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Teachers, Tragedies and Politics

June 14, 2016--two days after the Orlando shootings.

I can't remember a more depressing day--in terms of news-watching, opinion-reading and political speech--in years. We seem to have spent the last year in a sickening, increasingly coarse spiral of partisan name-calling and provocation, leaving us unprepared to work together in the face of disaster. Our better natures and will to act seem to be lost in a swamp of dark money and political posturing.

It's times like this that I'm glad not to be in the classroom on a daily basis. It would be hard for any teacher to pretend to be calm, neutral and gracefully able to push the world out of the classroom in favor of the spelling list and converting fractions into decimals. Like all teachers, I've experienced days when the curriculum was--whether you chose it or not--about what was going on in the world, your town or your school.

How should teachers cope with national and local events? Are there times when it's right to sit down with your students and debrief, at their level? I certainly hope so.

The day after the Jim Jones murder-suicides in Guyana springs to mind--although the single residual effect of that horror seems to be the phrase "drank the kool-aid."  That was a hard day to teach, to gently help students process what they had heard or could not comprehend--or deflect questions back to their parents. 

The days after the 2000 election were tricky, too--the best social studies lesson imaginable unfolding on TV every day, but a lot of enmity and uncertainty over the political outcomes. I remember talking about it in the hallway with colleagues--wasn't it crazy? And how to interpret it for students?

And, of course, there was Columbine. The Challenger crash, with classrooms all over America watching. And 9/11--and every new act of terrorism. Not to mention political campaigns.

Teachers also find themselves between the proverbial rock and hard place in political seasons. I am a firm believer in the idea that teachers can and do navigate through the shoals of political warring every election season, modeling the kinds of behaviors we wish all citizens would exhibit: Understanding the issues. Engaging in political discussion. Voting thoughtfully.

The fact that K-12 schools still routinely promote the idea of civic responsibility in a variety of traditional ways--from the fourth grade Presidential balloting to registering 18-year old seniors to vote in the next election--means that educators haven't given up on the idea that representative democracy and free speech still matter. That they're still our best hope for peace and prosperity, as a nation.

But what about this election? Is it incumbent upon teachers to overlook a bully who happens to be running for President, in the name of being politically fair and balanced? What about a man who denounces a faith practiced by your students and their families, makes fun of people with disabilities or demeans children's country of origin?

Even more important--don't teachers have a responsibility to be pro-democracy? To defend and speak up for principles familiar to us all: Justice. Equity.  All that stuff about domestic tranquility and a more perfect union?

Recently, there have been running conversations on social media about this election, about which voices and causes should be elevated as we seek new leadership. Today, the talk has been about just whose fault it is that 49 young citizens were mowed down--how to respond, what action can we take? Every four years, someone says: This is the most important election ever! But this time, for the first time, I think that sentiment might be true. We need leadership, and guidance.

And-- I am wondering if not talking about the importance of government by the people, for the people--because we're afraid of teaching the issues--has led us to this government. A government that poisons, then lies to its citizens, is blind to encroaching environmental collapse, allows dangerous weapons in the hands of unstable people--and is fueled by dark money.  I am wondering if it is cutbacks in social studies and apprehensive teachers that have given us a reality show star who mistakes insults and sound bites for statesmanship, as candidate and admired public figure.

My friend, teacher leader Mary Tedrow remarked, in one of these social media dialogues:

How long would it take to sink into chaos? The recent school wars have effectively silenced teachers into not bringing politics into the classrooms. It's feeling like the perfect storm.


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