As I record this, it is March 28, 2018, 4 days past the March For Our Lives student-led protest in Washington DC and around the country. I know much has been said about the Parkland students who led the way and kickstarted the national conversation about guns, gun control, the power of youth votes, and what they see as the corruption of politics as usual. I am immensely impressed with those kids and the hundreds of thousands more across the country who sought to have their voices heard and captivated the nation with their powerful words and magnificent poise.
I saw in those bright, empowered, diverse young faces the future of America, yet at the same time those kids made me think of my kids - my students as well as my own children - and how they aren’t really that different. They want a future where they are valued and their opinions matter. They want to feel safe in their varied communities. They want to be heard and loved and believed in and valued as individuals as well as a group. They want us to care about them as if they were our own. Which they are.
I had a principal once who used to tell our staff that every student in the school was our student, whether they were in our class or not. That we should be invested in the success of every one of them, and he was right. We need to do the same for our American children. If we as United States citizens see every one of the children in our neighborhoods and our cities and our country as our own flesh and blood and value them as such, it seems to me we would do everything in our power to educate, protect, and fight for them, no matter the challenges. More than anything, last weekend’s march reminded me of how much I need to reinvigorate that mindset in my daily life and career.
But that’s not what I want to talk about right now. I want to bring it down to the individual level. The level of teachers in their classrooms discussing this march and the issues of gun control and violence that is part of the current national zeitgeist. It is tough, as a teacher, to walk the line between helping students participate in the national conversation and think critically about what is being said and done, while at the same time not letting your true political feelings come out.
I am a pretty political guy, in that I like to listen to politics podcasts, follow reporters on Twitter, and obsessively check my Flipboard news app for all the latest tidbits coming out of Washington. I feel reasonably informed and while I try to see both sides of most issues, I am pretty liberal. I am also a co-sponsor of my school’s Young Democrats Club (though kind of a lazy one) and in that role I feel quite comfortable speaking my mind about what I see as the right way for us to go as a country. However, when I am in my room as an ordinary classroom teacher, I am conflicted in how best to approach these topics with my students.
I can almost hear some of you out there saying, “Just teach your subject! You’re an English teacher - not Social Studies! Leave it to the experts. Stay in your lane!” Which I do try to do. But it is difficult in times like these when so many people are interested in the news to answer students when they say things like, “Mr. Hill, what do you think of the national walkout?” “Mr. Hill, do you think teachers having guns is a good idea?” “Mr. Hill, do you think our school is safe?” “Mr. Hill, why do they want to take away our guns and our freedoms?” “Mr. Hill?” “Mr. Hill?” “Mr. Hill?” What should I say? Should I avoid the question? Try to pretend I don’t have an opinion? What if you work in a district where you have been instructed to not comment on such matters? How do you deal with these situations?
Just yesterday I saw that one of my students had attended the march in DC because she had a “price-tag” on her backpack that was meant to indicate how much the students of Florida were worth to Marco Rubio, one of their senators. (Kind of a rhetorical misfire if you ask me, but that’s a discussion for another time) I asked her if she went and how she felt about the experience and she just gushed with pride at having been there, in her words, “making history”. How was I not supposed to engage in that conversation? I actually had to check myself a couple of times to make sure I didn’t start revealing more of my opinion than I meant to. I celebrated the triumph she felt without celebrating the cause, which felt disingenuous at the time and makes me uncomfortable now.
So what is a well-meaning teacher to do? I can only really talk about this from a liberal perspective, but I am guessing that conservative teachers face the same dilemma - it was hard for me to keep my politics out of the conversation when it aligned with my own - how would a conservative have approached this same conversation if they disagreed with the aims of the march? It’s really tough!
It’s weird being a teacher in that for many kids, that person in the front of the class might be the most stable adult in their life. There is a lot of responsibility in that role, as sometimes what a teacher says can change a child in ways invisible to them, but end up having major repercussions down the road. I once stopped a student in the hall and told him that I was impressed at how much he had matured over the four years I knew him and that I was proud of the man he had become. He later told me that he went and sat in his car and cried because he was so touched. I don’t tell this story to brag, because in many ways I did not think of the long-term consequences of my statement. In fact, I didn’t even remember saying it until he brought it up months later! It simply showed me how much my words can make an impact on a child’s life or opinion. It was a small and forgettable moment to me, but huge for him. How much of an impact then does our political speech have on the students we teach?
In the same way that child predators are able to take advantage of young and naive children (I know this is a gross example, just bear with me), so too are teachers able to change the minds of youth by being charismatic and caring leaders at such an impressionable time in their lives. What we say about politics can inadvertently (or advertently - if there is such a word. Google says there is, so I’m sticking with it) change a child’s worldview in ways that last forever. In some ways that is exciting because we are meant to shape the minds of the future - but in other ways it is really scary, because what if we’re wrong? What if the way we see the world is actually inaccurate? What if we are so sure in our convictions, that we ignore the opposing view and end up steering an entire generation in the wrong direction?
I don’t know if what I do now is the best choice, but it feels right to me in this day and age. I break down the rhetoric of the different arguments. I try to make it as academic of a discussion as I can and play devil’s advocate when needed. I think about the conversations I’ve had with other people who think differently than I do, and bring up their points of view - not as my own, but as theirs. For example, my brother-in-law and sister are ranchers in rural Oregon - by the time law enforcement reaches their home, anything a criminal wants to take from their farm would be gone or any harm they wanted to do to their family would be over if they weren’t able to defend themselves with a firearm. Bringing his experience levels out my opinion and allows me to speak more open-mindedly about the subject.
Again, I don’t know if this approach is correct, but it seems to work for me. Basically, I try to talk to my students as if they were adults. As if their opinions matter. As if they have a voice in the conversation. I try not to patronize and belittle their arguments and I look for common ground as much as I can. Which, really, is how we should treat everyone when it comes to politics.
Thanks for listening. [Or reading]