Talking politics in high school: How area teachers are navigating the political climate

BY ANNISTON WEBER

Inauguration Day is typically a celebratory event backed by tradition and historic moments. This spectacle of a day is used by social studies educators across the country to showcase the transition of power that takes place after a presidential election.

However, this year, Inauguration Day was less than typical. Former President Donald Trump was the first commander in chief since 1869 to miss his predecessor’s swearing-in and rumors of riots shrouded the event since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. 

Because of the rumors, security was abnormally tight and social media sites like Facebook restricted ads promoting weapon accessories and protective equipment until a few days after the inauguration. Additionally, COVID-19 restrictions have caused the usual grandeur of Inauguration Day to be scaled back significantly.

With these abnormalities and political tensions still high, approaching the historic event could prove difficult as an educator. But, according to Hays High AP Government instructor Abby Gillan, the significance of Inauguration Day cannot be overlooked.

“While the political climate has changed over the last decade, it is still just as important to remain committed to teaching students how to live in a democratic society,” Gillan said earlier this week. “Today in all of my American History classes, we are taking a portion of the class period to discuss the history of presidential inaugurations.”

Gillan also said she would play the inauguration of President Joe Biden during class.

“At 11 a.m., I will play the swearing in of our 46th president of the United States, just like I do every four years on Jan. 20 when school is in session,” she said.  “To do otherwise would certainly be partisan.”

With partisanship more evident than ever, Gillan said discussing politics in the classroom can be hard to navigate.

“Misinformation and the political tribalism of our current state of affairs is trickier to navigate. However, the need for civic education only feels more important,” she said. “I think the key is to maintain political classrooms that teach students how to think critically, cooperate and deliberate. We must work equally hard to maintain classrooms that are not partisan and avoid pushing ideological or political agendas. Essentially, we need to teach students how to think, not what to think.”

Gillan said the most difficult part of teaching right now is teaching information literacy.

“We can teach the tried-and-true practices that we have for years, but some students reject all mainstream media sources,” she said. “That can be tough because we do want them to be critical of sources, but a wholesale rejection of professional journalism is a big obstacle to overcome.”

For another social studies teacher, keeping topics from reaching controversial status and remaining neutral is most important in order to educate students. For personal privacy reasons, the educator requested anonymity.

“Students and their families have very passionate feelings about certain candidates and political parties that one must be sensitive to,” they said. “I try to take a neutral approach when discussing politics and make a point to present both sides in any conversations that we have.”

The teacher also emphasized it is not an instructor’s job to give personal views on politics.

“Part of the job of a social studies teacher is to educate students on their civic responsibility in a democracy which would include voting and educating themselves on the stances of each candidate in an election,” the teacher said. “As a teacher, one must be careful in your conversations in class.”

Gillan said in order to foster better and less polarized dialogue in her classes, she has been emphasizing deliberation over discussion.

“My students talk about what they know and how they feel about current events, but then I ask students to go beyond and consider the question: ‘How do we live together?’ Simply reframing conversations has made a huge difference,” she said. “My concern is never what students think or believe, but how they arrived at that point and how others might have different views.”

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