that public school teachers, as representatives of the state, must not attempt to influence their students’ political beliefs, according to Wayne Journell, an education professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. While that basic stance is relatively uncontroversial, he said, it has gradually morphed into a belief that teachers should be apolitical and refrain from sharing their personal views with students.

This has contributed to school and district policies requiring teachers to remain politically neutral in the classroom. Educators often hear cautionary tales in the media of colleagues who were disciplined for being “too political.” Parents, meanwhile, are increasingly pushing back when they hear of teachers discussing current events with students.

As a result, teachers are sometimes reluctant to discuss any controversial topics at all — especially in the current climate when the legitimacy of science and facts has been called into question.

Political neutrality “is really difficult to navigate, because it seems like as a country, we can't even agree on some of the basic facts,” said Isabel Morales, a high school social studies teacher in Los Angeles. “One of my colleagues said, ‘I never thought that saying that we have to count the votes would be considered partisan or that I'm indoctrinating students.’”

Yet experts say that it’s impossible to remove politics from the classroom because teaching itself is a political act. “Education itself is political — who chooses the textbooks, who funds schools, how schools are funded,” said Alyssa Dunn, an education professor at Michigan State University. “So to say that curriculum has to be apolitical is a misunderstanding of the fact that education is a political space to begin with.”

Studies, meanwhile, show that teachers disclosing their beliefs has little influence on a student's own political views. “It’s not synonymous with indoctrination,” Dunn said. “You’re not requiring students to share your belief, you’re just sharing yours with them.”

In his research, Journell found that students don't care where their teachers stand politically as long as they feel like they aren’t being pressured to think a certain way. “They actually like knowing where their teachers stand,” he said. “It's the district administrators and parents who cause the problems.”

In fact, teachers disclosing their beliefs can help students learn to think critically, Journell said. Being introduced early on to the idea that adults have individual viewpoints helps young people understand the concept of bias and better distinguish between fact and opinion, he said. But while teachers should share their own views, they should never tell students how they or their family members should vote. “Teachers should help students understand what they believe and why they believe it,” he said.

Yet many teachers say they feel uncomfortable simply discussing topics that might be perceived as political. In a recent EdWeek Research Center survey, 86 percent of teachers reported that they did not talk about former President Trump’s claims of voter fraud with students. Most said they didn’t because it was outside their discipline, but 18 percent said that the topic could lead to parent complaints and 14 percent said that they feared being accused of indoctrinating students.

While there hasn’t been any systematic study of how many teachers have lost their jobs because they expressed their political opinions in the classroom, educators sometimes have an outsized view of how often such discipline occurs because of the incidents that garner public attention, said Dunn. “All we see are the major stories that make the news, not the many hundreds of thousands of teachers who engage in issues of justice in their classrooms every day,” she said.

Last fall, for example, an English teacher in Texas made headlines after being placed on paid leave because she had Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ posters on the walls of her virtual classroom. The teacher was reinstated but then declined to return to her classroom and instead called for the introduction of explicit anti-racist policies in the district.

Teachers who do not feel they have the support of their administration, or hold political beliefs at odds with the prevailing views in their community, tend to feel less inclined to talk frankly with students about current events and other issues, say teachers and experts. Educators teaching remotely during the pandemic may also be more reluctant to engage in controversial topics because parents are often present for virtual instruction.

Teachers in schools with a progressive curriculum backed up by state standards about what students should learn, and those with the support of a strong teachers’ union, are often more comfortable having these conversations, according to educators and experts.

Mark Gomez, a history and social studies curriculum specialist for the Salinas Union High School District, works in Monterey, a predominantly blue county in California. He said that liberal and conservative educators alike feel they are silenced by notions of political neutrality. “I've had teachers express how they feel like they've been targeted and called out for having unpopular conservative views in our school spaces,” he said.

His district, which is majority Latino, has adopted a social studies curriculum that includes ethnic studies and critical race theory. But even though talking about race is built into the curriculum, teachers still sometimes get mixed messages from school leaders about what they can and cannot say on that and other issues, he said.

Duane Moore teaches U.S. government and African American history in Hamilton, Ohio. He doesn’t shy from letting students know his political views, but he grounds discussions in facts and builds mutual trust. (Duane Moore)

Other teachers say they’ve found ways to navigate potentially explosive conversations — with a lot of practice. Duane Moore, a 20-year veteran in the classroom, teaches U.S. government and African American history in right-leaning Hamilton, Ohio. He says he’s not shy about letting students know his political views because he builds a strong foundation based on facts and mutual trust. “It’s no secret that I dislike Trump,” he said. “But I don't place my dislike at the forefront of my discussion of the events of the day. The kids also know that I'm going to be fair about the information that I share with them and that I’m very particular about my facts.”

When Terrance Lewis, a social studies teacher in Columbus, Georgia, first started teaching four years ago, he invited representatives of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit providing legal representation to wrongly convicted individuals, to come to his ninth grade government class to discuss racial disparities in sentencing. The topic is outlined in Georgia’s state social studies standards.

Soon after the classroom visit, a parent complained about it on a community Facebook page, arguing that talking about race is divisive and it’s time to move on, Lewis recalled. Some parents defended Lewis, he said, but most “were calling for my job.”

Lewis’s principal supported him, though, and emailed the parent who made the original Facebook post, which was eventually removed.

Terrance Lewis, who teaches in Georgia, emails parents ahead of class discussions on topics that might be deemed controversial. (Terrance Lewis )

Now, before any discussions that could be considered controversial, Lewis emails parents and describes how the topics fit into state social studies standards. “I think a lot of times parents think you force their children to think one way or the other,” said Lewis. “And I just do that just to be proactive and to ensure that parents are [informed].”

Some educators, though, say that sharing their thoughts on an issue can impede students’ ability to form their own opinions. “The heart of the work I do is based on inquiry,” said Shari Conditt, a government teacher in Vancouver, Washington. “So I'm really more focused on question-asking than I am on answer-giving.”

“I can't divorce who I am and how I think about the world all the time from how I teach,” Conditt acknowledged. “The best I can do is try to cover it up as much as possible.” She does that by paying attention to her words.

When a video of former President Donald Trump making vulgar remarks about women was released just weeks before the 2016 election, Conditt said she “talked around it,” rather than directly criticizing Trump’s conduct. She told her students that one of the candidates had made a comment that angered people. And she focused the conversation on one question.

Shari Conditt, who teaches government in Vancouver, Washington, said she centers class discussions on questions and tries to avoid sharing her own opinions. (Shari Conditt )

“This is how I put it: ‘You have to ask yourself, are you comfortable with how the candidate has spoken about women?’ ” she said. “The minute I use the word ‘misogynistic’ in my classroom, I know that I'm going to be hearing from my conservative parents.”

The social studies teachers at Morales’ school in Los Angeles have focused on media literacy in the aftermath of the Capitol attacks. She showed a clip from PBS stating that pro-Trump supporters had stormed the Capitol, and also noted claims that the rioters were antifa, a far-left activist group. Morales then discussed how to think critically about those statements and discern which was accurate.

“This is something we're seeing in our society that we cannot agree on,” she told her students. “And so the skill that we need to build as a classroom is really knowing what the truth is. And so if we are hearing people say different things, how can we find out the truth?”

Going forward, said Gomez, the educator in Monterey County, California, schools ought to be encouraging students to have more conversations about politics and other controversial topics — not less. That’s how youth will encounter different perspectives, and help refine their own.

“These are young people who are still formulating their own civic identities, so to deprive them of that, I think that’s a disservice,” he said.

Sponsored

This story about political neutrality was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.