NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — A New York City teacher was warned over a homework question critical of President Donald Trump. An Alabama district fielded complaints for a teacher’s “Obama, you’re fired!” caption under a Trump display. And video caught a Texas art teacher shooting a squirt gun at an image of the president, and yelling, “Die!”
In the age of Trump, when current events are increasingly dominating classroom discussions, there’s a debate among educators whether it’s appropriate or even ethical for teachers to weigh in with their own political views. Is there a point when such opinionating crosses the line into political proselytizing?
“Why shouldn’t a teacher be able to vocalize their opinion?” Niagara Falls High School student Santino Cafarella, 18, asked after his government class this past week. “We’re in high school at this point. We should be able to discover our own viewpoints.”
It’s become a flashpoint at a time when many teachers say students are more energized than ever by current events, with issues such as immigration, racial justice and transgender rights discussed not only in social studies but in other classes, the hallways and at lunch, too. And students often ask teachers what they think.
“There’s a general belief in the public that teachers shouldn’t be using their classroom as a soapbox but there’s a ton of variation on what’s allowed and what’s not allowed,” said Paula McAvoy, program director at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Ethics and Education.
She’s seen everything from prohibitions on political statements and buttons to no policies whatsoever. But McAvoy contends shying away from political discussions in the classroom isn’t the answer because schools should offer a place for young people to consider differences, challenge assumptions and form their own opinions.
Minnesota teacher Tom Schoper makes no secret of his Republican and conservative leanings (the Nixon/Agnew and Barry Goldwater posters in his room are a clue), but said he makes a point to expose students to other perspectives, bringing in Democrats, Socialists, Libertarians and others to speak at his rural high school.
“What I give the kids is opportunity. I set the table,” the Glencoe-Silver Lake High School social studies teacher said. “It’s up to those kids to make up their mind.”
At West Chicago Community High School, government teacher Mary Ellen Daneels goes to the other extreme. She won’t give up her personal political beliefs even when regularly pressed by students.
“The kids go a little bit crazy,” she said. “They’ll come to me and say, ‘OK, when I graduate, can I Facebook message you and you’ll tell me what your partisanship is?'”
Daneels’ stand is part of a voluntary non-disclosure pledge government teachers at her school have taken as a way to stay out of their students’ ways as they examine sensitive issues. She said the policy also keeps the instructors above reproach should anyone suspect students are being steered one way or another.
“It’s inevitable for social studies teachers to have an opinion,” Niagara Falls High School student Michael McDonald, 17, said after a class lesson on political cartoons taking aim at Donald Trump’s speech to Congress, student debt and the fake news phenomenon, among others. “But as long as they’re not clearly expressing their opinion and trying to influence our opinions with their own, then I don’t think it’s a problem.”
His teacher, Julie Conti, pressed students about the intent, structure and effectiveness of the cartoons they examined, but stayed neutral on whether she agreed with the content. Conti said she sometimes plays devil’s advocate to get a classroom conversation started, but her aim is to give students the knowledge and ability to make up their own minds. “If I just express my opinion, I don’t think that has done that for them,” she said.
Some administrators across the country have taken a hard line.
The Tuscaloosa, Alabama, City Board of Education temporarily suspended teacher Scott Johnson without pay and sent him to sensitivity training for his “Obama, you’re fired” display the day after the election, saying it violated the board’s policy prohibiting partisan political activity in the classroom. Johnson, in a statement, said he made “an error in good professional judgment.”
The Dallas Independent School District placed art teacher Payal Modi on administrative leave after her video with the water gun. Modi, through her mother, declined comment to The Associated Press.
Staten Island teacher Adria Zawatsky received a disciplinary letter after a vocabulary question on a homework assignment sought the word “haughty” to describe Trump’s speaking manner. The New York City Department of Education encourages respectful conversations, spokesman Michael Aciman said, “but staff are directed to maintain neutrality when discussing political issues in school.” Zawatsky didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Larry Paska, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, an organization of educators and curriculum designers, acknowledged that teachers weighing in to class discussions with their own politics can be fraught with peril.
“You are helping kids to form their own perspective and I think by including your own, you shape it for them,” he said. “And that’s not really the goal of social education.”
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