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Eh, Political

Today is my birthday. I'm giving myself a day of relaxation--I've been working hard all week, keeping up with the political splatfest on TV and Twitter, from empty chairs to shopping for milk. Here's a reworked column I wrote in September of 2008. Guess what? Not much has changed.

I wish I had a stock certificate for every time I've heard a teacher exclaim "I'm not very political, but..." Or maybe I'd rather have a dollar, cash money in the cookie jar, given the times--but the point stands: teachers, individually, are caught between a rock and a murky place when it comes to politics.

When teachers say they aren't political, what they usually mean is partisan. Or some variant of dogmatic, intolerant or aggressively and publicly involved. Teaching is an inherently political occupation, however.

The daily work, from kindergarten to Chemistry class, is built on authority, rules, governance structures, practical policy and diplomacy, the key words in any definition of politics. Systematic decision-making in schools and educational policy is always driven by political forces--and those of us who teach in public schools understand the intersection of public policy-making and funding with workplace conditions better than most people.

Teachers should be political. First, as role models and public employees, teachers have a moral obligation to be well-informed citizens who engage in civic learning and responsibility. In other words, they ought to read the news and regularly cast informed ballots. And think, occasionally, about the place of education in a country founded on principles of democratic equality.

The thing about staying on top of current events, engaging in dialogue and reflection, is that it's easy to develop, you know, opinions. To examine and choose between certain policy ideas, political story lines, and politicians. That's when teachers' other moral duty--the murky place--comes into play. While teachers have an obligation to be knowledgeable, they need to keep their personal beliefs out of the classroom, to walk a careful tightrope between information and perspective.

In a sense, in keeping the public trust, teachers temporarily modify their right to free speech. The hard part for teachers is the fact that other powerful forces--television talking heads, advertising money, pop culture--have no such constraints. Does the teacher who strips ethical viewpoints out of her lessons leave her students vulnerable to glitzy or dishonest political propaganda? How do we teach our kids to be discerning and wary while encouraging them to care about the democratic process--and remain politically neutral?

Some educators respond by becoming "not very political"--removing not only overt beliefs from their public personae, but disengaging from all political conversations and controversies. Others keep their personal politics under wraps at school, but feel free--as they should--to support candidates and initiatives on their own time.

It's a difficult line to draw, however. I lived, for 20 years, in the school district where I taught. My students lived in the houses next door and across the street. Was it OK for me to post a political sign in my front yard, or on my bumper? I also attend church with some of my students' families. Can I speak up for my beliefs there? I'm a citizen, too.

And-- is there ever a time when events supersede neutrality? I believe that American teachers did a sterling job on September 11, 2001, with no template for appropriate behavior, but there are those who think that teachers have interpreted the transformative events of that day in "unpatriotic" ways. During the Electoral College Showdown, Election 2000, the American history teachers in my middle school were directed not to discuss hanging chads or the Supreme Court decision, ostensibly because it could cause them to lose their place in the curriculum. Kids might not be prepared for the statewide assessments. Translation: please don't let the principal get any phone calls from angry parents.

The point is: while adults are watching history made, on TV, kids are watching adults. Everyone is watching manipulative political ads right now. Our children and teenagers--we want them to be politically engaged eventually, don't we?--are watching another undeniably historic election, another interpretation of a "failing" economy and "failing" public education, at this moment.

When teachers say nothing about these events, what does that tell children? That school is not the place to learn about civic discourse, deconstruct advertising claims or even clearly define "democracy?" Do teachers have more influence over their students than their families, friends and the media?

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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