Political Speech from Teachers: What Is Best Practice?
Let’s get real about how politics should and should not show up in the classroom.
Teachers are authority figures, and public schools are government-run institutions where children are (in most cases) legally obligated to spend thousands of hours of their lives.
It‘s only natural, then, that parents and other concerned citizens should care what teachers talk about in schools, especially when it comes to sensitive topics like politics.
Today, let’s address those concerns.
However, before this article continues any further, I have to emphasize that discussing and determining the boundaries of how teachers deal with politics in school should never be used as an excuse to target and denigrate educators and their profession. Teaching has been a contentious occupation many times throughout history, and at numerous places and times, teachers have been the targets of terrible—even deadly—politically-motivated attacks. You can find examples from the execution of Socrates to the Cambodian Genocide.
The political environment in the United States these days is certainly not as terrifying for teachers as it has been in some of those other places and times, but there is still significant pressure and scorn being heaped on educators and schools by certain media outlets, politicians, and those promoting certain political narratives. With that in mind, let’s agree to some common facts and principles:
- Teachers, as human beings and members of society, have the same right as you do to hold whatever political opinions they want to.
- Teachers are as diverse in their political opinions as society at large. Whatever your particular opinions are, there must be teachers out there who share those same views with you.
- As human beings, teachers are known to sometimes make mistakes and exercise poor judgment. Such mistakes do not make them worthy of suspicion or attack, especially when dialogue and guidance are far better at correcting those mistakes.
If you can agree to those facts and principles, I think it’s fair to continue and engage in discussion of how teachers should handle politics in school.
As a high school social studies teacher, I’m particularly fascinated by how young people form their political perspectives. I’ve been a teacher for nine years now, and in my experience, young people’s beliefs about politics and society are typically most influenced by their family, friends, and larger cultural forces—not so much by their teachers. If my teaching has ever had a major impact on a student’s political philosophy, no one has ever told me that. Nevertheless, I believe it is reasonable and correct for parents and citizens to be concerned about teacher’s political speech and behavior in the classroom, regardless of how much or how little impact it may have on how students form their beliefs.
I had a few experiences when I was a student in high school when a teacher’s inappropriate political speech during class time made me and my classmates feel uncomfortable and alienated. Feeling uncomfortable doesn’t have to be negative in and of itself, of course: The discomfort of a real academic or social challenge at school can lead to positive growth. However, if students feel uncomfortable and silenced because their teacher is ranting and raving about divisive political issues in the classroom, (as I and my classmates did), that discomfort clearly reflects that the teacher is using their position of authority in a negative and inappropriate way. My teacher’s rants did not “brainwash” me or change my political opinions, but I believe they diminished the enthusiasm and capacity to learn that I and other students had in that classroom. Or, at the very least, the rants wasted everyone’s time when we could have been learning something important.
Over the years since I had those experiences as a student, I’ve wondered about what policies and guidelines might exist to ensure that students can learn about and discuss controversial issues productively in a safe classroom environment. My local school board has the following policies:
Teachers … may not use institutional privileges for private gain, to promote political candidates, or for partisan political activities[.]
District employees have an obligation to prevent the improper use of school time, materials or facilities for political campaign purposes. … All employees are prohibited from engaging in any activity in the presence of students during performance of the employee’s duties, where the activity is designed or intended to promote, further, or assert a position on any voting issue, board issue, or collective bargaining issue. …
Under no circumstances shall district employees:
1. Conduct political activities on school property during duty hours.
2. Solicit campaign support or contributions on school property during duty hours.
3. Use school equipment for the reproduction of campaign materials.
4. Post or distribute campaign materials on school property.
5. Permit the use of students to write, address or distribute campaign materials.
These policies seem logical and straightforward, but to me, they seem to be focused more on political campaigns and school district liability than on ensuring students have positive learning experiences in the classroom. For example, is it a “use of institutional privilege” for a “partisan political activity” if a teacher rants to their students about how horrible abortion is, or how horrible a president Donald Trump was? If there is no active campaign or official “political activity” going on regarding the issue, it doesn’t seem to fit the policy.
