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As a teacher, I’ve always felt pressure to keep my personal political views out of my classroom. In fact, in New York City’s public schools the Chancellor’s Regulations which lay out a wide range of rules, regulations and policies, explicitly forbids teachers from mixing any sort of political activity with their teaching.
But lately, it’s become harder to reconcile this position with the real world political climate my students live in. The fact is, Donald Trump is not an ordinary politician. His rhetoric goes beyond typical political mud-slinging. It is dangerous, offensive, and demands a response from educators.
About a month ago, I was eating lunch with a group of students when they started asking about the upcoming New York primary. In the unique, mostly-but not 100%-correct way of third graders discussing current events, they shared their opinions on the different candidates. When the conversation turned to Trump, the tone changed noticeably.
Many of my students have parents who immigrated from Mexico while a few were born there themselves.
“He wants to build a wall between here and Mexico!”
“My aunt lives in Mexico. How will I send her a letter?”
I explained that we will still be able to send and receive mail to and from Mexico, but I wanted to explain so much more. Beneath their questions and comments, there was a mixture of anxiety and anger in their voices.
Soon after that a grad school colleague of mine shared a story of her white students playing a variation of “cops and robbers. They called their game “Trump versus Mexicans”.
None of these students have to worry about Trump’s wall personally. But they’ve caught on to his rhetoric just the same and internalized it in their own way.
Meanwhile, a white Jewish five-year-old I know recently said that if Trump wins, “We’re going to have World War III. The Japanese are going to come and bomb us!”
Different kids are making sense of this election in different ways. It depends on their age and their social location. But regardless, I believe that all three of these anecdotes illustrate the disquieting impact Donald Trump is having on our youngest Americans.
This cannot be acceptable.
There is no place for Donald Trump’s hate speech in our schools. If a student made similar remarks they would be referred to the dean or guidance counselor. If a teacher spoke in this way they’d be placed on leave.
There is no way for us to ignore this language, as it has clearly seeped its way into our classrooms. Therefore we are obligated to name Trump’s words for what they are: racism, Islamophobia, misogyny, xenophobia and much more.
As teachers we are expected to be “apolitical”. I would argue this has always been an illusion and that many teachers understand that by deciding how to frame various narratives in our classrooms, our work is inherently political.
Regardless Trump’s words transcend “conservative” versus “liberal” dichotomies. So teachers must not silence ourselves when we hear children discussing him.
I know plenty of adults (admittedly almost all Democrats) who are genuinely fearful of a Trump presidency. It makes sense for his words to scare children as well.
Just as we do with other complicated and scary current events, teachers must respond to Trump in our classrooms. We can start by creating space for students to share their opinions and feelings. Then we can sort out the facts from the myths, and we can brainstorm ways for students to take action. Through it all we should also clearly speak out against Trump’s hate speech.
My school has several anti-bullying posters. In February, the whole school signed a pledge to stop bullying. In my classroom we also have an agreement, “Listen, speak and act respectfully.” I know that these kinds of agreements and pledges are common to classrooms and schools across our country. If Trump can’t follow these basic rules, then we as teachers must make it clear that his ideas have no place in our schools.