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Should Teachers Remain Neutral on Hot Political and Social Issues?

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Politics, Racism, Religion, Classism, Sexual Orientation: Do Teachers Remain Neutral or Share Their Beliefs with Students?” by Rick Wormeli in AMLE Magazine, October 2016 (Vol. 4, #3, p. 37-41),
In this article in AMLE Magazine, author/consultant Rick Wormeli bemoans the “divisive, no-compromise rhetoric among political parties, the distrust among people of color and police officers, and the ugly, online vitriol against others spewed daily on social media… Each week’s news reconfirms our worst fears that we’re not the society we thought we were.” Wormeli asks, “How do we help students find hope for themselves in such a world? We need to build compassionate character, civil discourse, respect for diverse opinions, and courageous action in students as never before.”
Issues like evolution, climate change, racism, LGBTQ, and the current presidential campaign are tricky territory for teachers. It’s tempting to share our views – “Being purely neutral on racism, sexism, religious persecution, bullying, and the leadership of our country comes across as inert and impotent, and we are neither,” says Wormeli. But educators are authority figures and schooling is compulsory, so parents at all points on the political spectrum are right be concerned about undue influence on their children – especially in the middle grades, when young people often experiment with different values, beliefs, and personas.
“Sometimes middle-level students try to one-up themselves in small groups with racially, sexist, or culturally insensitive put-downs,” says Wormeli. “Though they would be horrified to learn the level of hurt these jokes create in their subjects of derision, they don’t perceive it as harmful enough to stop telling the jokes or hanging out with these particular friends. Correcting what’s wrong and standing up for what’s right are still fragile acts.”
The teacher’s or administrator’s dilemma is when to impose our own philosophy and values. If a student makes a strident comment about Muslims or the Iraq war, asks Wormeli, “Do we jump in and declare what is right and wrong? Do we allow students to know our political, religious, cultural stance? Do we remain neutral in all things because we are guiding sages and/or public employees? Or, do we have an obligation to demonstrate for students how to have a strong opinion and act upon it constructively yet remain civil with cynics of that philosophy?… How do we demonstrate for students how to believe in something politically, religiously, and culturally, yet also respect students and their families whose beliefs are diametrically different from our own?"
Here’s one approach suggested by Minnesota middle-school educator Kim Campbell when confronted by a racist comment in class: “Wow, that comment does not feel kind to me. Can you help me better understand what you meant or were thinking?” Reflecting on the current political scene, Campbell says: “I work very hard at not bringing my bias into the conversation… Let’s just say it has never been tested like it has been with this election. When you have a diverse classroom, as I do, it is important that I try as hard as I can to hear both sides of whatever issue we are discussing.”
Campbell has tried to create an environment in which students feel safe sharing what they are really thinking. One technique is to have students respond anonymously to prompts; then the teacher reads some of them aloud so students hear multiple perspectives, and the class moves into a Socratic discussion. It’s also a good idea to draw Venn diagrams or pro/con charts and get students writing short essays from a point of view other than their own. A starting point might be, “I hear what you are saying, but you realize not everyone agrees with you. Let’s explore the counter-arguments to your position.” The key is disagreeing in a civil way, with the teacher insisting on fairness, respect, and kindness.
Another key objective is developing students’ consumer savvy about the media. Wormeli quotes teacher/author Debbie Silver: “It’s possible to teach about biased reporting, inaccurate statistics, and fact-checking without taking a stand on issues, and we should definitely do that. Our job is not to teach kids what to think but rather how to think!” Students also need to understand where opinions come from – family, media, friends, hearsay, personal knowledge, websites, speeches, tweets, YouTube, talk shows, news outlets, magazines – and how to respond when things get heated. Such discussions are teachable moments not only for discussion skills and critical thinking but also historical and civics content. A class might agree that certain words will not be used: Racist, stupid, hater. A helpful comment is, “I’m just trying to understand your thinking…” Wormeli recommends as “the number one place to start with great middle-level resources and online role-playing games that teach the kind of healthy, informed conversations we want to have in school.”
While understanding the importance of respecting diverse points of view, Wormeli believes that “young adolescents are desperate for models on how to stand up to unfairness, bullying, racism, violence, and religious intolerance. They also want clarity on how to disagree with friends, family, and strangers with civility instead of violence. They want to participate successfully in their local communities, yet sometimes the only models of doing so are parents yelling at their sports coaches, personal attacks among adults at school board meetings, or the barrage of YouTube clips of media pundits and politicians talking over each other… Young adolescents are looking to their parents, teachers, and coaches for evidence that the world is fair and people are compassionate.” Often schools are left to answer this plea, sometimes in explicit discussion of the issues, sometimes through literature that shines a light on the human drama.

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