There is also Alaska state law Sec. 14.03.090:
Partisan, sectarian, or denominational doctrines may not be advocated in a public school during the hours the school is in session. A teacher or school board violating this section may not receive public money.
This law seems pretty vague: Has a teacher “advocated” for a “partisan, sectarian, or denominational doctrine” if they rant about a political topic in front of their students? if they show a movie in class that has a particular political perspective? if a lesson they teach seems to point toward one side or another of a political debate? I don’t know how many times in Alaska history this law has been interpreted or applied, or if any teacher or school board has ever been denied funding because of it. If the terms “doctrine” and “advocate” require explicit political or religious purposes—like a teacher telling their students they should join their church, or a school board trying to endorse a political candidate—then there’s plenty of unprofessional behavior that gets left out.
With all that said, I don’t necessarily think my school district needs to amend its policies, or that the state of Alaska needs to add to its laws, even if my teacher’s past inappropriate behaviors wouldn’t have necessarily been violations. There are plenty of things teachers can do that should be recognized as unprofessional or poor teaching practice without there having to be a law against it. That’s where something like Alaska’s Code of Ethics of the Education Profession comes in. Here are a couple of the relevant lines from the code, regarding educators’ obligations to students:
An educator … may not deliberately distort, suppress, or deny access to curricular materials or educational information in order to promote the personal view, interest, or goal of the educator;
… may not harass, discriminate against, or grant a discriminatory advantage to a student on the grounds of race, color, creed, sex, national origin, marital status, political or religious beliefs, physical or mental conditions, family, social, or cultural background, gender identification, or sexual orientation; shall make reasonable effort to assure that a student is protected from harassment or discrimination on these grounds; and may not engage in a course of conduct that would encourage a reasonable student to develop a prejudice on these grounds.
This code gets more to the heart of teacher practice than did district policy or state law. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not every good professional standard teachers should uphold can or should be required by state law or district policy. And again, it’s not clear to me that my teacher who went on political rants was even violating the code of ethics. I think that’s ok: Teachers may make poor decisions and create bad experiences for their students without that behavior needing to be classified as unethical. Hopefully, though, such poor practices will lead to teachers receiving advice and correction from colleagues and administrators so they can do better in the future.
To repeat to the principles I shared at the start of the article: 1. Teachers have a right to their opinions. 2. Those opinions are diverse. 3. Teachers make mistakes, and usually the best way to address those mistakes is through guidance, not suspicion and political attacks.
In the case of my bad experiences as a student, I don’t think the teacher needed to be brought before the school board or state ethics board and disciplined there. I think a student should have told their parents about what the teacher was saying in class, the parents should have met with the principal and teacher about it, and the principal should have counseled the teacher not to go on any more divisive political rants in class, given how the behavior alienated students. Maybe that did happen at some point, but I don’t know. I hope it did.
Now, I don’t want to place all of my focus on what teachers shouldn’t do, so instead I’d like to turn to what they should do.
When it comes to talking about political issues in public school classrooms, I think five best practices are as follows:
First, bring up controversial topics as often as they deserve to be brought up—no more, no less. If there’s a controversial topic relevant to what you’re teaching, address it. If something’s in the news that may be bothering your students, address it. Don’t let the political or controversial nature of a topic keep it from being addressed in the classroom. In my view, that would be letting fear deny students a valuable learning opportunity.
If students don’t learn to respectfully listen to and discuss contentious opinions while they’re in school, then they may have litte chance to learn those skills elsewhere. That being said, I believe it is important to strike a balance, and it is possible to have students spend too much time discussing issues and sharing their opinions, rather than using that time to gather knowledge they can use to form more informed opinions. I think teachers can quickly get a sense of what issues their students feel strongly about, and then they can follow students’ passions to make sure students have valuable opportunities to make their voices heard, and voice disagreement with their classmates.
Second, focus on listening to the students, and let them direct the conversation. Following what I just stated above, I think it’s essential for students to set the tone and direction of discussions, as long as the tone stays respectful and the direction stays relevant to the class. When it comes to classroom discussions, teachers should be “guides on the side” as much as possible.
