How to teach in deeply divided times

In the past year, educators have heard a lot of talk about students’ social and emotional well-being due to COVID-19–related isolation, diminished interaction with peers and teachers, and the loss of routines and structure, school-associated rituals, and the like. This focus has been necessary and appropriate, and many schools have responded with lessons and revised curricula to address these concerns.

One thing we’ve been talking less about—perhaps because it’s infinitely more complicated—is politics. As a social studies teacher, I’m less able to look past whatever is on the front page of the newspaper when I step into my classroom, whether online or in person. I’ve seen firsthand how the current atmosphere of crisis and divisiveness in our country also contributes to our students’ anxieties. This was highlighted by the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. Many teachers, very much including me, were not sure what to say to their classes or how to reassure kids that everything would be alright.

That jarring event came on the heels of several years of increased rancor in public discourse about racial tensions and protests, disagreements about science and vaccines, how serious the COVID-19 virus actually is, mistrust in the media and government, an economy in crisis due to pandemic shutdowns, and more. That these divisions were often stoked by the leader of our country cannot be ignored. Most students don’t know the names of senators or congressional representatives, but even our youngest ones usually know who the president is. The Trump years surely left many students confused about what’s going on in this grown-up world of ours and, more importantly, worried that they can’t trust us.

Kids look up to us

When adults can’t even agree on what the problems in our world are, let alone how to go about solving them, children know it. Our nation is divided and that means that, by extension, so are many communities and families. This is not an abstract concept to many children right now; they have experienced this tension up close and personally.

It may seem obvious, but we don’t always remember that children turn to adults for reassurance that everything will be okay, that the adults are working on solving the problems that face us and will find a way to make things better. In such a polarized environment—on top of a pandemic that has unleashed health and economic threats and social isolation—have we paid enough attention to this aspect of our students’ social and emotional well-being?

The challenge before us

An exploratory search of both academic and popular sources yields some consideration of the subject of meeting the needs of our students during political upheaval, but it also offers very little in the way of specific strategies for classroom teachers to employ.

In 2015, for example, Paula McAvoy and Diana Hess’s article “Classroom deliberation in an era of political polarization,” published in Curriculum Inquiry, shared results from a study they did during the George W. Bush administration. They focused on “high school classes that included deliberations about controversial political issues” as part of the curriculum. While the study was an impressive feat of data collection, their focus was on the pedagogical considerations of political discourse, rather than students’ social and emotional health.

George Cassutto, a classroom teacher for over 30 years in Maryland, is better able to describe some of what I’ve been experiencing as a social studies teacher, and his candor assures me I am not alone. In his article “Teaching in a polarized society: Reaching across the political divide” he says, “Teaching civics in today’s hyperpartisan atmosphere is a dangerous occupation. […] In order to provide an unbiased and egalitarian view of […] the government’s role in society, public school teachers in all subject areas […] do not have the academic freedom to express a political viewpoint. They must teach from behind a mask.” That “unbiased and egalitarian view” becomes even more difficult to maintain when we’re talking about something as serious as storming the Capitol. It becomes incredibly difficult to ignore the role we have as adults to assure students of every age that we are there to protect them and tend to their social and emotional needs.

And Cassutto is right: This is not just an issue for social studies teachers. Students take this national anxiety with them into all their classes and all areas of their lives. Nor is this just an issue for older students; younger children pick up on these tensions as well.

How we can help kids

Like with everything else, different approaches are required with children of different ages. But there can be some general principles to follow. How, for example, do we do this work without getting “political”? How do we approach these issues when we may get heat from parents who have different political leanings, even if our intent is to stay neutral and simply reassure our students?

Cassutto offers a useful starting point to me and teachers across the country: “Giving students a safe place to explore and discuss issues of national importance in the classroom, and listening to each other in the faculty workroom, make up a model for a new dialogue on government and society.”

I’ve been finding additional, more detailed guidance in “A step-by-step guide for using stress- and trauma-sensitive practices in your classroom” by Erin Beard. While not specifically about the extreme political polarization of the current zeitgeist, the post provides a helpful overview of specific strategies teachers can use right now.  There is a helpful worksheet you can use in your lesson planning, and she cites Salvatore Terrasi and Patricia Crain de Galarce’s four stress- and trauma-sensitive practices:

  1. Safe and respectful environment
  2. Caring relationships
  3. Supports of emotion and behavior
  4. Supports of cognitive growth and overall well-being

These practices have served as a good guide for me. I’ve been teaching in both remote and hybrid platforms this year, and there are significant differences. However, as always, teacher modeling is the key to establishing a classroom culture that’s both safe and effective; I make sure to treat my students with respect, to honor their viewpoints and, in the most general sense, take them seriously. If you don’t think students notice this, I assure you they do. I have been thanked many times over the years by students for doing so.

With all the focus on testing and accountability for the better part of two decades now, it can be easy to forget that we are in a people profession. Being a teacher, I like to tell laypersons, is about establishing human relationships. In truth, that’s good advice for any profession, but it’s especially critical for educators. Say hi. Smile. Make fun of yourself. Ask how the big game went, or the quiz bowl. When the tough stuff happens, students will turn to you because you connected with them.

And as for supports for both emotional and cognitive growth, there are far too many techniques to list here—or anywhere, for that matter. Teaching is both art and science, and this is the science part wherein we practice our craft. We don’t just get up in front of a class and talk extemporaneously, after all; we use specific emotional and instructional techniques and strategies to achieve focused goals. For some guidance as you keep honing your skills, consider the social-emotional learning (SEL) trends guides “Empowering youth voice” and “Integrating with academics” from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Be especially thoughtful about those processing difficult moments, be it a local tragedy like teen suicide or a national crisis like the insurrection.

Responding to the moment

Approaching these difficult times with stress- and trauma-informed practices gives educators specific things to consider when confronting the effects of the intensely polarized times in which we find ourselves. Like all good guidelines, you’ll need to adapt them to your specific environment, but they will certainly help you as you plan for the safety and well-being of your students.

While a good start, teacher “withitness” and a genuine and heartfelt concern for our kids can only go so far. An intentional strategy can help you meet their needs on a deeper level.

Lisa Armstrong contributed to this post. She served as a public school teacher and data coach for nearly three decades before joining NWEA as a professional learning consultant in 2015. She’s currently an NWEA account executive based in Michigan. Lisa holds an MEd in educational leadership and administration from Wayne State University. 


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