It’s September 2019. Exactly 40 years ago, I stood nervously behind a lectern with a roll book open to 125 carefully handwritten names. I was preparing to meet my first-ever students.
I didn’t think about teaching the 1980 presidential election. In the spring I could teach about the primaries, and I looked forward to it. Nor did I think about the Census scheduled for the coming April. My mother had worked proudly as a Census taker when I was a child and told us it was an important civic duty. In 1980, I filled out the form for my own household for the first time. I was a little excited about that, too.
Now, few educators can be so blasé. The 2016 presidential campaign became an ongoing reality TV show, and classroom discussions mutated into political cage fights, challenging educators in ways they’d never seen before. Most teachers I know are bracing for another rough year.
“I get angry about things, then go on and work.”
In the past, educators readily taught about the Census to explain the process and generate some excitement about being counted. They understood the economic and political benefits of ensuring a full count and saw little downside. This year, many will question whether they can, in good conscience, encourage students and families to participate.
In 2016, many teachers we surveyed told us they would skip teaching about the election that year. Not only did the campaign rhetoric make immigrant students anxious; it also made partisans unusually combative. Worse, while educators were prepared to teach about the process and the issues, few had lessons ready to tackle sexual harassment, name-calling and Twitter storms. This year, how many will opt again to avoid all the negative consequences and teach neither the election nor the Census?
If they do, it will be at a great cost. Most students get their largest dose of civics during presidential election years, and they get—at most—four of these between kindergarten and high school graduation. What happens to democracy if they miss two of those elections, just because that year’s campaign is closer to a natural disaster than to a national civic event?
And what happens to the very idea of equal representation if students don’t learn about the Census at least once while they’re in school and recognize how important it is to ensuring that their voices and interests matter?
This summer the 31 members of our Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board convened in Montgomery. While they were here, they worked in groups to respond to the prompt “I wish I had known …” and generated messages for educators new to the profession.
Me? I’m glad I didn’t know 40 years ago how tough being a teacher would become. But I will still offer some advice: Stand strong, find your allies, and do what is brave.
We’ll be here with strategies to help you recognize and stand up to injustice. Our cover story, by TT Staff Writer Coshandra Dillard, is about changing the way we see black youth so that educators can support them in getting the mental health care they need despite glaring disparities in access to care. We’re also featuring stories about people in schools who are standing up in the face of injustice, despite the risks. In this issue, for example, Cory Collins profiles educators who stood up for their LGBTQ students when a powerful hate group targeted their school. Ayesha al-Shabazz explains how to work for change with second-graders, and Dillard also shows how teachers are organizing to resist laws calling for them to be armed.
TT is working to change what our students learn about slavery, and we’ve just introduced a few new resources, including a K–5 framework, to our Teaching Hard History initiative. I hope you’ll take a look at what’s new and think about ways to incorporate it into your own practice.
In 2016, we wrote two reports detailing how presidential politics was showing up as hate and bias incidents in schools. In the spring of this year, we issued a report, Hate at School, that painted a vivid picture of the harassment and hostility too many students still encounter at school—a place that should be promoting their well-being, not their maltreatment. School leaders bear the greatest responsibility for school climate, but our new initiative USvsHate lifts the voices of students fighting against hate in their own schools. We think nothing is as powerful to young people as knowing that their voices matter.
Stay strong and remember why you chose this profession. We’ll be here when you need us.