By Jonathan Lancaster
In every facet, education is political. The outcomes of elections determine your school board’s policies, your school district’s budget, who becomes your superintendent, your content standards, your health care contributions, your time off—even your daily Pledge of Allegiance is dictated by politics. By its very nature of being a public institution, public education is political. It is vital for educators to understand the influence of politics—not just in education, but throughout our nation and globally—and, therefore, the need for discussing politics in the classroom.
In the current polarized political climate, educators are beginning to eschew political matters in class. It’s a daunting task, and the fear of student or parent complaints, accusations of bias, and impassioned students regurgitating conspiracy theories are real threats in the current political climate. However, the recent messaging from parents and administrators of “keep politics out of the classroom” is misguided and harmful to our democracy.
It is not an educator’s role to dictate political beliefs; however, it is their role to create opportunities where students can form their own. As educators, we are largely responsible for the development of critical thinking, interpersonal, and communicative skills that are missing from contemporary political discourse. Many educators abhor what they see in Washington D.C, and for substantial reasons. However, as educators, we must realize that our schools are perhaps the strongest venue for depolarization within our political system.
While extreme political positions aren’t necessarily a bad thing, the casting of false characterizations of the “other’s” political affiliation is. Students are swarmed with ideological demagoguery from across the political spectrum, but without a setting in which to communicate with those who hold opposing views, the harmful political polarization is bound to continue.
This is to suggest that educators, especially those in the humanities, mustn’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations. Topics of policy, race, LBGTQ+ topics, and more must be discussed in our public schools. While educators certainly need to treat these topics with the sensitivity and consideration they deserve—through properly integrating them into existing curricula, following district guidelines, and seeking support when needed—these topics are much too important to neglect or exclude. If these issues are not thoroughly discussed in class, students will be unable to critically think about these extremely important issues, communicate with those who hold other views, or feel empathy for the “other” side.
While I don’t condone teachers “preaching” to students about political views, teachers must model constructive conversations around uncomfortable topics, and steer the conversation into evidence-based, respectful discourse. If we don’t, the age of show-business politics, sensationalism, and political provocation will become the norm.
Tomorrow’s policies are created by today’s students. Let’s prepare our students by ensuring that politics stays in the classroom.
Jonathan Lancaster is a local association leader in Bergen County Vocational Technical Schools Education Association, where he serves as Legislative Action Team chair, early-career liaison, webmaster, and parliamentarian. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Readers of the column may wish to go to njea.org to read “STAT – Students Taking Action Together: Using Social-Emotional Competencies to Build Civility and Civic Discourse,” which appeared in the November 2019 NJEA Review.
STAT is a project of Rutgers’ Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab. It is an instructional strategy used with schools’ existing content that builds students’ social-emotional learning (SEL) skills in empathy, perspective-taking, emotion regulation, problem-solving, and respectful, effective communication.
STAT helps students analyze social issues—including historical and current events, and community and school issues, as well as those in literature—and formulate action plans in response to them.
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