Is it OK to hate the president? Yes. Is it OK to hate the president from the front of the classroom? That’s harder.
As teachers who dislike Trump, we’ve had the summer free to openly hate the president with nearly everyone we saw. We hated him from boats and during long weekday lunches. We hated him with friends we hadn’t seen in months and online in places we usually don’t talk about politics. We hated him, but we hated him for us, as us.
But, any day now, we’ll be standing in front of students, new students, students who spent the summer hearing god-knows-what about Trump and the world exclusively through memes and Snapchat, and they will be curious about how you feel about it. The wrong time to think about how to answer is in the moments right after the question is asked.
Is it OK to hate the president from the front of the classroom? The Twitter activist in me wants to say yes, undoubtedly yes. He is not normal, his message isn’t normal, his message does damage. Students need to know you stand on the side of women, of immigrants, of decency, of truth-telling, of democracy, of humanity. You must denounce this angry man who keeps saying and doing awful things. To many of your students, to the students who probably most need you, your silence would be violence.
But it’s not that easy. I don’t like telling my students what to think, but I also want them to know I see them. I know the importance of meaningful discussion, but have also seen “spirited debate” turn into attacking the kid who doesn’t think the right thing.
Ok, so what are our options?
Option One: Preach
“What do I think? Well, I think 45 is human garbage, is an embarrassment, is a racist country’s racist-ass reaction to the success of a Black man as president. We are the resistance!”
Pros: There will almost certainly be students who will feel safer and more accepted in your room if they hear this, especially if you’re White. The people on TV, social media, and the Oval-freaking-Office who are spouting racist, transphobic, Islamophobic nonsense look enough like you that there are some positives to clearing up that you are not, in fact, cool with them.
Cons: There will likely be students who feel less safe and less accepted in your room if they hear this. You may have some Trump supporters in your class, or students whose nearest and dearest family members are. These are students who have likely been warned about those brainwashing liberal nut-job teachers at the school and what they’re trying to do to you. So, you will confirm that stuff, like, instantly.
Also, and, again, especially if you’re a White person, there will likely be students of color that are not super interested in being taught about racism by you. They likely have experiences with plenty of teachers who went to one half-day equity training and came back to the classroom with a whole bunch of problematic nonsense. Plus, you know, there’s something to be said about school not being for you.
Option Two: Facilitate
“You know, what I believe is a lot less important than what you do. I’d like my room to be a safe space for everyone to share their own thoughts, and have found that works best if I don’t make it about me.”
Pros: One of the best teachers I ever had was Mr. Rupnow, who I had for Advanced Placement U.S. history and economics. Two full years of talking about how our country was formed and how it worked now, and on the very last day of those two years, his students were still debating at lunch and the hallways whether he was a full-blown socialist or libertarian or a Goldwater Republican or social progressive (all terms we only knew about because of him anyway). We talked about politics and history constantly in his class, but other than giving us the tools to do so critically and openly, he did little more than point at whoever got to talk next and look like we were making him think.
Cons: If you aren’t willing to share your beliefs about the ban, the wall, the tweets, students are going to wonder why. This can read too much like silence to some students, and like, “Eh, I like Trump but don’t want to get into that here,” to others. I had Mr. Rupnow during the Clinton years, when even the Democrats wanted to be Reagan. Things were big and important, but people could sit in rooms with people who disagreed with them. I’m not sure what Mr. Rupnow would do now, but I’m not sure that anyone gets to step completely in or out of this conversation without consequences.
Option Three: Non-Options
“I’m a good teacher who recognizes that my students are actual humans in the real
world, so I wouldn’t do any of these things.”
Silence/Shut It Down: Just not an option. Look, even if your kids come in quiet at first about this, something is going to happen. I don’t know what it is yet, but I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that the most ridiculous thing that is going to happen during the administration hasn’t happened yet. Your students will come in the next day, and if you don’t address their concerns, their experiences and feelings, you won’t be doing your job.
I know there is always a chorus of people saying, “Just focus on reading and math and leave the politics at the door.” I swear to you these people do not understand how teaching works. We cannot be effective in teaching students, all students, if we don’t address the world we live in with them. Trying to push these issues out of your room is like pushing pieces of your students out. We do it too often without trying, and definitely shouldn’t be doing it consciously.
Devil’s Advocate: Ugh. Gross. Although it can be helpful from the front of the room to try to represent arguments that aren’t being made to model the importance of critical thinking, this is often not that. I hate the devil’s advocate thing, and have a whole section of my book dedicated to hating it, so I won’t go too far into that just now. Just know this: Intentionally getting kids angry by attacking or questioning their humanity is not a good excuse for “lively conversation,” and “playing devil’s advocate” is not a good excuse for being an asshole.
As with most things in teaching, there isn’t a right or wrong answer to the question. You need to know your students, your school and yourself. Each room has different dynamics that need to be addressed, but I have to admit that I’m really struggling with this one right now. Teachers, what are your plans for talking Trump in school? Parents, families, community members, what would you like to see happen?