Politics, Racism, Religious, Classism, Sexual Orientation: Do Teachers Remain Neutral or Share their Beliefs with Students?
I struggle to respect the opinions of those who believe the earth is only 6,000 years old and dismiss evolution as having no factual basis. I am sad for the irrational nature of their thinking and the missed opportunities their closed minds will never explore, and I’m angry at the efforts of some in their midst who thrust such thinking upon the next generation of young children. Do I mention any of these concerns to students, however, as their life science teacher? No, but how do I respond honestly to their sincere question during class, “Yeah, but Mr. Wormeli, what do you believe?”
The Evolution vs. Intelligent Design/Creationism controversy is tepid compared to the heated and sometimes violent assaults on civility in today’s national and international confrontations over race, culture, sexuality, religion, and politics. The divisive, no compromise rhetoric among political parties, the distrust between people of color and police officers, and the ugly, on-line vitriol against others spewed daily on social media are among the more significant catalysts of cultural global warming. Each week’s news reconfirms our worst fears that we’re not the society we thought we were. 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. Teachers are authority figures and schooling is compulsory in the United States, however. These two elements throw unique pressures on our endeavor: Some parents fear that their children will be easily persuaded, i.e. indoctrinated, by the adults training their children in mandatory schooling, and if they disagree with those adults politically or culturally, they have very limited recourse. When President Obama announced that he would address students in a nationwide speech at the start of the school year, many families were upset, removing students from school that day so they wouldn’t be indoctrinated by a suspicious leader who might or might not be a Muslim/American/black. Conservatives fear the over-reach of Liberals, and vice-versa. Gay marriage proponents don’t want their children’s teachers suggesting that Joey’s two dads are in an unnatural, immoral relationship.
In the midst of these worries, middle level students are often “trying on” the ideas of others. They hear someone’s philosophy, incorporate it into their own persona, then watch the reactions of others as they express it, dropping it when it doesn’t work, adopting it when it does. Last night’s parent lament about the unemployed being lazy and living off taxpayers’ money is today’s lunchtime insult, “Why don’t you tell your dad to get a job and stop being so lazy?” Classmates turn to the insulter in surprise and disdain, and the insulter is suddenly on shaky ground: “What? What’s wrong with saying that?”
Here, peers imposed positive societal norms on a classmate, showing displeasure at insensitive remarks, but this isn’t what always happens. Sometimes middle level students try to one-up themselves in small groups with racially, sexist, or culturally insensitive put-downs. 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 for what’s right are still fragile acts. Gosh, even for adults, our responses to such insensitivities are often imperfect.
There are times when we need to step in and provide students with tools for successfully navigating and occasionally confronting biases and vitriol. Sometimes, too, the offense is so heinous or illegal, we have to confront the issues ourselves. That balance, though, of when to impose our own philosophy and values upon our students and when to remain neutral and let them hold their own opinions can be difficult. 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?
What do we do if a student comes into class espousing racist comments about Muslims or makes disparaging comments about our military because his family disagrees with a particular war effort, or the reverse: His family is super supportive of the war effort and he belittles those who disagree with it? 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?
Remaining Neutral While Building Critical Thinking Tools
Racism is illegal in school and in the community. Deciding whether or not to intervene when students are racist toward one another is a no brainer—We do. What that intervention looks like, however, is another matter. Declaring from our position of authority not to say and think racist things isn’t going to change much in students. Guiding them toward more respectful and inclusive thinking is the better way to go. Kim Campbell, Dean of Students and Global Studies teacher at Hopkins West Junior High in Minnetonka, MN, offers some initial responses to racist comments from middle level students*:
“All racially charged comments need to be addressed immediately: ‘Wow, that comment does not feel kind to me. Can you help me better understand what you meant or were thinking?’ Educators cannot ignore the rhetoric that our kids are picking up from perceived role models. We must instead calmly address it and ask for them to defend their answer.”
*All quotes from contributors were part of an e-mail conversation conducted on August 7th and 8th, 2016 and are used with permission of the authors.
Campbell feels the pressure to handle this thoughtfully during the current, contentious political cycle, and that includes building enough trust in the classroom that students feel safe sharing their thinking:
“I work very hard at not bringing my bias into the conversation … let’s just say it has never been tested like it has 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. My plan this year, as with any year, is to begin by creating an environment in which my students feel safe sharing what they are really thinking. I do this by doing a lot of community and trust-building activities. I also start with very safe, easy questions: “Would you rather … or …?” questions in which they have to defend their answers. I also do writing prompts on topics that are written anonymously and then I read some of them out loud so kids can hear multiple perspectives from their peers. Technology also lends itself to do instant surveys, etc. We then move into Socratic discussions.”
