Politics, current events, and presidential elections are generally an exciting subject for any social studies, civics, or history teacher. This election is different. This election has been an opportunity to talk to my students not about ideas but instead how not to act as humans. Fortunately, my students realize the need to maintain decency when talking about complex issues, and that a difference of opinions is not an invitation to belittle, humiliate or shout at their peers.
As teachers, we fight an uphill battle in our attempt to encourage our students to disagree with ideas, but not people. Our goal is to encourage thoughtful disagreement between ideas; we believe in these disagreements as a way for students to grow in their beliefs and further understand who they are as people. We encourage everyone to express their views and values, and we never want students to feel as though disagreement among ideas means to ignore or belittle one another.
This runs counter to much of the discourse we’re seeing in the current presidential contest. Our kids watch this primary process and wonder if they, too, have to resort to name-calling in order for their ideas to win out, or for their chance to be on top. It’s sad to think that, as a teacher, I’m forced to forgo much of what is normally exciting about presidential elections and instead focus on reminding my students that they shouldn’t conduct student government elections like the adults they see running for president. I have to remind them that they are running on their ideas, not as a counter to another student.
I have students whose values fall all across the political spectrum. I cherish this in the classroom. We are fortunate to have thoughtful discussions that offer an array of opinions and ideas relating to any given topic. This diversity in values makes it a priority of mine to showcase each candidate running to lead our nation. But this election hasn’t made that easy. This year, I struggled to come up with an inclusive way to present each of the candidates without bringing offensive language into the classroom. I continue to struggle with opportunities to show short clips from the debates, or campaign videos. On both sides of the aisle the debates have been characterized with shouting, name calling and often disregard for issues facing Americans in favor of insignificant details about the candidates.
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As teachers, and Americans, we want a more substantive debate. We want our candidates to present ideas that can move us forward. We want an election process that showcases the complexity and sincerity of our leaders. We want adults to act like, well, adults.
Capps is an 8th grade U.S. History and service learning teacher at Community School of Davidson.