In “Politics,” a work of political philosophy, Aristotle said that man is a “political animal,” indicating that humans derive their identity and character from being involved in their communities. (The word “politics” comes from the word for a Greek city state, “polis.”) This story is the first in a series of four covering political issues in the classroom. The quotes accompanying the story are from high school students who remember doing the Four Corners activity in eighth grade with U.S. history teacher Chris Kuipers.
In today’s political landscape, it’s no surprise that conflicting viewpoints and opinions travel from Twitter, Snapchat and other online sources to the classroom.
But how much do teachers weigh in?
Hopefully, not at all, according to head of school Lee Thomsen. Though it is not explicitly stated in the school’s “Employee Handbook,” teachers’ political views should be kept out of the classroom, Thomsen said.
Thomsen said he discussed the issue of personal politics in the classroom in a meeting with faculty around the time of the 2016 presidential election and sent out an email earlier this school year as a reminder.
“It’s a challenging time in our country right now, (but) we are expected to rise above the national level of discourse,” he said.
The handbook states under the “Professional Conduct” section that “the school expects that all employees will comport themselves consistently with the school’s mission and purpose.”
“If you’re living by the mission of the school and its respect for diversity of thought, opinion, race (and) gender, the political piece is part of that,” Thomsen said.
“It’s incumbent on (faculty) to be aware of their personal biases and to avoid (discussing) them.
“We value diversity, (and) we value equal respect for difference of ideas. But we shouldn’t bring personal politics into the classroom.”
History teacher Sue Nellis, who teaches AP U.S. History to juniors, said that despite enjoying political discussions, she agrees with Thomsen.
“I have very strong opinions about (some topics), and I don’t share them with students, mostly because I know that teachers can be very influential,” she said.
“I don’t want to color somebody’s opinion just because they think I have the right opinion. I want them to be able to think for themselves.”
Chris Kuipers, middle and high school history teacher, added that it doesn’t matter what beliefs students have grown up with – he wants them to think critically to understand their personal opinions.
“For a lot of them, that seventh or eighth grade year is the first time they might be questioning the beliefs that their parents have or things they’ve always assumed,” he said.
To encourage independent thinking, Kuipers asks his students to complete an online political spectrum questionnaire (https://www.isidewith.com/elections/2016-presidential-quiz) that asks questions such as “What is your stance on abortion?” and “Should the U.S. assassinate suspected terrorists in foreign countries?” with only “Yes,” “No” or “Other stances” as answers.
Kuipers also discusses current issues or issues the class is studying using the Four Corners activity. The four corners of his classroom are labeled “Strongly Agree,” “Agree,” “Disagree” or “Strongly Disagree,” and students must pick one of the four stances in response to a statement such as “The American colonists were justified in declaring independence against the British.” Kuipers moderates while students cast their votes on each statement.
“There’s no middle ground, so even the quiet kids have to pick a corner,” Kuipers said.
In addition, Kuipers’s class studied the presidential candidates closely during the 2016 election.
But Kuipers said he tries hard to keep his own opinions out of the equation.
“I tell my students that in a lot of (our) discussions, I play the role of devil’s advocate,” he said.
“I push kids, whether they’re espousing liberal or conservative viewpoints, to think about the reasons why they have those viewpoints.”
He added that some of his students could figure out where his political views lie as a result of the questions he asks during these discussions, but he tries “not to be explicit about it in fear of stifling a debate or conversation.”
“I’m cognizant that I carry a lot of authority,” he said.
Nellis added that with “so many strong opinions and disagreements going on right now, it becomes very difficult to talk to one another.”
“Things are just so divisive that (the classroom) could become an unhealthy and negative environment,” she said.
“Somebody mentioned President (Donald) Trump’s name the other day, and it was in a (bit of) a snarky way, so I just cut that off. There are going to be some people who believe (in) and support what the president is doing, and I don’t want those people – who tend to be in the minority – ganged up on so that they feel they can’t speak.”
Nellis also said that the 2016 presidential election gave rise to discussions of particularly strong opinions.
“I could begin to see that if we started talking about (the election), (it) would get very emotional,” Nellis said.
This year, Nellis has told her students that she does not want to get into political debates about current politics in class.
“If (students) want to talk about political discourse outside, that’s certainly their prerogative,” she said. “But I don’t want the class to be derailed. If we’re going to talk about it in my classroom, I want it to be civil.”
Instead, Nellis wants to focus on policy issues – immigration, the military or the environment – from a historical perspective and discuss how we have handled similar situations in the past.
For example, the junior AP U.S. History class discussed immigration while studying the Gilded Age, the period in American history following the Civil War and Reconstruction (late 1860s to 1896). While the U.S. population and economy was growing quickly, political corruption was rampant, Nellis said.
American nativist groups at the time were concerned with immigration policies because they claimed immigrants were stealing their jobs, Nellis said, though immigrants were hired because they demanded lower wages than Americans.
“This issue (of immigration) seems to rise when the economy is (in a downfall),” Nellis said. “We talked in class about having the same kind of concerns today, even though the economy is currently good. We’ve needed an updated immigration policy for a long time.”
But despite Nellis’s policies on political discourse, Thomsen pointed out that some teachers may have not planned for the event of an inflammatory comment in the classroom.
“Teachers make their best effort (at that time but) then (might later) think, ‘If I had an opportunity to prepare for that, I might have done it differently,” Thomsen said. “That’s what makes it hard.”
Kuipers, however, said that if (his class) is “in the moment,” he will continue a discussion stemming from a provocative comment.
“I turn the lens on the kid and try to dig a little bit deeper and find out why they think that – whether it’s an authentic belief,” he said. “A lot of times I think middle schoolers just say things for the effect, (and) they pretty soon backpedal.
“(What is important) is finding that discussion and (asking) where we draw the lines,” Kuipers said.
“If we’re discussing immigration, the hard-liner (says) ‘No, we can’t have any immigration; we’re full. Let’s build a wall,’” he said. “But then I present other cases like the El Salvadoreans, (whose country is) embroiled in civil war, or the Dreamers.
“Or the bleeding heart will advocate open borders and that we shouldn’t track anyone who comes into the country, and I ask if they’re fine with people coming in from war-torn countries without any oversight. It makes them pause.”
A teacher’s power in the classroom could also lead to politics impacting personal relationships, Thomsen said.
“As the adult in the room, (the teacher) is going to carry authority (and may) create a situation where a student says, ‘Well, maybe I disagree with Mrs. X on this (issue). Is that going to damage my grade in the class?’” Thomsen said.
“As a teacher, regardless of your personal beliefs, your responsibility is to create a judgment-free zone where anyone can be represented and heard fairly and equally.”
Thomsen said the Country Day community strives to “create an atmosphere where anyone, regardless of their political beliefs, will feel safe.”
—By Sahej Claire