Should Teachers Be Moralizers?

It would be a disservice to tell my students, You guys are gonna beokay.

Should Teachers Be Moralizers?

Ilana Gordon

John Moore/Getty Images

“It would be a disservice to tell my students, ‘You guys are gonna be okay.’”

At Chicago’s Bridge Junior High, November 9 is report card day. But this past November 9, teachers at the school weren’t worried about report cards. They were worried about how they were going to explain the election to their students.

Quetzalli Castro teaches English, Language Arts and Social Studies to 7th and 8th graders at the school. Her students are diverse: They hail from Poland, the Ukraine, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Middle East. Three of the countries currently included on President Trump’s ban list — Syria, Iraq and Yemen — are represented in Quetzalli’s classroom.

Quetzalli says these students already feel isolated within the student body, and the election exacerbated that. After Trump was elected, she struggled to reassure them. “I really couldn’t go out and say, ‘You guys are gonna be okay, we’re all gonna be okay.’ That would be a disservice to them.”

November saw a spike in the harassment of minority students. In the week immediately following the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted 437 alleged instances of intimidation and harassment; over 160 of these incidents took place inside grade schools and universities.

Creating a culture of inclusivity

Sarah* teaches at a large public high school in Chicago whose student body is both ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. She believes that teachers have a moral imperative to teach their students to respect each other. In an email to dose, she says:

“Character and social-emotional education is a part of nearly every school mission statement I have ever seen, and certainly falls under the purview of all teachers. Teaching kids to treat all people with respect is not a political issue — it’s the lowest common denominator of human decency.”

Teachers feel an internalized pressure to teach their students to be kind, but when bullying, deceit and cruelty are modeled and normalized by powerful figures, school discipline becomes less about building bridges and more about walking partisan tightropes.

Quetzalli is a graduate of the University of Chicago’s Urban Teacher Education Program. Many of the program’s graduates go on to teach within the Chicago Public School system, so teachers are specifically trained to deal with issues of race, language, class and culture. Quetzalli feels that her education has been helpful in framing her classroom discussions, but she struggles to find a balance between what she can and cannot discuss with her students.

She says, “There’s this weird tension right now of ‘Can I say this in my classroom, will that be deemed too political, how much of this is trickling back to parents?’”

Teaching history in real time

Quetzalli’s situation is further complicated by the fact that she’s a Social Studies teacher. It’s her job to teach students about the country’s history, even as that history unfolds in real time. And she has to do this without inadvertently displaying any of her own personal or political biases.

“I’m walking a fine line between giving students information without giving them my opinion,” Quetzalli says.

According to the National Council for the Social Studies, “The primary purpose of Social Studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”

But it’s impossible for teachers to help students develop these abilities without addressing the current problems the country is facing. And every school administration has a different philosophy for how teachers should deal with the tension and uncertainty lingering in their classrooms.

Sarah says her administration is supportive of teachers incorporating current events into their curriculum, but that the Chicago Public School system has been less encouraging. She tells dose that a couple days after the election, CPS teachers received an email warning them against sharing political opinions and detailing a case where a teacher was punished for telling students that he’d attended a protest.

At Quetzalli’s school, teachers handled the election results in different ways. Some addressed the subject by teaching students about how the Electoral College operates. Others focused their lesson plans on presidential power. Quetzalli asked her students to read a piece in the Huffington Post, called “What Do I Say to My Students?” She hoped the article would convey a message of inclusivity and safety, while still maintaining a sense of neutrality .

Struggling for resources and understanding

Teachers agree that right now is an especially difficult time to be an educator. Between the political uncertainty brought on by Betsy DeVos’ appointment as Secretary of Education and steadily shrinking resources within schools, teachers are left alone to deal with the new issues cropping up in their classrooms.

Andi Mariategui teaches third grade students in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood. She says that as the Chicago public school system slashes budgets for wraparound services like psychologists and social workers, teachers must pick up the slack — often without training.

“When a student comes to me crying because she’s terrified her parents will be deported, I only have my own experience and personal reading on the subject to go off,” Andi says. “I do my best to help each student with concerns and fears like this, but I’m not a trained therapist or social worker.”

Quetzalli agrees, saying the hardest part about being a teacher right now is “Create[ing] a safe environment for students, without being viewed as a radical.” She encourages her students to express their own opinions thoughtfully and to write about the things that make them feel uncomfortable.

Caitlin — a Chicago teacher who specializes in early childhood education — believes there’s a disconnect between what teachers are trying to accomplish and how the public views their work. She says, “I think we need to let the public know that we are not trying to indoctrinate children…[we’re] trying to grow empathetic critical thinkers.”

Sarah thinks teachers need guidance when it comes to discussing current events with their students. She believes it’s incumbent on schools to provide teachers with resources that will help them avoid overstepping bounds or putting themselves at risk.

Sarah says that her students are some of the most thoughtful, articulate, informed and open-minded people she knows and that they are more than capable of delving into difficult issues and engaging in tough conversations. However, she feels it is her responsibility to frame those discussions in ways that are sensitive to all the diverse beliefs within her classroom. She adds:

“I never want any student to feel silenced, attacked, or marginalized, no matter what their beliefs are.”

*Name has been changed