The Election, One Year Later: Stories From Anthropologists of Education

In the fall of 2016 and spring of 2017, these four anthropologists observed how students and educators responded to the presidential election. This winter, they followed up to see what had changed in the last year.
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Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center published The Trump Effect, a report—based on a survey of approximately 2,000 K–12 teachers—identifying the most common effects of a particularly contentious campaign on students and on educators. 

While surveys gather trends in short responses, anthropologists seek deeper themes and stories. We are among those who work to document and understand everyday lives from participants’ perspectives, and we are embedded every day in schools across the country doing this work. In the spring of 2017, a few of us reached out to members of the American Anthropological Association’s Council on Anthropology and Education (CAE) to ask for descriptions of teacher, student or family realities documented since the election. In the next two weeks, we will be sharing those stories through Teaching Tolerance in an article series that dives deeply into experiences in particular schools. These short articles were written by researchers who were embedded in schools when the 2016 U.S. election happened and shortly thereafter. Each anthropologist then returned to their site one year later to talk to participants. All educators’ and students’ names used here are pseudonyms to protect the privacy of the people we worked with. 

We heard these themes in our initial 2016-17 conversations: fear, particularly from young people who have been marginalized or targeted; uncertainty, about the future and about how to address current events in schools; empowerment, or a new insistence on standing up for human rights and democratic beliefs; tensions, between previously held beliefs about “America” and current realities; and above all, anxiety. 

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One year later, we hear additional themes: sustained student and teacher engagement, as political events affect students and families even more directly; exhaustion from contemporary political events, as well as continued anxiety about them; and ongoing confusion about how to discuss a presidency without precedent. Several of the teachers we spoke with remain uncertain about how to lead a conversation about the Trump era in their classrooms—and about how to “protect” students overall from harm. Some are saying little about this era at all.

Experiences differ by school—and within each school. In one East Coast high school where many students have immigrated to the United States, anti-immigrant rhetoric has caused anxiety among many members of the school community and also led some teachers to speak more directly with their students about immigration issues. Chandler P. Miranda, the anthropologist studying school culture and schooling practices for immigrant youth at the school, talked to one immigrant student who welcomed this new openness from her white, middle-class teacher: “I mean, [a change to policy] isn’t going to affect her the same way it’s going to affect us because we’re immigrants. But she made us feel like she was part of us, like she was with us.”

In the same region of the country, Alexandra Freidus was working at a middle school studying how changing school demographics relate to classroom teaching and learning. After the election, she witnessed a flurry of engagement. But a year later, explicit activism has died down at the school: “Teachers’ commitment to social justice,” she writes, “has returned to a focus on the well-being of their most underserved students.”

At a high school in the Midwest, Max Altman was studying how teachers could be supported in improving their practice and better addressing their social justice priorities. During and just after the election, the teachers he worked with struggled to address politics in the classroom. A year later, he returned to find a school experiencing more fights; a principal told him violence was at a high point. But the students had formed an LGBT club since the election, too, and a social studies teacher explained that student engagement in his history and government classes were way up. Yet, for the first time in his 14 years in the classroom, a student had spoken up during a lesson on World War II to question whether the Holocaust really happened.

Jia-Hui Stefanie Wong, also embedded at a Midwestern high school during the 2016 election, was researching the ways educational inequalities are produced, reproduced and challenged in K–12  schools. At the racially and socioeconomically diverse school where she was working, teachers seemed to find themselves at a loss in the days after the election. A year later, some teachers had developed ways to answer their students’ concerns through curricular means, building out lessons on the civil rights movement and celebrating Latinx identity. Others, however, still aren’t sure how to engage students on the critical topics filling their newsfeeds. A social studies teacher volunteered that he was afraid to engage his class on current events like sexual misconduct allegations for fear that students would be hurtful to one another. Wong lets us hear that teacher’s voice: “As he reflected on these decisions, he mused, ‘Maybe I’ve done a disservice in not talking about some of the more important issues.’”

We hope to continue collecting stories like these from anthropologists and educators. And we  hope you’ll respond to the Teaching Tolerance School Climate Survey by January 30 to let us know how current events, proposed policies and political rhetoric are affecting you and your students. 

Most of all, though, we want to start a conversation now. In the second year since the election, has its impact faded or increased for children, families and educators in your school community? What new experiences, questions or concerns have emerged? How might we better help each other?

Let us know. 

Pollock, an anthropologist, is Professor of Education Studies and Director of the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment, and Teaching Excellence (CREATE) at the University of California, San Diego. Her newest book is Schooltalk: Rethinking What We Say About—and to—Students Every Day (The New Press).