Teachers Walk a Tightrope Over Political Strife

These are uncharted waters. The seas are raging, and we are all just trying to batten down the hatches and hold on. With the nation in turmoil from the election fallout, the future is shrouded by an ominous cloud. Things are unsettling and uncertain. 

This is especially true for teachers. Our students are not immune to the fear that is hanging over our country. They, like all of us, are products of their environment. Depending on where one works, a teacher may have a room full of students who hear nothing but conspiracy theories and the endless refrain of “fake news” at home, or a room full of kids who have been taught to hate and fear those who continue to insist that the election was rigged through an organized network of widespread voter fraud. Likely, there are some of each camp in most classrooms. What’s more, there is likely some division on this matter within many school staffs. Not all teachers are of like mind when it comes to political matters. Most of the time, these differences in the world views of students and teachers go largely unnoticed, but in our current climate, they hang in the air like a toxic gas. 

This raises a very important question: Where do we draw the line between truth, reality, and silence in the name of keeping the peace and job security? This might, indeed, be the most critical question for teachers to be cognizant of in these turbulent days. 

As students advance in age, they often try to ask questions of their teachers to feel out their political views. A savvy teacher knows how to deflect such questions to keep their personal bias from being outed. But after such a long span of high-level political tension, many of us have become victims to it all when it comes to our mental health. Emotions can run raw. It is at this point where teachers run the risk of opening ourselves up for trouble. 

I’ve been hearing a lot of stories from teachers who’ve already been faced with critical moments where they have to make potentially career altering decisions on their feet in the heat of an emotional moment. I’m talking about situations where students will ask questions or make comments that involve election conspiracy theories or rumors of an apocalyptic scale. When these moments are presented to a teacher, what is the correct response? How a teacher chooses to respond could mean the difference between having a job or not. 

Let’s face it, we are neck deep in the “cancel culture” and both sides of the political spectrum have become professionals at it. Like it or not, teachers are public figures. If little Johnny’s dad is constantly feeding him conspiracy theories and teaching him to distrust the mainstream media, that’s not little Johnny’s fault. Until we reach a certain stage of development, we are normally cut from the same cloth as our parents. So, when little Johnny speaks out in class and asserts that the election was stolen by President-Elect Biden, a wise teacher must be on guard. One ill-thought moment of weakness could turn into a hornet’s nest in an instant. A teacher might be tempted to blurt out something about that being a crazy conspiracy theory that has been proven to be false time and time again. Perhaps that would feel like the proper way to put that topic to rest, but when little Johnny goes home and tells his dad that his teacher said he was “crazy”…now you’ve created a very real problem for yourself. Like it or not, about one-third of our nation feels like the election was rigged. That means that about one-third of our students may come from such households. As teachers, we simply must keep that in mind as we do our jobs. 

In the scenario I used above, perhaps a wise and measured response to little Johnny would be, “I understand that many people feel that way, and all of that has been investigated. Our Constitution is what keeps our country going, no matter who is president. We will get through this.” A response like that, all though it might not be very satisfying, helps to calm the situation, helps to educate and put things into proper perspective, and avoids escalating the situation to where it could come back to bite the teacher in the end. Surely not even little Johnny’s dad could take issue with that response from his son’s teacher. 

While there may be situations like that which arise in the classroom, an even more volatile hotbed for potential pitfalls for teachers in these days of division is social media. As teachers, we must try to remain cognizant of the fact that our jobs come with some public notoriety—but that doesn’t normally manifest itself until we’ve stepped in some shit. Social media is a pasture full of toxic cow pies. Political posts, comments on other’s posts, even things we “like” all have the potential to come back to haunt us should the offend the wrong person at the wrong time. We have as much freedom of expression as the next guy, but most teacher contracts have language about social media behavior. Anything that we put out there on the internet is there forever. If something we post ends up putting our school district in a negative light, that could be the end of a great career. Is it fair? That’s up for debate. Is it realistic? You bet it is. 

Over the last four years, our profession has been under a lot of scrutiny. We’ve been accused by some of our national leadership of indoctrinating our students with “anti-American” agendas. As the contentiousness has only accelerated, that white hot spotlight on teachers has only intensified. Our every step is being watched and we’d do well to keep that in mind. 

Please believe me, I don’t like it any better than you, but it is what it is. 

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