Teachers know that the act of teaching is fundamentally about their students, not about them. (Sometimes we might get carried away and enjoy listening to ourselves talk a little too much, but ultimately we always come back to our students.) I love it when I hear students make good points in a discussion that no one else has brought up. However, it’s often the case that a student discussion will get stuck on just a few well-tread questions—and I think that can be ok. Unless there’s a specific point that you as a teacher judge as essential for the students to think about, it’s alright if the students only discuss the limited things that come to mind for them (even if those things aren’t particularly creative).
The purpose of the discussion is never for the teacher to share their own opinion: It’s for the students to voice their opinions, think about them, and practice the act of sharing and potentially reconsidering them after participating in measured discourse. On that note…
Third, avoid sharing your opinion on an issue if it influences students’ learning experiences. I would never make an absolute statement like “Teachers should never share their opinions in the classroom!” As I’ve said, teachers are as entitled to their opinions as anyone else, and I get asked all kinds of questions by my students about my feelings on all sorts of issues. It’s a continual struggle to set the right boundaries for what to share and not share with students. And it’s a balancing act: Teachers aren’t robots, and sharing some (not all!) of our thoughts and feelings is an essential part of building positive relationships with our students, just as we want them to share their thoughts and feelings with us as part of their learning process.
That being said, especially when it comes to political and religious issues, I aim to err on the side of not sharing very much at all with my students. Going back to the example of my ranting teacher—if a teacher sharing political opinions is going to alienate students and hinder their learning, they absolutely shouldn’t share them. In terms of classroom discussions, even about relatively uncontroversial issues, I wouldn’t share my opinion before or during the discussion, but only afterward—and only if the students really begged me to state my position. In no way would I want to influence the course of a discussion and have students form an opinion because they want to agree (or disagree!) with their teacher.
Fourth, guide students to discuss issues respectfully, like through making “I statements.” It is commonplace in today’s political climate for people to deal in absolutes. It’s very easy to say that a particular argument or belief “is wrong,” “is stupid,” and so on. Students certainly have bad influences in our culture that would lead them to behave in that way as well, so that makes it even more essential for schools to serve as places where civil, productive discussions about contentious issues can take place.
One way to help students avoid absolutes and try to understand their own and other perspectives is by encouraging them to make “I statements.” If a student says “I feel…” or “I think…” then it emphasizes that their opinion is just that—their own individual opinion, not absolute fact. Of course, a student could still say “I feel that is a stupid thing to say” and you’d still need to correct them on using respectful language, but it’s one good way to start.
Fifth, when necessary, act as a “devil’s advocate” from every side of an issue. This recommendation may be the scariest and seemingly most risky I am making, but let me explain my reasoning: If one of the core objectives of learning about and discussing contentious issues is for students to weigh and respectfully consider opposing viewpoints, then it becomes very difficult to achieve that objective if all or most students in a class happen to agree on something. There usually needs to be some level of disagreement for a conversation to be productive and lead to learning.
This recommendation may seem to contradict practice #2, because if a teacher brings up points on one side of a discussion as a “devil’s advocate,” they aren’t exactly letting students direct the conversation. However, I believe acting as a devil’s advocate is more of a last-resort measure for a teacher to keep a discussion functioning, or, more typically, to help shield or lessen the pressure placed on one or a few students if they end up being a small minority on one side of an issue in the class. If a teacher consistently follows practice #3 — not sharing their own opinion, especially in the midst of a discussion — that will help them emphasize that when they play devil’s advocate, they’re doing so for the sake of the discussion, not making an excuse to argue for their own position. Typically, when I act as a devil’s advocate, I will also try to bring up multiple points on different sides of the issue, so I am not just arguing exclusively for one side.
