“Walking a fine line”: Politics in the Classroom

Kolby Tanner, a senior at U-32, recalls an incident he witnessed earlier this year: “We watched a video on Donald Trump,” he starts. “The teacher just kind of laughed and made jokes… kind of making a mockery of him (Trump)… The class just kind of listened to what they had to say.”

Kolby’s experience is one of many instances where teachers have shared their personal political views with their class, an issue that some would argue raises legitimate fears about the integrity of our educational environment, and affects student learning in ways that are still unclear.

“I’ve definitely heard stories from students of mine about teachers that share their viewpoints,” says Christiana Martin, a social studies teacher at U-32. “I’m like, ‘Really? They told you that?’ I’m always kind of surprised.” Christiana’s surprise is a product of the extensive discussions she says the social studies department has had on this issue.

“It’s not okay with me,” says Martin. “I kind of thought that was a thing that all teachers agreed to when they started teaching–that you’ve got to be careful what you say around young people… I would never put a bumper sticker on my car,” she says. “I’m in a community of students.”

But to Christiana, it’s about more than an abstract unspoken agreement. “It would not produce very good discussions,” she explains. “I feel like it would make people feel uncomfortable.”

There is a philosophical aspect to her stance as well. “The idea of teaching is to inspire young minds, and a teenage brain doesn’t need to hear that the people who are in positions of authority above them have already decided maybe what they should think and what they should do.”

Jaiden Bonanno, a sophomore at U-32, recalls an incident at Montpelier Middle School in which a teacher pushed her and her classmates toward a politically biased conclusion.

“He just kept bringing it up,” she says about her teacher’s comments regarding Trump’s popularity. “It seemed like he had a very clear point of view.”

A junior, Jackson Flinn’s account echoes Jaiden’s. “[They] showed slight disgust after the pro-gun walkout,” Jackson says, describing one of his teachers. “[Their] tone of voice when talking about it seemed like it didn’t matter at all… kind of uncomfortable with the fact that people were pro-gun… It definitely made everyone more tense.”

Jackson takes a much more cynical angle on the culture of U-32, seeing the whole thing as a sort of hypocrisy. “At this school, in particular, they talk about wanting to be able to have a safe space to express your viewpoints and I feel like most teachers have the understanding that only kids with the same viewpoints should have that safe space.”

Jackson believes the sense of alienation this creates for many students is harmful. “It definitely makes some kids that don’t have the same viewpoint uncomfortable and probably hesitant to share their opinions.”

Teachers see the risk for alienation too. Nick Holquist, an English teacher at U-32 says, “One fear would be to make people that feel differently feel like their thoughts are not valued, and that somehow they’re not respected for their thinking.”

At the end of the day, teachers are not required to censor themselves. Their differing ideas will create a different environment in every classroom.

“There are some times when a student just wants to know what you think,” Holquist says, “but at the same time you’re walking a fine line.”