As we approach the 100th day of the Trump administration, America is intensely divided on political topics across the spectrum. And those divisions are playing out in classrooms, a sensitive battleground where issues like class, race, and gender converge.
We collected stories from teachers around the country about how their students, their classroom environments, and their jobs have changed in the era of Trump. Some said they’d noticed an uptick in racist language among students. Others mentioned criticism from parents that they were indoctrinating students in the classroom. Many spoke of navigating uneasy boundaries between fact and ideology when teaching topics such as social studies or climate change.
The following is a snapshot of life in American classrooms after the election. We used only first names so that teachers could speak freely about their experiences. Here are their stories.
Some students are afraid they’ll get deported
Mark, Kansas: My high school has a relatively high Latino population, with a fair number of undocumented immigrant students or children or relatives of undocumented immigrants. Many of these students have expressed concerns about the future or have withdrawn because they fear that talking to authority figures might be unwise.
Latino students have always showed a lot of pride in their native country by wearing clothing that represents this heritage, such as flag shirts, actual flags, or sports jerseys. Since the election, this has almost completely stopped.
In the 12 years I have taught at my high school, I have never dealt with any students who have shown white supremacy tendencies. We are a very diverse school. But since the election, a group of around 10 ninth-grade white students have been responsible for Nazi-related graffiti, random “Trump!” chants at Latino students, using the term “Jewish” as something that is negative, and [sending] mass emails through the online classroom with anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT messages.
Government class used to feel irrelevant to a lot of students. No longer.
Brad, Missouri: Every day, and in some cases by the hour, the Trump administration enacts or creates policy that lead to teachable moments in my classes. In the past, the study of government — three branches, separation of powers, the Constitution, and the bureaucracy — would have been pretty mundane and tedious. Now the constant barrage of controversial policy has my students wanting to know, “Can he do that?!”
Their anxiety and concern leads us on a search for a deeper level of understanding of how the structures and institutions of our government are formed and how they function, and will they protect us from tyranny or authoritarianism.
Sexism can be harder to tackle than racism
Danielle, California: Students have been a lot more openly disrespectful toward women. My students are 14 years old and are fairly internet-savvy. I get a lot of students commenting on female appearances, making openly anti-feminist comments. It all feels like normalized behavior to them. I will stop this behavior when it happens and point out how it violates our community agreements, but for a lot of young men I'm just another radical “feminazi,” and it feels that anything I said would simply be rejected and ignored.
It is really hard to not get emotional. For example, we were discussing forced child marriage, and a student refer[red] to a child from the story as a “skanky whore.” I've learned that talking one on one, my previous best strategy for inappropriate comments, doesn't work because it opens me up for liability, as students can easily lie about our conversation.
Instead, I try to break down in a respectful way for the entire class why certain comments aren't permitted, but I feel woefully ineffective. As a Latina teacher, I find comments about Latinx people more vitriolic but shockingly easier to shut down than gender-based comments.
Parents have a lot of opinions on what does and doesn’t belong in the classroom
Dean, California: The election has had a unique effect on colleagues, administration, and parents. Teachers have been warned and reprimanded for discussing political topics or showing TV clips to classes. This comes after a small but vocal number of parent complaints, ranging from the fair, such as no Daily Show clips, to the ridiculous, such as, “Teachers are indoctrinating our children to serve the Islamic State.”
Administration has been defending most issues valiantly, but I hear things like, “We have to placate these people,” or, “I'm tired of dealing with this parent,” a lot more than I used to. Over the past couple of months, admin has basically directed everyone to be silent on modern topics. This has had a strange and noticeable dampening effect on teachers' overall enthusiasm. It seems like people are far more careful with their speech than just a year ago.
Margaret, Indiana: I feel like I bounce a lot back to the parents. If something controversial comes up, I want to respect the vastly different viewpoints of both halves of the families in my class, so I generally just tell the kids to talk to their parents about it. In some ways it's passing the buck, but in others it feels the most appropriate response for 10-year-olds.
Teaching science is suddenly more political
Joshua, Kentucky: As a biology teacher, it is extremely difficult to not seem anti-Trump when talking about the importance of data or science. Typically students won't argue with me about what I'm teaching, but there is an undercurrent, through humor or just looks, that makes me worried that what I'm teaching is being viewed as political. Whenever climate change comes up, some students will grumble, “Fake news.”
The most effective method has been to ask the students to evaluate how much weight to give data. We had an amazing set of conversations about belief when it comes to science topics. Can there be a truth when we try in our society to preserve the space for people to say, “Well, I believe ...”?
The bathroom bill hit a nerve — and forced students to have difficult conversations with each other
Luke, Texas: The best conversations I've had with students regarding politics and current issues happen outside of class time. After school, when kids hang out in my room for a little while, while they wait for a ride or something, I've sustained a great dialogue. I feel like I can be more open and honest with them, and I can listen to them without eating up class time. I let my kids curse and rant and cry if they need to, because that emotion needs to get purged a bit before they can think critically.
One time I had students come in to hang out, and they were in the middle of ranting about a conservative student who was outspoken about the transgender bathroom issue. While they huffed and puffed, in walked that very student. I proceeded to host and structure a civilized conversation between them as the guy was outnumbered by four progressive but angry girls.
It felt like a corny made-for-TV movie at first, but in the end, they got to share their opinions and why they felt that way, and they ended up understanding each other more. They were thankful by the end of it and didn't end up hating each other.
Moments like the one above are not in my job description and should not be, but I've realized that it's a reality for any teacher that wants to teach critical thinking and build a trusting rapport with their students. I want to be on the right side of history and work against fascism, but I also want to humbly approach issues with the understanding that I could be wrong. If I teach students how to ask the right questions and think about everything critically, then I feel like I've done my best.