We want students to be able to have their voices heard, and not to feel alienated when discussing controversial issues, so if one or a few students have an opinion that’s opposed by the rest of the class, they might need the support of the teacher. Of course, if a student makes a statement that lies outside the bounds of what is appropriate, respectful, or safe—or if they say something that’s based on a clear falsehood—then the teacher should intervene to correct that statement. However, students should still have the freedom to share their opinions, even if they’re unpopular, and sharing an unpopular opinion in a discussion can often lead to good learning experiences.
By no means do I think the above list is comprehensive. I’m sure there are plenty of other best practices other teachers might follow, and reasonable people can feel free to disagree with the five practices I shared.
To make my points a little more concrete, I would like to share an example from my teaching to help illustrate these practices.
Here’s an assignment I gave my students in January 2016:
Clearly, I gave my students this assignment when Donald Trump was inaugurated as president. Some of my students were unhappy about it in class that day, and some were enthusiastic. You’ll notice the assignment was for the students to write a blog post, so after we had a discussion out loud as a class, I asked the students to consider their thoughts and put them in writing in such a way that, theoretically, anyone in the world could see what they had to say on the internet. My goal was for the students to practice sharing their opinions in a reasoned, respectful manner—a lesson that will hopefully help the next generation engage in better political discourse online.
Here’s how I think my assignment lined up with the five practices I listed:
- I addressed the issue because it was timely and highly relevant, and it was important for the students to spend time thinking about it. At the same time, we also weren’t going to obsess about Trump becoming president and talk about it day after day. We would address the issue together and spend an appropriate amount of time considering and discussing it, and then move on to learning other things.
- I don’t remember supplying any examples for the students to help answer the questions I gave them. I was sure they’d read and heard enough about Trump and his presidential campaign in the previous months and years that they could form their own thoughts and set the direction for the discussion and writing their blog posts.
- I did not share my opinion at all (at least, not that I remember). At most, I might have made some oblique, mysterious-sounding statement about my feelings on Trump’s election that did not reveal how I voted, or any strong, specific opinion.
- Because some of the students felt quite passionate about the issue—some were upset, and others seemed to revel in those students being upset—I especially had to focus on reminding the students to be respectful.
- I didn’t act as a devil’s advocate, because it wasn’t necessary or appropriate to do in that discussion, but I did supply facts and clarifications on multiple points from all sides of the discussion to help keep it productive and positive, and help the students learn more. You will notice in the blog post assignment that I also asked the students to share one positive and one negative thing they thought Trump could do as president. I thought this was important to help students look beyond their strong feelings in the moment and consider different points of view and possibilities for the future.
When families send their children to school, they effectively place their trust in educators and the public education system to teach their children appropriate, important lessons in an ethical way. Upholding that trust is extremely important to me in my career, and one important part of that is knowing how to deal with political issues in the classroom.
I think the key for teachers to engage with political issues is to focus on the opportunities for students to share and discuss their thoughts in respectful, learning-oriented ways. I won’t say that there’s never any occasion when a teacher should share a personal political opinion they have, but in general, it’s best for teachers to keep their own views to themselves and focus on promoting the students’ own thinking and learning.
It seems we live in an era when different political factions want to achieve their visions for U.S. public education by fighting to pass laws in state legislatures. And, it often seems parents would rather debate those kinds of laws, or talk about teachers and schools on social media, rather than actually visit their children’s schools or check in with their teachers. I believe our schools would be better off if families spent more time talking to their students about what they’re learning in class, and got more involved in their local schools, rather than participating in the nationwide politicization of education that treats teachers as inherently suspect, not as people trying to do their best in an underappreciated occupation.
Educators are professionals. We are highly trained and highly dedicated to our careers. That said, we’re also human beings with a wide variety of opinions, and we may even make mistakes sometimes. If you have reason to believe a teacher shared political speech in the classroom that was inappropriate, don’t treat it as an opportunity to attack the teaching profession, or take it as evidence that teachers are out to brainwash the next generation. Discuss the issue with your student, the teacher, and the principal, and take it as an opportunity to get more involved in the school. Trust me—you’re bound to find their are a lot of good people who are doing their utmost to provide their students with the best education they can.
Please leave a comment below with your thoughts!