Classrooms change and we should change with them

Why I love it when teenagers push back: one teacher’s politics in a 2020 classroom

5 minute read
Educational mores continue to change, just like our schoolrooms, and we should evolve with them. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)
Educational mores continue to change, just like our schoolrooms, and we should evolve with them. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

In high school, I took a political science class with a teacher who refused to disclose his own political leanings. He said that to do so would be a breach of his authority, that the responsible thing to do was to lay out the bare facts and allow us to make an informed choice. His example shaped me as a teacher.

My students don’t know my political persuasion, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation. For a long time, it felt right to keep that professional distance between us. I work at a school that serves children across four counties, and none of them live in my neighborhood. Pre-pandemic, there was little risk that I’d run into them at the grocery store, let alone somewhere more personal like the doctor’s office or at a restaurant while I was on a date. The orbit of my personal life doesn’t overlap with the professional.

Changing classroom culture

It’s a false structure. If my students cared enough to search me on Twitter, everything I don’t tell them would be laid out in 280-word bulletins: crushing on queer celebrities, sharing threads about abortion rights, candid discussions about mental health and the ways our system deliberately fails us. They’d learn that the Democrats, with a few notable exceptions, don’t lean far left enough to suit me.

Luckily, most teenagers are uninterested in the lives of the lady who is constantly reminding them to either complete their Google Classroom work or wash their hands. But the fact remains that I’m teaching in an entirely different culture than the one I was educated in. The kids know me by my first name. They’ve seen the inside of my apartment during Zoom classes. They ask how my parents’ dog is doing. I’ve known some of them for a third of their lives, and throughout the shutdown and reopening of school, it makes less and less sense to pretend that the boundary between teacher and student is as resolute as it might have been in the past.

Education is a young field. The conventional wisdom that both students and teachers have been conditioned to see as sacrosanct has barely been in place for a century. We are flying by the seats of our pants in a changeable educational paradigm, so we should be taking the mores that shaped the field with an ocean’s worth of salt. Maybe there was a time and place where politics didn’t belong in the classroom, but politicians have been swarming all over my curricula for years, so turnabout seems like fair play.

What they need to know

I have the privilege of working with students whose identities diverge sharply from mine. If I don’t acknowledge their lived experiences and teach from a place of empathy, then I’ve failed before I’ve even opened my mouth. And in a time when anyone with WordPress and a webcam can write something and call it news, a firm stance of neutrality just doesn’t cut it.

The kids don’t need to know who I’m voting for, or who I would vote for in a perfect world. But they do need to know that I’m voting. They need to know that there are people standing in line for hours to cast a ballot, but that voting has never taken longer than 30 minutes in my wealthy white neighborhood. They need to learn that the Taino people had a thriving civilization in the Caribbean long before Columbus pillaged their land. They need to know that white moderates hated Martin Luther King Jr. during his lifetime, in a direct parallel to today’s opposition of the Black Lives Matter movement. They need to know that healthcare and clean water should not be a privilege you purchase at the expense of others. And they need to know that I know all of those things too, that I will not be a part of an authoritarian system that conditions them to accept their lot in life and be grateful whenever it’s not as bad as it could be.

Testing me, proving themselves

I’ve taught the kids to question authority, and that rule applies to me as well. When they don’t like what I say or something feels off to them, they push back. Being contradicted by a teenager may be one of the most annoying feelings in the world, but it’s also the most essential. The more they make me prove myself, the stronger a likelihood that they’ll carry that attitude with them into their adult lives. And they are constantly tuned in. They’ll make an off-the-cuff reference in March about something I taught them in October. If they give me the courtesy of their attention, then I owe them words worth listening to. I can dither on issues of social importance, or I can say “Black Lives Matter,” and teach them about the systemic structures that support white supremacy to this day.

If presenting the facts as they are means that I’m bringing my politics into the classroom, that’s a reality I have to live with. There might have been a time when the ethical thing to do was to keep your personal convictions private, but I’ve spent the better part of my adulthood unlearning toxic lessons that were drilled into me in childhood. Here and now, it seems inevitable that being a paragon of false neutrality is one of them. The kids will follow my lead regardless of where I take them, so I owe it to myself and to them to have the courage of my convictions.

Image description: A view from the desks toward the front of a one-room schoolhouse built in 1855 and preserved for modern visitors. It has wooden desks with wrought-iron legs, a simple wooden teacher’s desk on a small dais, a blackboard with neat chalk writing on it, and an American flag hanging to the side.

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