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Teacher Craig Muzzy reads a story about peer pressure to students at the Chamberlain Elementary School in New Britain, Conn., Feb., 2017 as part of the Love Wins program's Friendship Day. The emotional learning program is designed to deal with the problem of social isolation and teach students about empathy. Teachers across the country have been embracing similar empathy building programs into their curriculums at a time of both heightened student interest in politics and polarization.
Pat Eaton-Robb/AP | Caption

Teachers' new Catch-22: Students want to talk politics, but their parents don't

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It's the yin and yang of the election aftermath: civics is suddenly cool, and reports of bullying against minorities are up. Teachers trying to grapple with both issues are running into pushback from parents who want politics left out of the classroom.

Nathan Mcalister’s 8th-grade students were having fun trying to find a legal loophole in Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. That was until he entered territory many teachers now fear to tread.

Mr. Mcalister, an award-winning American history teacher, asked his class at Royal Valley Middle School in Mayetta, Kan., to consider the differences between Lincoln’s executive order and President Trump’s recent travel ban.

It was intended to be an objective legal comparison rather than a politically loaded statement: The former was carefully crafted so the Supreme Court’s slavery-sympathetic members couldn’t strike it down; the latter almost immediately ran into legal trouble.

But as soon as he brought it up, Mcalister says, he noticed the students began looking over their shoulders and the conversation largely shut down. They didn’t want to lose friends or get into fights, he says.

“All of a sudden it seems to be taboo to talk about government, politics, civics. It is very difficult to talk about those issues because this administration thus far has been polarizing in many ways,” Mcalister says of his own experience and of recent conversations with colleagues from Texas. “Many teachers have come to the realization that you speak in generalities and you avoid, as much as possible, to draw any connections historically or otherwise between this current administration and what you’re doing in class.”

As the nation’s divisive politics has seeped into schools, the chilling effect Mcalister describes has extended beyond the discussion of politics in the classroom, with some educators saying formerly routine parts of their jobs have become politically charged.

Whether comforting students frightened by new federal immigration policies or emphasizing student diversity in the face of an uptick in bullying since the election, teachers have incurred a backlash from some parents and administrators who regard such efforts as unduly political.

But there’s also been an upside to the heightened political rancor. Reports have emerged of teens getting excited about politics again in ways not seen since Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008. In some classes, students of all political stripes are engaging in lively discussions based on things they saw on C-SPAN or during a Senate confirmation hearing, teachers and parents say.

At Riverside High School in Greer, S.C., “they’re talking about Jeff Sessions and they’re talking about Betsy DeVos,” Lindsey Beam, a science teacher and adviser to the youths in the government club, told The New York Times.

Nevertheless, the political tensions have created a fundamental dilemma for teachers: how to make class work relevant while acceding to school efforts to prevent or minimize political blow-ups between students, parents, and administrators with opposing views.

To facilitate their lessons on the value of civic unity and diversity, some teachers have embraced empathy-building programs that education innovators launched in February to help them start constructive conversations amid the current political climate.

Mcalister, who won the Gilder Lehrman National History Teacher of the Year Award in 2010, says he hasn’t experienced a climate like this in his career. He adds teachers probably haven’t had to be so careful discussing a subject since the height of cold war fears about communism in the 1950s or the Vietnam War protests in the 1960s.  

Parents and administrators push back

Teachers who have chosen to ignore the unspoken freeze on political discussion have sometimes found their jobs on the line.

In November, an award-winning history teacher and Holocaust expert, Frank Navarro, who has taught at Mountain View High School in California for 40 years, was placed on paid leave after a parent emailed the school complaining that he drew parallels between Trump and Adolf Hitler.

Mr. Navarro was accused of calling Trump a racist. He has said he merely stated factual similarities between the two leaders, including that each promised to make their countries great again and emphasized a perceived threat posed by a religious minority group. After receiving a barrage of both hate mail and support, he was reinstated a few days later.

In another instance, a former 5th-grade teacher at Renaissance Public School Academy in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., Mika Yamamoto, was asked to address 100 middle-schoolers the day after the November election, in her capacity as a writer. She encouraged them to courageously share their stories, and told them she felt “less safe” because of what she perceived as Mr. Trump’s attitude toward minorities. After her talk, she says, one black girl confided that a boy was taunting her with pictures of slaves. According to Yamamoto, the school principal said the student’s racist behavior had to be addressed, but ultimately told her “this community isn’t ready for your voice” and implied her safety couldn’t be guaranteed.

