Should Teachers Stay Silent on Politics?

“Mrs. Romberg, who’d you vote for?” a ten-year-old girl asked me.

“You can’t ask her that. It’s against the law for her to tell us,” the other girl responded.

I chimed in. “Hold on. It’s not against the law for me to tell you. I just won’t because it could come across as me trying to influence your opinions, which isn’t what a teacher should do.”

Immediately understanding, the girls transitioned from asking me about my opinions to sharing their own.

“Mrs. Romberg, what Trump said about girls…” her voice trailed off. I encouraged her to proceed. “Well, what he said… I can’t really say. But it was about grabbing girls’...”

To her relief, I interrupted her. “You don’t have to complete that. I know what you’re talking about.”

I tried to hide my surprise, or more specifically sadness, at the fact that she was almost forced to say the word “pussies” to her teacher in order to ask a question simply because she had learned it from our then President-elect. But I assured the girls they could say whatever they needed to say. So they went on to voice their concerns about the safety of girls as well as their confusion and wonder about what would happen to immigrant families like their own. They were genuinely worried about how a new president would affect their lives going forward.

Instead of focusing on assuring them that their concerns were justified, I dutifully played the apolitical teacher role. I directed their attention to what they could do about the situation. The girls came up with the idea that they’d befriend new immigrant students to help them feel welcome. And they’d make sure girls stick together. Throughout this I concentrated on making it an academic exercise with them drawing their own conclusions while citing facts as evidence. I nodded along, making sure not to reveal my own feelings on the issues at hand, wary that my contributions could be read as “political”.

I came home thinking about how well I had handled the situation by remaining neutral and opinion-free throughout. However, in the time that’s followed, pride in my caution has been replaced by shame in my nodding.

I’ve questioned how I approached the conversation. By being so cautious, did I imply that I was indifferent to or, even worse, accepting of the rhetoric they were hearing or the fear they were experiencing? Did I do these girls a disservice and actually shirk my duties as an educator because I was avoiding potential backlash? Isn’t it appropriate, in fact necessary, that I model the reasoning skills I’m tasked with teaching students? By not contributing an opinion or validating theirs, was I foregoing that modeling? They were citing some of the same evidence and drawing the same conclusions that I had, and yet I did not tell them I agreed. Why?

I was doing what I’ve been told to do in order to present myself as apolitical. But, in today’s world, it doesn’t feel right.

So now, more than ever before, I am faced with a question: Does being a teacher mean I have to be apolitical, even if it is damaging to my students?

The truth of the matter is that as a teacher I make many so-called political decisions every day. There's a reason my elementary students are studying Thurgood Marshall and oil spills. I’m relentless in my emphasis on the pride inherent in being raised bilingual. There's intentionality in my saying “y’all" instead of "you guys" or assuring kindergartners that a boy can use a pink crayon. It's me heeding the voice of Lisa Delpit rather than Ruby Payne. For some parents this is me crossing the line, abusing my influence, but for others it's exactly what they expect and take for granted when they send their children to me. 

In the end, it all makes me confident in a conclusion I’ve come to. Because of the many potentially political instructional choices I make, there are aspects of my students' education that are better than they would be if they had an actual apolitical teacher. I know I didn’t do right by these two girls because I prioritized appearing neutral over giving them what they really needed from me.

Next time.  Next time, I won’t be making that mistake.