We’re in the throes of an unusually nasty and volatile presidential election season. Classroom discussions about politics can quickly get polarized and hurtful, so many of us are understandably tempted to avoid conversations with students about the election altogether. Yet is it responsible for us as faculty to avoid talking about such a vital and present topic that has grabbed our attention and is so deeply affecting our lives?
Who is not fatigued and rattled by the highly charged polarities among us? We’ve all seen how liberal-minded students and more conservative students dismiss each other, often with stonewalling silence or wholesale repudiation. These experiences don’t reflect our professed beliefs in meaningful discourse or help us feel better about the situation.
Then, consider that we, too, may have deeply held beliefs about particular candidates, which can leak out in unexpected (or intentional) ways. Students whose perspectives differ from our own pick up on the tiniest clues and shut down. In the liberal-leaning world of education, we often hear rumblings in our schools about how conservative students in particular feel silenced and marginalized. We tend to sympathize, but not as much as if the tables were turned and more liberal viewpoints were similarly quashed.
Cultural Transitions, Changing Demographics
School communities are often a microcosm of our country’s experiences. The 2016 election is a visible, audible symbol of the significant cultural transitions we’re facing. It’s both exciting and scary when we’re all careening down rapids in a rowdy and crowded vessel, uncertain about what that rumbling sound is we hear downriver.
We are living in a time with a bewildering number of ethno-racial categories and traveling “a short road to a population diversity never before experienced by any nation,” as described by the Center for Public Education. We are still learning how to describe what it’s like to live amid such social change. As sociologist Richard Alba has written in the New York Times, “Our society, transformed by immigration and new forms of assimilation, hasn’t yet developed the vocabulary to capture the nuanced realities of this evolution.”
In the absence of such a vocabulary, some people lash out while others shut down. Most of us feel stirred up, but don’t know how to talk about it without being shouted down by others who are eager to wield the blunt instrument of monolithic truths. The changing demographics produce deep anxieties about inclusion and diversity — among those who welcome the changes as well as those who abhor them.
Finding Common Values
Each of us as faculty (and citizens) holds a paddle on this careening boat. First, we need to become aware of our own liberal or conservative biases. Then, we must understand how we are jostled by views that differ from our own. Equipped with self-awareness, teachers can help students lean back from the polarized arguments that paralyze learning and lean in toward true dialogue.
One route is to facilitate small-group and whole-school conversations to answer key questions:
- As we go through this election season, what are our school community’s overarching values, those that supersede differences in political viewpoint?
- What core values can anchor us in a place of safety and connection?
Work to find what you all value in common to talk about differences. Dig deep and then help students and faculty articulate what pulls the school community together. This conversation must not shut down students who don’t share the beliefs of the majority within your school, but rather afford all students a chance to talk about what they believe and how they arrived at that belief.
How to Help Students Open Up
In the classroom or in small groups, have students practice deep listening. To start, pair students up and create simple ground rules for the exercise:
- Have one tell the other, “I’d like to understand your point of view. Please tell me more how you have come to that belief.”
- Don’t interrupt.
- Don’t argue.
- Ask students to repeat back what they heard the other person say.
- Have them keep trying until the speaker feels that the listener has heard what was actually said, free of interpretation or added spin.
Just listen and encourage students to talk about how they came to their beliefs. All of you may be surprised at how difficult this is, and yet how effectively it can deepen understanding, empathy, and a sense of safety.
Teachers need to be alert to protect more conservative students from shutting down. Be attentive to the urge to dismiss a student whose views you don’t agree with. Make clear to all students that the focus is not on name-calling about candidates but on the issues and policies they advocate and the reasoning process that leads a student to their values and convictions. Again, this involves asking, “How did you come to that perspective?”
How you ask this question is crucial. Tone can convey either genuine curiosity or a judgmental challenge to the student to justify himself or herself. Strive for the former tone. Be aware of whether your intention is to open up or shut down the student. We move ourselves and our students toward the learning edge when we ourselves are listening with true curiosity and compassionate interest.
How to Foster a Sense of Safety
Another approach is to focus on membership by asking each person, student, and faculty member a few main questions:
- What gives you membership in your home, in this school, in your community, in our nation?
- In this school, who feels like a valued member and who does not?
- Who feels alienated and why?
- What makes you feel part of the school community?
What can surface in these conversations is how terrorized some students feel by the current political discourse. Students from disempowered groups may worry they and their families are in danger of being deported; they may feel reluctant to express in the school community who they truly are and where they come from. Can we listen to these fears without dismissing them, without rushing to reassure? The more we are able to hear the full story of their anxieties, the more quickly we can establish a sense of safety and wholeness at school.
Are middle schoolers too young for such conversations? No. Middle-schoolers are struggling to understand and articulate their own values and identities. A presidential election with both a female and a male candidate will likely resonate for students in all grades, offering contrasting — at times conflicting — images about male and female identity and possibilities.
Building Strong Connections
When you open up courageous conversations like these, students begin to see that love and mutual respect are more powerful than any rapids, bigger than any social upheaval. Your school community and the connections within it can carry you through what is otherwise disorienting and frightening chaos.
With a new awareness of what holds us together as a human family, what holds you together as a school community, you will have given your students their own paddles to navigate the many rapids they will inevitably face in their lives.
Paula Chu and Sam Osherson are faculty at the Stanley King Counseling Institute. They welcome comments and suggestions. You can reach them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.