Yamamoto told MarkMaynard.com, a blogger from Ypsilanti, Mich., that the charter school promised to discuss implementing an empathy-building program, Teaching Tolerance. Instead, it fired her without warning. She has a pending federal lawsuit against the school. The school did not respond to an email request for comment.

Kerry Anne Enright, a researcher and teacher educator at the University of California, Davis, says that since the election she’s seen a definite uptick in incidents of student bullying followed by parental pushback against teachers trying to help the bullied.

Professor Enright relays the story of one teacher experienced parental backlash for trying to comfort Mexican-origin students who were concerned about their safety because of Trump’s stance on immigration. Although the teacher says she never said anything “anti-Trump,” when a parent of a white student caught wind of her efforts, she was sent an angry email accusing her of “discussing politics.”

Differing philosophies

Indeed many schools are not navigating the new climate decisively. Enright believes part of the problem is that while the public conversation has paid greater lip-service to the importance of teaching empathy and diversity in schools, many educators feel they have neither the time nor flexibility to make that a priority.

“If you want to teach empathy and respect for difference, you need to prioritize deeply knowing your students and all of the different ways that they experience the world,” Enright says.

Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow, and vice president for external affairs of the conservative-leaning education think tank The Thomas Fordham Institute suggests meanwhile that the trend toward emphasizing student differences could be promoting social division rather than unity.

“I’m not ready to make a categorical statement about this, but I was very intrigued by [an] article by John Haidt, a prominent psychologist and writer … [that] made the very counterintuitive point that the way to promote diversity may be, ironically, to valorize sameness,” he says. “It would certainly be ironic to find out that our best efforts as educators to celebrate and empathize with diversity were actually making these problems worse not better.”

But Mr. Pondiscio is quick to acknowledge that the old idea of America as a “melting pot” made schools a “crucible” for large numbers of minority students who were “never permitted to melt.”

Still, he suggests that schools refocusing on their original civic mission could be unifying.

“You could argue to make a really good civic and history education course by, on the first day in school, close reading the preamble to the Constitution, and the framers’ desires to make a more ‘perfect union,’ and spend the next 13 years discussing where we have met that ideal, where we have exceeded it, and where we have fallen short,” he says.

Starting a new conversation

With most teachers still largely at a loss as to how to navigate the choppy political waters, Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and the online reading platform Newsela, both recently launched nonpartisan education initiatives designed specifically to enable teachers to learn how to build empathy and have constructive, unifying conversations about current events.

As a specific response to the long-standing issues of "bullying, harassment, and discrimination" that have been exacerbated recently, Harvard’s Usable Knowledge website launched “One and All,” says James Ryan, dean of the Harvard Graduate school of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

Professor Ryan says the site will feature faculty research findings but will also allow a space for educators and parents to share locally effective strategies they’ve used to overcome partisan divisions in schools. One section on the site is called “starting hard conversations.”

Ryan adds that the site has content aimed specifically at how teachers can address the “political divide,” which he says “Republicans and Democrats should both be interested in focusing on, because anyone that’s responsible recognizes that our country can’t continue and be successful if this divide continues and in fact worsens.”

Newsela, a K-12 online reading platform in all 50 states, recently released a new project, “A Mile in Our Shoes,” which allows students to read about Americans from all walks of life – from LGBTQ folks to rural conservatives – for the purpose of building critical thinking and empathy. The project has also partnered with Teaching Tolerance to run webinars for teachers on how to teach these tough topics.

In the first two weeks after its launch, 3 million “A Mile in Our Shoes” articles were read, and the responses from teachers, who were hungry for a way to address political tensions, have been overwhelmingly positive, according to Newsela CEO Matt Gross.

“Nobody’s going to argue that listening to people, understanding their experience, and reading a lot are bad things, and my sincere hope is that teachers will make the time and space to do that,” Mr. Gross says.

“The good news is they’ve asked us for the tools to help them do that, so that gives me a lot of hope for the nation.”