There have been a lot of conversations, photos, tweets, memes, and arguments surrounding politics in the last year. Some of it positive, some of it negative. A lot of it found its way into the classroom in one way or another. How should teachers and staff members talk about politics in the classroom? How do teachers present their opinions on politics and other sensitive issues in an unbiased way that doesn’t offend anyone? This election has blurred the lines between opinion and fact. It has created challenges for administrators. Let’s see how HRV has handled political bias in the classroom.
When asked if they experienced bias in the classroom, the response from students was mixed. Junior Soren Rajani responded: “I would say I have experienced small amounts but nothing that would effect me academically negatively in terms of an A or a B. Nothing that would actually change a grade.” Junior and political activist Elizabeth Bailey said “I haven’t noticed anything. I was openly supportive of Bernie and Hillary and I think I have seen teachers kind of with a similar alignment. If I had experienced bias it would have been in favor of me, but I really don’t think so, but I haven’t been thinking about it.” No negative experiences with bias were mentioned. Students did not express to me times when they were offended by the biases of their teachers.
I have felt a change in the news outlets that I relied on in the past to be unbiased. They began to sway one way or the other. I felt like it was implied that I was a Hillary-voting liberal. I asked students if they felt that their teachers assumed that they were liberal: “I feel like teachers assume that most of the general population of students are liberal but there are definitely students who would stand out as conservative,” Rajani said. “I think there is a fair amount of assumption around liberal alignment in most classes. I haven’t heard a lot of condemning conservative ideologies so much as just comments made by Trump such as, “I think he is unprofessional.”
I think my teachers have been pretty good about not saying “if you support Trump you are evil,” said Bailey. While it seems that students feel that their teachers might assume they are liberal, they do not discourage conservative viewpoints. Bailey explains this liberal assumption “Hood River is a pretty strongly liberal town, most people voted for Hillary. So it’s fair to assume that most people are liberal.”
I asked students if they wished there would have been more or less discussion of the election in the classroom: Rajani said: “I would prefer that my teachers not mention politics in general unless we are talking about history class in which we can talk about politics in the past but not in the present generally just because it creates divides among people regardless of whether they are accepted or are experiencing discrimination or a bias against them.”
“I love talking about the election. I think I am the only one though. I understand when people don’t want to talk about it. I think there was a really good amount of discussion, it wasn’t ignored. It wasn’t an essential thing, and it wasn’t overdone,” Bailey commented.
I wanted to know if students felt like their teachers did a good job presenting the election in an unbiased way. “They presented it as something polarizing and using more negative adjectives and words around it to almost imply that there was a vastly negative outcome and regardless of your political opinion you probably shouldn’t be voicing that in front of a classroom, which is my opinion of course,” said Rajani. “My teachers in the softer social subjects did a really fantastic job saying ‘this is what happens,’ some of them said ‘this is what I think’ but did a good job maneuvering around the topic without being offensive. I think most of my teachers, if they didn’t feel comfortable talking about the election in a way that wasn’t biased or wasn’t weird just didn’t talk about it which is good,“ Bailey said.
After talking to students, I wanted to get the perspective of teachers to see if they struggle with this issue, and how they handle talking about politics. Social Studies teacher Steve Noteboom comments: “I try to listen to both sides of an issue and try to touch on both perspectives and it’s something that as I listen to the news and read articles I’m thinking about what to say in class. It’s hard, especially to keep personal opinions out.” I heard from students that teachers mostly shared their opinions when they were asked for, Noteboom confirmed, “If they ask, I might, depending on what it is”
Bailey said that teachers would share their political opinions if students asked. Noteboom seemed to have that policy: “if student questions are geared toward my opinion then I can share that but I try not to have a strong opinion and to say ‘this is what I believe and this is what the other side believes’ and try to have a balanced approach even though I will share my opinion.” I asked HRV principal Rich Polkinghorn if it was okay for teachers to share their opinions about the election in the classroom, “They could but they have to make sure it’s really clear that ‘this is my position or opinion’ and not to push their position in any way so I would recommend not.”
It has become important for teachers to teach their students how to spot news that is fake and distinguish it from the facts. Noteboom thinks it’s important too: “I guess also I want students to be good consumers of the news and as a department we have been talking about fake news and what is accurate and what is not and that also helps with bias, if you can analyse the media and use sources that are reputable. … We do talk about fake news and trying to decypher what that looks like and what they see on Facebook or other social media is that really news and trying to educate them.” Talon adviser Dave Case said that when news used to come in paper form, it was easier to determine what was opinion and what was fact because these categories were labeled on specific pages: “as a teacher I’m practiced in identifying opinion and fact. So much of our media has blurred that difference. Our news no longer comes in pages and so it’s hard to see. If you watch CNN, I wish it were labeled if it’s a newscast and if it’s commentary, but often it’s not. With that blurring, it makes it really hard on teachers to distinguish the difference and if you aren’t really careful linguistically then you’re going to cross that line.”
I asked Polkinghorn about district policy on politics in the classroom, “a staff member is certainly entitled to their opinion about politics but they cannot use their platform as a public employee-in this case a teacher- to push their political agenda in one way or the other. So it’s against board policy for staff members to take a position with their students but it’s okay to have a conversation about politics.” I liked how Case broke it down, “District policy is: We are allowed to say what we think, we aren’t allowed to tell you what to think.” Noteboom said, of district policy, “I do use it to shape what we talk about in class”
I was curious about how this election compared to those of previous years so I asked Polkinghorn: “In the past, actually when Obama was elected in ‘08, which was my first year as a vice principal year, we had more parents at that time say that they didn’t want their kids to watch the election. There was more concern then than this time around honestly…. This year it has been more challenging. There has been more conversations with staff members, you know, just be careful. If you are having a conversation with your class about the election regardless of how you feel you have to be really careful not to come off as too biased, and that is hard. It’s hard for a lot of people.” Case said, “In other elections it’s been easy to keep it even and to say ‘there is this candidate and this candidate’. Trump is so assymetrical and unique and so beyond the pale in terms of some of the things he does and some of the things he has said…there is a morality that goes beyond teaching kids about civics, and sometimes it’s hard to separate the two. Sometimes it’s easier to talk about it in a meeting than when it actually comes up in class.”
What should you do if you feel that your teachers are teaching in a biased way? Polkinghorn advised, “I would say if you are comfortable enough talking to your teacher, that would be a great place to start. The things I like about working in a high school is part of our job is to encourage you guys to be adults and how to deal with adult situations and if you are in a class where the teacher is doing something you feel like they shouldn’t be doing, it’s okay to have a conversation with them about that. But it’s about when you have that conversation, confronting them in front of the whole class would not be appropriate. But after class pulling them aside and having a conversation is totally appropriate but if you feel like that is not comfortable for you or you don’t feel good about doing that you could always come let me know or Mr. Parsons or Mr. Rosselle we will find out and get your side of the story and figure out a plan for how to deal with it.”
Whatever you feel about the recent election, be conscious of other people’s opinions. Be respectful of other’s viewpoints and don’t belittle them or condemn them for having their own opinions. If you feel that your teachers are biased in an offensive way, remember that they are trying their best and this is a difficult issue for teachers. Talk to them one on one but don’t be confrontational in front of the class. Everyone is different, and part of what “makes america great” is that diversity and the ability to have a conversation about those differences.
By Elizabeth Bricker, Talon staff reporter