(Photo courtesy of Scholastic.com)
John W. North High School

When politics and education collide

In classrooms across the country, teachers are coming across the same problem: discussing politics. Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. The White House initiated a ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. Trump’s advisor, Kellyanne Conway, used “alternative facts” as an excuse for blatant lies. These are just a few of the headlines in the national news that students have been exposed to and want to talk about.

Teachers have a responsibility to help nurture students to become productive, educated citizens of the world. This means that not only are students expected to leave the classroom knowing that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell or that Mark Twain was one of the most prolific authors of his time; they are also expected to be informed citizens that will shape the future of the globe.

This is where teachers, specifically here on the John W. North High School campus, get in a bind.

There is an unofficial but seldom followed rule across campus that teachers not discuss politics or their political views with students.

Principal Pamela Mshana sent an internal memo to staff around campus instructing them to abstain from speaking politics and pushing their own political view on students.

When reached out for a statement, Mshana said, “during instructional time teachers are not to engage in sharing personal political positions and views. There is an expectation that the Board adopted curriculum will be delivered without the influence of a personal perspective or bias.” She continued, “With that said, during non-instructional time, an employee has the ability to share their views and positions on any subject matter that would be considered appropriate for conversation on a campus. After school, or when on free time we all have the right to freedom of speech.”

Political topics are bound to come up in the classroom. Instead of dismissing and silencing students, teachers should instead encourage and challenge students to discuss what is happening around the world.

However, there is a fine line between opening up political discussion and forcing a viewpoint or political belief on students.

Freshman Andrew Chen said, “It helps [students] to actually learn more about politics. A lot of people complain that school doesn’t actually prepare them. [For example the curriculum] doesn’t teach you how to pay taxes and when you grow up you have to find out yourself and the  same thing goes for politics. [The negative side would be] if a teacher is heavily biased and draws [the students] towards what they believe and not what [the students] actually believe… [The positive side] is that [students] hear more ideas.”

The most convincing and motivating reason to allow students to engage in political and controversial discussion during class is the possibility for personal growth. Most students have very little experience discussing political issues and are in many cases misinformed. A recent Stanford study found that nearly 82 percent of high school students can’t tell a fake news article from a real one.

By exposing students to viewpoints and opinions on controversial issues in the classroom, teachers can help students understand that there will always be multiple points of view on any given topic. After all, if there was one clearly defined answer the controversy wouldn’t exist.

Sophomore Dymon Ebo said, “[It’s okay for students to engage in political conversations in class] because students can form their own opinions on it and it would be good practice. The benefits to discussing [political and controversial topics] during class would be…there are a lot more people to discuss with…Since [we] are discussing it with [our] peers [we] could get other ideas from other people and [our] opinions could get stronger,”

The Riverside Unified School District felt the need to address political discussion in classrooms themselves, sending North staff a “guide for dealing controversial issues in the classroom” after the 2016 presidential election.

Most school administrations frown upon teachers for sharing their political views as students can get offended easily and they fear the possible drama that could arise from political conversation will lead students to stray away from the set curriculum.

Spanish teacher Maria Maier said, “The students might not have the maturity level to sit down and have a conversation about politics and understand that everybody has a different point of view. They might not be able to [engage in] a heated conversation without getting angry or taking things personally. I teach Spanish and we do talk about controversial historical events; usually they have to do with the relationship the United States has with Latin America…Right now, [in my Spanish for Native Speakers class] we are learning about Cuba, so they are learning about communism and some students might sympathize with the communist philosophy whereas others might not so that [could] turn into a debate.”

Despite some negatives that can arise when discussing political and controversial topics in a classroom, many benefits can also be derived. Classes such as history, sociology and government, for example, could reap the majority of these benefits. Discussing political views and ideologies can help students think critically so that they can make connections to widespread modern issues. These classes are able to connect the standard curriculum to real life issues and provide students the opportunity to share their ideas and be exposed to other viewpoints.

“Unless you incorporate it into the lesson, I don’t feel [that] as teachers we should take the entire period to talk about [for example] the presidential race…There has to be some tie to the curriculum. If a student asks [a teacher who they] vote for, then it’s the teacher’s decision whether they want to share their political views or not. If [they] do it quickly, I don’t see anything wrong with it,” said Maier.

Although politics does not have a place in every classroom situation, it is important and crucial for students to be exposed to this type of discussion. Despite the busy work and seemingly never-ending lectures that some teachers dish out, both teachers and students can agree that it is the times when a student is introduced to opposing and new ideas that they learn the best.