Politics Are Always At Play In Our Classrooms

Jose VilsonEducation, Featured, Jose5 Comments

On the Wednesday after Election Day 2016, I told myself to maintain my composure. For three weeks, I heard my mostly South and Central American students excoriate the President-Elect for his racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic comments over the last year. My students call out malicious behaviors quicker than many in mainstream media. Outlets like CNN and MSNBC choose more benign qualifiers like “controversial” and “inappropriate.” Now, I had to walk into my students’ classrooms and gauge a collective vibe.

These students, mostly stirred, had a hard time concentrating on math. There was no comfort in my routines and rituals that day, just a lesson plan and some numbers that I barely remembered.

Lately, many articles from educators for “unity” for the president-elect suggest that educators shouldn’t instill fear into children. (NB: Clinton’s popular vote lead continues to grow past 1.6M … and counting.) In their minds, these liberal-minded teachers are indoctrinating our children with trepidation over a president who called for unity. Liberal parents irrationally stir fears into their children for no good reason. The underlying assumption is also that true social justice is one in which every child aces standardized tests, and they have the content knowledge to meet and surpass expectations as set by the state. The emotive expressions of lefty educators isn’t necessary because the president-elect needs time and patience to truly see if he’ll follow through on his ominous promises.

What’s more, teachers are supposed to be apolitical. In their minds, it’s a violation of trust for educators to inject fear and depression into children because children ought to think for themselves.

For one, these opinions assume that mainstream media doesn’t already go for attention-grabbing headlines as often as possible. This past weekend, many of our mainstream outlets gave more play to the president-elect’s comments about vice president-elect’s time at the Broadway play Hamilton than it did the president-elect’s $25M Fraud University Settlement. It also assumes that there haven’t been over 700 election related hate crimes since the election where students literally fear for their lives, and the president-elect’s name has become code for white supremacy. The president-elect’s nominations for his Cabinet are dubious at best.

Furthermore, everyone from former Mayor Rudy Giuliani to Senator Bernie Sanders (and everyone in between) have said that they’ll “work” with the new presidential administration despite / because of his hateful and petulant remarks. The Obama administration, which has deported more people than any previous administration, has promised to tutor the incumbent president on the inner workings of government. Two of the most notorious school leaders of the 21st century met with president-elect even as they’ve used civil rights in their rhetoric. As if. Where in any of this would give any number of groups a sense of safety and trust in their incumbent government? Why should this not make students and their families fearful in this country?

Something about winning seems to expose a lack of principles.

Most importantly, politics are at play in classrooms. Everything from the number and composition of students in our classrooms to the adults who end up in front of them and the buildings they’re situated in are political positions. What would make us impervious to the body politic? Don’t our racial attitudes affect our interactions with students and parents regularly? Don’t our school rituals and routines reflect the political beliefs of a handful of people in the building? For every teacher who gets put on leave for comparing the president-elect with Hitler, there’s a teacher who can’t wait for him to come into office so he can deport anyone that doesn’t look American.

“Identity politics” is an ahistorical pejorative for saying “People of color don’t belong in white men’s business.” The “wait and see” technique of political orientation is tantamount to admitting that our current set of institutions protect the waiters and seers.

Most educators that work with a social justice framework don’t “indoctrinate” their students. They’re actually quicker to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and let students bring their knowledges to the table. On a personal level, I do my best to respect every child’s humanity, even those I fiercely disagree with. I do so through conversations and empathy, not forcefulness. Students come to me crying. I help develop an environment where they can emote. Students fear for their parents, their sisters and brothers, and share that with me. I don’t prompt them to be fearful. Do we not believe in student agency?

Also, are you more nervous about teachers who say we should care about our students or people who hop on message boards calling the president-elect a deity and emperor? Great message of unity, absolutely wrong target.

I might wish that educators were better equipped to handle the sociopolitical challenges that we don’t feel the liberty to express. Hopefully, we create vehicles for hope. Giving students an opportunity to process jumbled thoughts and sentiments through their own critical lenses is more important than academic attrition.

The latter is only as pertinent as the former allows.

So, after the students left, I had my own moments to reflect. I called up a few friends and shared with them how difficult it was to look at my kids in the eye. I wish I could have done more. I took the time to process what I felt from my students, my neighbors, and my colleagues. As far as unity, I’m united with my students and creating a better future for them.

Teaching is politics, because too many people would prefer that my students not know what they know too well.

photo c/o

Comments 5

  1. I greatly appreciate your discussions on the role of educators in our highly politicized climate. We straddle a strange a nebulous area that requires us to nurture and support the social-emotional well being of children, to recognize and excoriate hate and apathy, while also refraining from taking an overt moral stance on certain issues. As I follow your articles on the intersection of politics and education, I am better able to examine my own practices.
    You state that “[m]ost educators that work with a social justice framework don’t “indoctrinate” their students. They’re actually quicker to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and let students bring their knowledge to the table.” I find this an essential component of every effective educational practice, as it supports our goals as educators to create students who can think independently and develop those thoughts into coherent, fact-supported conclusions. Using empathy and social justice as a vehicle for critical thinking not only develops key skills, but also helps students contextualize their learning in academic areas within a greater human framework.

    In #EduColor, you addressed many of the key components that fc=ace our students of color; topics that many white educators such as myself want to face but fear co-opting or speaking over more experienced voices. I am grateful for this question in particular: How can we move white educators from just being allies to co-conspirators in breaking down systemic racism in our schools?

    It is not the responsibility of POC to educate white people, yet we are so appreciative when voices of experience help us understand how we can use our privilege to subvert the status quo. I want my students to know I support social justice by what I encourage them to see in themselves and the world.

    1. Post

      Thanks for the thoughtful response. I’ll be quick because it’s time to a) eat and relax at home and b) time to reflect to get to work. Generally, I find the resources on the EduColor website to be super-thoughtful. I’d also say that, in education, we have to recognize the ways that white educators put themselves front and center even when they don’t do so unconsciously. For example, instead of having deans and phys ed teachers handle discipline in the school, I’d suggest we focus on distributive advisory, allowing everyone to have a stake in calling houses and keeping students focused on goals. Instead of the same teachers taking on the same “hard” classes, let everyone either split time with various classes, or make the classes as heterogeneously as possible. There’s a plethora of ways to think about this work, but the everyday work makes a big difference.

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