Vehement opposition to one political candidate or discussing whether or not adults should vote for a local school funding bond referendum, however, can get tricky in many communities. Biases, misperceptions, and propaganda are revealed, and students may not have the tools to handle them constructively. Award-winning teacher turned author and presenter, Debbie Silver, sees the role of teachers as providing students with the critical thinking tools necessary for respectful dialog:
“It is extremely important that educators teach, model, and encourage students to be respectful of one another and one another’s views. I think demonstrating respectful debate techniques, modeling Venn Diagrams and pro/con charts, as well as asking students to write an essay from an opposing view are excellent techniques for equipping students to open their minds …. It is fine to say, ‘I hear what you are saying, but you realize not everyone agrees with you. Let’s explore the counter arguments to your position.’ We should do that whether we agree with what the students believe or not. It is important to teach them how to ‘agree to disagree’ and still respect their fellow human beings.”
Silver thinks teaching students to develop an intelligent consumer savvy regarding the media is important, too, but we need to do it without “brainwashing” students:
“It is 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!! Passion for issues can be illustrated through literature and movies, but we must be careful to present a balanced view. I believe we need to promote peaceful dissension and uphold American values such as freedom of religion, speech, and other rights that are guaranteed in the Constitution.”
Author, presenter, and Middle Level advocate, Jack Berckemeyer is mindful of what the middle school can provide students who are uncertain about their changing beliefs:
“It is best and safe to stay neutral … Our goal is to provide a safe learning experience so thoughts and expressions can be shared in a safe atmosphere. I remember what Dr. Betty Dore taught me: Sometimes we may not get to total acceptance concerning a tough issue. Yet, getting to the awareness level might be a step in the right direction.”
He also advocates for teachers helping students learn how opinions begin, and how to self-regulate when confronted with opinions they find repugnant:
“Teach young adolescents where opinions come from: family, media, friends, facts, hearsay, personal knowledge, websites, speeches, tweets, Youtube, talk shows, news outlets, or magazines. There is a lesson here about how emotions, gut feelings and propaganda can lead to conflicts, disgust, and even outrage. Middle school students need to learn how to respond when things get tense or filled with conflict. Create a list of words and phrases that cannot be used when discussing tough issues, phrases like: You’re stupid, That is dumb, You are a racist, You are a hater.”
Former middle level principal now education consultant and facilitator, Chris Toy, agrees with Berckemeyer’s emphasis on neutrality and providing tools of critical thinking, but he says that context matters:
“If one is in the classroom these kinds of issues can be used as opportunities for teaching content, skills, process, and school culture. The content of history, current events, mathematics, data analysis, research skills, critical thinking, debate, respectful disagreement, and many more. As the teacher, our personal stand is the least important and our role as facilitator insisting on process, fairness, respect, even kindness, is more important. I know when facilitating grad students in school law it is better that they never really know what I believe, they know they better know all perspectives when they engage one another in court. It isn’t until we are done with class and in a social setting that I respond to ‘What do you really believe?'”
A Different Approach
Dean of the Middle School at Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Greenfield, MA, and member of the Board of Directors for the New England League of Middle Schools, Bill Ivey, has a different approach. He reveals to his students his adult, behind-the-scenes thinking when wrestling with these issues. He models the positive social activism and respect for differences he hopes to build in students:
“I tell [students] I look at all candidates (not just Democrat and Republican) running for a given seat, and select the one I think will do the best job of promoting the ideals in which I believe …. Last year, the kids were discussing the Focus Question ‘How does race affect your life?’ which one student had selected for individual research, and one of them turned to me and asked me what I thought. I said I believed my life has been shaped by White privilege, that I am anti-racist, that I believe that one must act deliberately if one is to fight racism, and that I keep learning new things that help me realize where I’ve been messing up and where I can do a better job. The kids also know I’m a feminist (more precisely a gender activist) … They know we can and do talk and learn about the full spectrum of gender and sexuality in my classroom. They also know my own gender expression is deliberately non-conforming, and that this is connected to my gender activism.”
Ivey respects students’ emergent thinking, but will step in when he thinks it might help:
“I tell them that we are each entitled to our own beliefs and to respect. If someone presents a belief as fact, and a student doesn’t engage with that, I might jump in at that point, but in general, I try and sit by and listen as long as the kids are sharing and explaining perspectives … I’ve had students who do not believe in evolution, or who believe being LGBT is a sin, or don’t believe white privilege exists. However, the kids have been pretty willing to stick to statements like, ‘I’m just trying to understand your thinking.’ rather than openly challenging. Sometimes, if a kid is strongly outnumbered and struggling for words, I might jump in and say something like ‘I’m not going to speak for (kid), but I do know that many people who do not believe in evolution give reasons like …’
Ivey’s urgency with social justice and providing a safe place for students to sort their thinking is echoed in Kim Campbell’s thinking, too:
“Teachers cannot back away from this topic … the greatest gift we can give our kids is a safe place to talk about what they think … our children are not immune from what is happening around them and middle school students in particular need a place to say and express their thoughts, confusion, and questions in an environment that embraces diverse thinking. Kids know I’ll come down on the side of respect, and that’s an ideal they want to live up to anyway. We keep the focus on expressing, understanding, and revising as one might choose, a wide array of thoughts, beliefs, and perspectives.”
