Should Teachers Be Political?

I have been public about my support for marriage equality - not necessarily in school, among students, but on social media. However, I have had homosexual students ask me about my thoughts on it. My response is always, "I hope you will some day have the same rights as everyone else."

I often share my thoughts on immigration. In the past, students have seen me at marches. They know what I think about legal status for hard-working, undocumented families. I don't share my thoughts in class. However, when a student is deported, they see my anger. A few have seen my teachers.

I don't tell students what I feel about abortion. However, they have heard me say "child" instead of "fetus" when my wife was pregnant with each of our kids. A few times, they have heard me mention the moment I almost thought we were going to lose Joel.

Am I being political? Perhaps. Immigration, marriage equality and abortion are all hot political issues and people can hold nuanced views on each (for what it's worth, I call myself pro-life and pro-choice for a reason). However, these issues also transcend politics. They become issues of civil and human rights.

Which leads me to a few questions:

To what extent should teachers share their political views? Is it okay for them to air their political views on social media? And at what point is a social issue a political issue? 
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John Spencer

John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.

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16 comments:

  1. I believe teachers should share their political views as well as opposing opinions on debatable subjects. Just as a school library should have many different topics available, exposing students to controversial subjects and the logic behind supporting arguments helps to develop critical thinking skills for students.

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    1. I like that approach, but I see a danger when it gets from political into issues of social justice. Sometimes neutrality has a cost.

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  2. This is a really complex and difficult issue. In essence the act of teaching is a political act, in the sense that it is about giving/creating power.

    As far as talking about politics, it is hard for me. The reason we are not supposed to talk about political views is because we are in a position of power over the students and we shouldn't do anything that makes them feel that they must feign alignment with our beliefs in order to do well in our class.

    But when we become apolitical what are we modeling for them? How to not care? How to be silent? What if we weren't afraid to have real discussions about real issues and model respect for opposing viewpoints? Could we build a society that is capable of having legitimate discourse instead of whatever it is that we are doing now in this culture?

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    1. I didn't answer the last two questions: As has been modeled in other cases, your social media self is part of your professional self and should therefore align with the position you take on this issue in your classroom.

      The social is always the political, it is about power. . . always.

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    2. It's tricky for me. What happens when I am apolitical? What happens when I show I don't care about a student's civil rights? I keep my views silent in front of the whole class. However, when a student asks me a personal question based upon a very personal experience (for the student) it gets tricky.

      The social media piece is tricky, too. I think it's okay to share one's political views or personal views (especially faith) on social media, but it has to be done respectfully.

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  3. This one really bothers me in terms of the life-work divide. I teach history and civics and I believe it is critical to encourage robust debate in class. I do not, however, think it is appropriate to shape these debates - I think of each issue as a kind of 'all candidates meeting' where each side gets equal representation and must live or die on its own merits.

    In private life I think it quite appropriate for teachers to be political. I use my name and image on social meeting. My political views are not directed at my students though they may be read by some. If students happen to see my tweets the worst case is that I am modelling engaged behavior and frankly how students use social media outside of school is - wait for it - a parenting issue.

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    1. I try to show both sides of the issue in class. I really believe I strive for nuance and inclusion of multiple viewpoints. However, there is a point when it gets into civil rights and it becomes tricky - especially when it deals with the lives of my students. It's hard, at that point, to draw the line.

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  4. Have you ever read Paulo Freire? He can provide a great deal of insight and inspiration to teachers trying to resist oppression and the oppression of their students. Try:

    http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/41108.Paulo_Freire

    http://www2.webster.edu/~corbetre/philosophy/education/freire/freire-1.html

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    1. I got into Freire's work when I read "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" while working with an urban non-profit. I think it's shaped much of what I believe about oppression, politics and the myth of neutrality.

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    2. A perfect example of what I mean when I say the act of teaching is political.

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  5. Quit Indoctrinating Our KidsMarch 27, 2013 at 10:07 PM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    1. I can handle anonymous comments. However, if you insist on insulting the students that I love and care about, you've crossed a line.

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  6. I found your blog today when an incident at my school caused me concern as to whether I had crossed the line. I teach Government and Current Events to High School students. On ballot in our community today is a bond issue that will build a new gymnasium at our high school. The gym is very expensive, state of the art, and will be funded in large part by the federal government because of a FEMA grant because it will double as a storm shelter. My students were brought to an assembly last week by the superintendent to tell them to go home and tell their parents to vote in favor of the bond issue. No teachers were present at this meeting. When students returned to my government class, they were excited. They had been told that they were getting this new facility and that their parents taxes would not go up (which by the way is a lie because the rest of the cost of the structure will be from property taxes). I asked my students to think about exactly how the facility was going to be paid for. I asked them to think about the issues in the news about "sequestration," the federal deficit, and the cutting of certain government programs at the federal level because we are outspending our revenues. Then I asked them to think about who was actually paying for this facility and its necessity, and whether we should be adding to the deficit to build our gym.
    We began to have a good debate in class in which many students, having been given both sides of the issue, began to change their tone. Those students apparently carried the conversation out of the classroom and into their homes. Some of their parents contacted the superintendent and informed him that I was telling kids NOT to vote for the bond issue (which I never did). I was called into our principals office today and told that while on the clock, I was not allowed to express any ideas that disagree with the school's stance on a bond issue. I took this to mean that my job is to be the soundboard for the superintendent's agenda and not teach kids to make informed decisions about voting. My question to your readers is: Did I cross the line?

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    1. I don't think you crossed the line, but perhaps your superintendent did. You'll have to check your state laws, but some (all?) states forbid campaigning using public funds, including campaigning during work hours. Here's a recent memo regarding the issue from Colorado: http://www.cde.state.co.us/download/pdf/FCPAletter.pdf.

      Just in case things escalate, I hope you have some local association representation that can support you. This has less to do with the bond issue, but more about asserting your academic freedom and getting a statement of your version of what you said in class onto the record.

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  7. That's tricky. Some argue that the purpose of government subsidized education is so that the population is knowledgeable enough to govern themselves... If so, how can you not be political? Perhaps discussion, without injecting your own opinion, or perhaps not until they have done their own research and have a strong enough foundation to decide for themselves.

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  8. This is the first time I have every responded to a blog, but I found your question very interesting. I teach high school US History and Government and have always wondered about how far I should go when talking about my personal political beliefs. When students would ask what political party I belong to, and why I support it I would try to keep my responses as nutural as possible. I did not want to persuade them. Then a few years ago after talking to a colleague I changed how I answer their questions. I now attempted to answer most political questions centered on the U.S. Constitution. I figured if a student asks a question dealing with a topic and I relate it to the Constitution I should be clear of trying overstepping my role as a teacher. When I do talk specifically about one party I always try to give the main view of the opposition party to help balance information out.

    As far as social media I teach in a fairly small high school and I keep my interaction with social media at a minimum.

    Your blogs look interesting I am looking forward to reading more in the future.

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Please leave a comment. I enjoy the conversation.