When Politics Comes Up in the Classroom: 5 Tips for Teachers

“Politics is boring, until it’s not” — Anonymous

The author of that quote seems to have anticipated the challenging, complex nature of today’s political environment. Truth is stranger than fiction in this election cycle, so you should not be surprised to find your students trying to make sense of all that is happening in the world and bringing it up in the classroom.

Teachers need to take care when issues from the political campaign crop up in the classroom.Rather than flee from the discussion, use it as an opportunity to guide, instruct and offer perspective. These tips should help you out:

Strive for impartiality

Regardless of your personal political beliefs, you have to remain straight down the middle in front of your students. As a role model, you have incredible sway on their growing and somewhat impressionable minds. Advocating for your political preferences in the classroom is unethical, and should be avoided.

Aside from the impact on students, you also run the risk of angering parents who don’t want their child exposed to a single perspective on an issue or a candidate. This doesn’t mean you can’t discuss politics in your class, but you have to set clear norms for how you present information and what you’ll say about issues or candidates you support.

Encourage civics (and civility)

Today’s raucous political discourse sets a poor example for our students. As a result, they may jump into personal attacks and mocking behavior when discussing politics. Your expectations should not change regardless of what you’re doing in the classroom: Insist on appropriate language, decent treatment of each other and respect at all times.

Establishing these standards before controversial topics come up enables you to move into them easily without worrying about the class sliding into inappropriate behavior. To help support these conversations, model expected dialogue for the students.

Facts, facts, facts

Political campaigns have always relied on facts to shore up their positions. Sometimes these facts support conclusions that are overly broad, badly misinterpreted or flat-out wrong. When your students begin to share their beliefs, let them know that they must offer facts to support their positions — and make sure the facts come from reputable sources.

The Internet is a treasure trove of information, a lot of which is more akin to propaganda than truth. Help your students select appropriate and accurate information, and help them learn how to find sources that can be defended.

Don’t surrender to cynicism

The vitriol and personal attacks in this campaign cycle, along with the downright childish behavior of the candidates, threaten to discourage voters from participating in the process. This is particularly troublesome in young people, whose withdrawal from being active, informed citizens can result in decades of detachment.

The one cue that gives them permission to detach will be the language and behavior of the adults they watch carefully. In all your language choices, be relentlessly positive about the good things you see in the process. This can include more and more Americans following the election, greater turnout in the polls or attention being paid to issues that were ignored in previous elections.

Remember, we’ve overcome much worse

Our republic has faced tremendous challenges over the years — wars to fight, economic downturns to survive, and major social unrest — but we’ve also done tremendous things like curing diseases, leading the global economy and spreading representative democracy.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking we are nation in decline. Remind your students that we’ve had contentious elections in the past and everything turned out just fine, and that this time will be no exception.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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