Objectivity, analytic approach essential in teacher-led political debate, discourse


With increasingly polarized politics, teachers have been faced with a modern dilemma: how should politics be integrated into the classroom in a way that promotes healthy and representative discussions between students? Some Teachers of the Year have argued for the need for teachers
to speak up against certain political views, specifically those of President Donald Trump. Those claims have been sympathized with and supported by many across the nation; teachers taking a side on political discussions, however, only causes more polarizing problems in the classroom. Teachers are assigned not only to teach their respective subject, but also to teach students a sense of moral independence about their own political and personal opinions regarding the world they live in. Teachers share a social responsibility to themselves, to parents and most importantly to students to provide curriculum free of personal political interjections.
A teacher might be expressing their freedom of speech at the cost of others’ rights.

In October 2016, the 10 Teachers of the Year wrote an open letter stating that “[they] are supposed to remain politically neutral… But there are times when a moral imperative outweighs traditional social norms. There are times when silence is the voice of complicity. This year’s presidential election is one such time.” Their letter went on to say that, “We believe that Donald Trump is a danger to our society in general and to our students in particular.” These teachers claimed that President Trump’s rhetoric in speeches and rallies isolates and even bullies certain populations of students. Whether a teacher agrees with this viewpoint or not, by actively choosing to take a side in a political classroom discussion, teachers are potentially isolating some of their own students. This is rather counterintuitive to their plan to promote inclusion.

The argument against teacher neutrality relies on the notion that teachers have an obligation to teach students about proper moral development and an obligation to teach the opinion that is “morally right.” This claim, however, assumes that “proper moral development” is a politicized matter, when in reality, Republicans and Democrats alike have equal potential to develop their moral compasses, even without the influence of a teacher. Students in the classroom should feel free to express and discuss their political views without fear of having their opinions viewed as “wrong” or “right.” A teacher’s opinion of what is “right” is completely
subjective to their personal motives. Conclusively, teachers have no right to impose their political beliefs on students, and by even mentioning their beliefs, they can unknowingly be influencing the mindset of a student.

The issue of teacher neutrality is not only a moral one, but also one of legal concerns when it comes to teachers speaking about their political beliefs in a professional capacity during instructional hours. The enforcement of teacher neutrality relies not only on teachers, but also on the school district. The legality of teachers’ freedom of expression has become murky and unregulated in many school districts, including the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD). To clarify questions about teachers’ freedom of speech, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a list of guidelines for American public school teachers: “Generally, the First Amendment protects [teachers’] speech if [they] are speaking as a private citizen on a matter of public concern. However, if [teachers] are speaking in an official capacity (within the duties of [their] job), [their] speech will not have the same protection. What [teachers] say or communicate inside the classroom is considered speech on behalf of the school district and therefore will not be entitled to much protection.” When Gunn teachers speak on their personal political beliefs, they are speaking on behalf of the PAUSD and, in some cases, might be misrepresenting the ideology of the district.

The school district should also be aware that “speech” includes posters, t-shirts and decoration within classrooms. Teachers and administration alike should be more aware of the constraint of teachers’ freedom of speech in the classroom and provide their own set of guidelines for Palo Alto teachers to follow with regards to politics in the classroom.

The PAUSD has, however, published its “Board Principles” that set a goal for teachers to participate in “developing each student’s self-respect, respect for others, appreciation for diversity and sense of personal responsibility.” The Board Principles also highlight how a “highly skilled and dedicated staff has a direct and powerful influence on students’ lives and learning.” When a teacher who has a “direct and powerful influence” over students projects their personal opinions on politics, they are directly violating their responsibility to develop students’ personal autonomy and to appreciate diversity. Students with differing opinions from their teacher may be deterred from speaking in class in fear of being judged by an authoritative figure. Teachers should be more aware of the potential power they have over their students and hold themselves accountable for their responsibilities. Even the slightest hint of a teacher’s political inclination or a subtle joke about the current political climate can isolate students who would otherwise feel comfortable speaking about their views.

This does not mean that teachers should avoid political discussions altogether— political apathy or ignorance can be just as harmful as ignoring neutrality. Teachers should promote productive, engaging-for-all discussions about politics and current events if the topic is brought up in class. Teachers should correct students if they cite false evidence or facts to promote a political opinion, but the use of false evidence does not completely eliminate the validity of the student’s original opinion. Rather than talking about their own views on political matters or avoiding political discussions altogether, teachers should present and promote all sides of a political discussion impartially. For example, if students seem to be reiterating one side in a discussion, teachers should mention what the opposing side might believe or say in response to the students. This inclusion of diverse political opinions can increase students’ exposure to opposing opinions, which can open the opportunity for students to understand those that disagree with their views. When teachers discuss a current event that affects their field of teaching, such as the United States government or economics, teachers should provide sources from various viewpoints, rather than from one newspaper or cartoon.

When it comes to politics in the classroom teachers should prioritize, above all else, the opportunity for their students to form their own educated opinions on important political matters without the influence of a teacher’s agenda. An increased awareness that not all students share the same beliefs as their teachers and that there are consequences for a teacher’s words are crucial in promoting a more welcome environment within classrooms. Politics will only become more and more polarized if students cannot form their own political opinions independently of teacher influence.