Program Explores Election & Education

On Tuesday, December 13, 2016 the Richmond Teachers for Social Justice (TSJ) and Richmond Peace Education Center co-sponsored a panel and discussion on the impacts of the presidential election on our schools and classrooms.

In the days following the presidential election, 90% of educators who responded to a survey from the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the election had had negative impacts on school climate. Specific concerns included increased harassment and derogatory language, as well as heightened anxiety among groups of students such as immigrants, LGBTQ youth, Muslims, and African Americans. Almost half of the respondents did not think their school had specific action plans in place to address these issues. In addition, many teachers feel uncomfortable discussing the election with their students, given the particularly emotional nature of responses to this campaign and the risk of being accused of bringing politics into the classroom.

The panel and discussion was intended to give educators and others an opportunity to share observations from their own schools and generate action plans for moving forward.

About 50 people attended, including practicing educators, counselors, social workers, students and faculty in teacher education programs, and other interested members of the community.  Peace Center staff member Paul Fleisher served as one of the featured panelists.

The panel began with two local teachers sharing stories about the days after the election of Donald Trump. They reported a change in climate in their schools. On one hand, students were experimenting with behaviors such giving the Nazi salute. On the other, immigrant and Muslim students expressed fears of deportation or a wall that would prevent them from seeing family members. Panelists reminded us that another group of students can be just as vulnerable–those who are Trump supporters or children of Trump supporters in schools where they are in the minority. These students may be unsure how to respond when they find themselves surrounded by criticisms of the president-elect and his supporters..

The panelists also described how they as teachers learned to be open and honest with students about their own political beliefs and commitments to social justice. In particular, they suggested ways to do so while maintaining space for discussion of values and not pushing students to adopt the teacher’s views.  

One panelist–Tami Sober, a long-time lobbyist and organizer for the VEA–encouraged attendees to invite members of the VA Senate committee on education and the VA House committee on education into their classrooms. She cautioned that the next four years may bring an expansion of market-driven “reforms” that favor private over public education, and that we need to be proactive in opposing this. One powerful way of doing so is to show legislators the great work our local public schools are doing. While legislators often hear from corporate lobbyists, they are less often privy to the expertise of local public school teachers, students, and parents.  If you are interested in inviting your state legislator to your classroom, click here to find out who represents you.

in small group discussions, participants then generated a list of issues that attendees could take action on. These included:

  • strategies for navigating school environments where educators are asked or told to remain silent about political matters;
  • how allies can support work around racial justice and other forms of social justice;
  • how to communicate productively with people of differing viewpoints;
  • how pre-service teachers can be better prepared for handling political or other sensitive topics in their future classrooms;
  • how we all can advocate for public education; and
  • how we can advocate for particular groups of students such as undocumented students whose futures are very uncertain at this time.

To address some of the points above, the next TSJ meeting–Feb 1 at 4:30pm; Freeman High School Room 107–will be the first session of two simultaneous Inquiry-to-Action Groups (ITAGs). One ITAG will focus on advocating for public education. The other will study the role of teachers during radical political changes (aimed for both practicing and pre-service teachers). Both groups will undertake shared readings and then take action, for instance through producing a resource that can be shared with the public in support of these two important causes.  New participants are welcome to attend.

Finally, here is Google doc of resources related to both the classroom and advocating for policies. If you have suggestions for additional resources to add, please email them to RVATSJ@gmail.com.