After an incredibly close presidential election, tensions are running high as many Americans across the political spectrum feel their way of life is at stake. In the face of this growing polarization, schools remain places where people of all beliefs and backgrounds come together. Educators, now more so than ever, need to navigate these different beliefs, finding a way to lead their classroom and school communities effectively and responsibly, creating safe spaces for honest and productive conversations.
We asked political philosopher and civic education expert Meira Levinson to weigh in on how teachers and school leaders can guide students and school communities who may feel unmoored by the unsettled election and political polarization.
What advice would you give to an educator so that they can be an effective and responsible voice for kids and families at this time?
One of the things teachers should do is some prework with themselves. They should think about where their own thoughts and emotions are right now. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, this is a time when we are all on tenterhooks. So a part of it is reflecting for oneself on what we feel capable of talking about with young people — what we can talk about in a way that will help them understand what’s going on, help them gain some sense of what may happen, and the extent to which we are prepared to help them process their own emotions and the emotions at home. Teachers also need to know where to draw the line and be clear with ourselves and our students on where we just don’t feel comfortable or capable of going right now.
At the same time, given our current situation under COVID, teachers are perhaps the only adults children have access to outside of their families. Especially for children who have different viewpoints from others in their household or who are concerned about or confused by what their family members are saying, teachers can be a helpful sounding board for students; we can help provide information, possibly affirmation, and reassurance. Of course, even this goes only so far. We can’t give false reassurance; in some cases, too, the ways students may want to be reassured may not align with our own political beliefs or values about what should be reassuring.
The United States has become more polarized, even at the family and neighborhood level, so one of the important things we can do as educators is to help open students up to understand the wide variety of perspectives, life experiences, and beliefs that exist in this amazing, diverse country of ours. We can help students understand why what may seem obvious to them and the people they know and love, may not seem obvious to others and, therefore, why it is we’re in this situation.
It’s also important to know this is not (yet) a breakdown in democracy. What we’re seeing thus far is democracy at work. We had incredible turnout of people who cared about the future of the U.S. and about the ways in which the American political system and elected officials could make a difference for our country, states, and cities. That demonstrates a belief in the U.S. political system and in democracy that we should not take for granted.