I taught civics for over a decade. I took a personal vow to never disclose my political views to any student, to any staff member, or over any social medium. It was important to me that students were able to fully develop their political views without worry of disappointing me or making me proud. I generally picked apart all of their views on either end of the political spectrum and said,”Provide me with evidence. What supports your thinking?” Or I made them compromise with one another and take a different point of view. Although it was extremely challenging at times, I held back and did not share my point of view.
Life was easier then, back in good ole’ 2007. As hard as it is to believe, the parties were not nearly as divided, the political talk shows not nearly as angry. In the ten plus years where I worked with students on developing not only a love, respect, and understanding of the US Constitution, but also their own personal perspective on what the role of government should be, I never had a parent question what I was teaching. I live in a small town where everyone knows everyone. And, it is a very conservative community at that. Although my social media is private, I am friends with parents and siblings and ex-students because, well, it’s a small town.
I left the classroom three years ago and shed my skin as a civics teacher that would never publicly comment on any political matter. What caused this change? First, it was the state of schools in Arizona. As school reform and finance became more politically charged, I began to speak up. I would advocate here and there on education issues only. I still held true to my what-is-Mrs.-Festa mystique. I would sometimes share some historical Constitutional issues commentary or even some remarks by the Supreme Court, but I stayed out of the fray.
When I talk to the teacher who took my civics job, I feel the deepest respect. The political world is frankly different than it was even three years ago. Although teaching civics is not all politics, the political landscape touches a great deal on what is taught. It has got to be a lot more difficult to encourage 17-year-olds to compromise these days when we regularly just disconnect from people who disagree with our opinions and tell them they are dumb or evil.
As a teacher, it is difficult not to be political right now when so many decisions seem to have a direct effect on our kids. I was listening to a 24-hour news show that shared the story of a teacher who was arrested at a protest in Berkeley and tied that to the need for school choice. It implied that teachers were somehow biased against students who held opinions different from their own. So where is that line? Is it our duty to advocate for Dreamers? Do we need to be mindful of students who don’t feel this is appropriate? Am I alienating students’ families with my Facebook post about Colin Kaepernick? Did that Michelle Obama as Beyonce tweet just send a message to a kid that I don’t value him/her? Does sharing information about Confederate statues send a message that I hold a specific point of view and you as a student should hold it as well?
In a very short amount of time, I believe that teachers have had to become advocates. On our personal time, we should advocate like it is nobody’s business. We should thoughtfully fill our Twitter pages with articles that promote and support the protection of public schools. We need to exercise our first amendment rights in thoughtful ways and set good examples for those around us. We need to show others that there is room for compromise, but not accept anything less than what is right for students. I also believe we need to exercise caution when we talk to students directly and encourage them to develop their own ideas. We need to teach them that there isn’t only one correct political view and that they should value and respect one another’s opinion. The political arena is not a pretty one for adults. I am hopeful that we as educators do right by our students and teach them that civil discourse has to be alive and well in order to have a functioning democratic system of government. While I am no longer taking my vow of political silence, I am working every day on my vow of political respect and open mindedness, which is some days easier than others on social media. As a civics teacher, I owe that to my profession and to the next generation of citizens.