Susan Santone, Executive Director of Creative Change Educational Solutions in Michigan has a particularly helpful article, “Writing a New Story of Equity in Education,” on how to build a safe place and skill set for these conversations for both teachers and students at http://corwin-connect.com/2016/08/6784. It’s highly recommended. In addition, I have an article with practical tips on how to conduct candid conversations on racism in schools in the November 2016 issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine. The Teaching Tolerance materials via the Southern Poverty Law Center are also helpful and can be found at http://www.tolerance.org/publication/chapter-1-civil-discourse-classroom-and-beyond. Civil debate materials for peaceful resolutions of argument are found at https://speechanddebate.org, the National Institute for Civil Discourse (http://nicd.arizona.edu, and at http://www.projectcivildiscourse.org/resources/recommended-reading. Of course, www.iCivics.org is the number one place to start with great middle level resources and on-line role-playing games that teach the kind of healthy, informed conversations we want to have in school.
Students are Looking for Models for How to Respond with Civility
While I understand the importance of remaining neutral for middle level students so as to respect diverse beliefs and not to indoctrinate malleable human beings into one way of thinking, I think 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 their 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. In an already insecure time of their lives, they wonder if they will be rejected for wearing a hijab, eating only Kosher foods, for their two, mixed race moms, or for their low income housing, and whether or not they will be strong enough to stand up for what’s right when needed.
Young adolescents are looking to their parents, teachers, and coaches for evidence that the world is fair and people are compassionate. To deflect their sincere concerns with societal challenges with, ”That’s a topic better discussed with your parents,” no longer serves, if it ever did. Some parents have abdicated their roles to instill positive behaviors and tools for ethical thinking in their children, and schools are left to do the job. Many parents appreciate teachers who are willing to engage with students in serious matters such as these respectfully.
There’s room here for a teacher to indicate her true beliefs from time to time, but declare it as one perspective among many and to invite other perspectives to be shared. More important, though, she can reveal how she arrived at her conclusions and how she still respects and works caringly with those whose opinions differ from her own. Responding to a middle school student’s serious inquiry about our own journey with these challenges does not equate to political or cultural indoctrination. It may be more appropriate to do it individually, though, as not all students are ready to engage in the conversation, nor is it a part of the course curriculum in most classes.
As we watch political rhetoric heat to unseen levels, despondent individuals turn to murder to enact revenge, and us-versus-them wedges splitting previously peaceful communities, we can and should act. We can do it in ways that honor students’ diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and choices without enforcing our philosophies upon them. As an English or Social Studies teacher, for example, we can choose fiction and non-fiction literature for study that is particularly thoughtful in its presentation of these issues, and use it as a launching pad for class discussions. The last thing we want to do, though, is avoid all discussion of these concerns, or limit literature study to materials devoid of these conflicts. Students would be left adrift in strong, negative currents with no practical or ethical navigation back to shore.
We can focus portions of lessons on empathy-building and self-regulations skills, and we can manifest those practices in daily interactions:
- Kelly, what was the phrase in Charlie’s statement that created such a personal response from you?
- Tariq, do you feel like you know how everyone of your culture and skin color feels and thinks about this issue? If not, why are you assuming that Iowain’s comments represent everyone of his culture and skin color? Could there be difference of opinions within the same culture due to different life experiences?
- Alan, would it be appropriate to describe the event as, “A violent Presbyterian set off a bomb,” and if not, is there concern when we declare, “A violent Muslim set off the bomb?”
- Class, whose voice isn’t heard in these conversations, and does their absence limit what we can do to solve this problem?
- What does this policy mean for women? For men? For those in wheelchairs? For those with learning disabilities?
- What stereotype is most commonly associated with you and how can we counteract that?
- How are we shaped by the cultural media we watch?
- Receiving critique/feedback can make us vulnerable to others, so how can we phrase it in such a way that it doesn’t make people feel like they need to save their honor?
When students ask us for our own opinion, we can invite them to ask their parents and religious leaders the same questions as Berckemeyer recommends, but when they have done so and shared those responses with us, we can share our own opinions. We can do it without diatribes trying to convince the student of the righteousness of our thinking over others, of course, but it’s still a clear statement of our belief:
- I vote for the Democratic party platform most often because it reflects my personal beliefs about the role of government in a healthy society, Albee, but in some elections I’ve voted for the Republican candidate because I was concerned about the Democrats’ nominee or I supported a particular policy of the Republican candidate.
- I have good friends who are gay or transgender, Elliott, and I believe the Constitution protects the rights of all citizens, not just chosen groups. I can’t imagine my gay and transgender friends diminished in their citizen status and not being able to have a loving family with all rights granted thereof.
- I’m against this war, Jennifer, but I know parents who serve at the will of the President and are doing their duty to a country they and I love. I will support them and their safe return every way I can. So, yes, I don’t think our country should be fighting in that country, but I still send packages of books for soldiers to read through Operation Paperback, and yes, I make annual contributions to the Wounded Warrior Project.
All of us can share specific actions young adolescents and adults can take to act in positive ways upon our political, religious, and cultural beliefs while still respecting the diverse opinions of others. We can teach students, too, about how to respond constructively to people and policies that offend us, and we can do that in every single subject taught in middle school. 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. This is the perfect opportunity to create a civil future.