I’m not the first person to say that we have impossible standards for teachers. In this case, what I mean by that is that we expect them to be loving, caring people who do what they do out of some higher moral calling, yet we also want them to be neutral purveyors of non-politicized knowledge. So many people cry concern over teachers indoctrinating their children or overstepping their bounds as educators. “That sort of thing should really be dealt with at home,” is a common refrain, similar to “Isn’t that the parents’ job?”
Of course, teachers do lots of things that are traditionally the parents’ jobs, like bringing lunch for students or providing a warm coat so they can go outside during winter. But I’m not here to talk about that right now. What I’m here to talk about is why teachers shouldn’t be neutral or non-politicized, even if it were possible.
Let’s start with some introductions. I am a white, queer, Jewish woman who has taught in primary K-6 schools in Massachusetts. I usually teach the upper grades, but I’ve taught 2nd graders, as well as doing a brief stint as an assistant preschool teacher. And I’m not afraid to publish these identities publicly because my students always know them, almost from day one in my classroom.
These identities inform my teaching and I make use of them to reach students, just as I also use my enjoyment of video games, my pop culture knowledge, my opinions on Sci Fi media, and the fact that I’ve traveled to China or shaved my head (both in the same year, actually, but that’s a different story).
I use these identities to have difficult discussions with students without forcing a student to serve as a “lesson” to the others. I am out as queer (though I don’t use that word with students, since in the wrong hands, it’s a slur), so that my student with two moms knows that I won’t be weird about it. So my student experimenting with gender identity has an adult who knows the lingo and the community. When students, as they do, use gay slurs at recess, I or other teachers can point to me as a real person who is hurt by those words.
I’m open about my religion for similar reasons. Whether to be an ally for a student with a similar identity or to educate a student who is curious or bigoted (it can start young, unfortunately), I let myself be politicized to spare young people that same fate, until they’re ready to choose it.
More than talking about my own identities, though, I share my opinions on things in the classroom. From under-representation of women and people of color in science (during a 6th grade Technology and Robotics Unit) to why their description of the bad guy in their writing uses harmful Native American stereotypes (2nd grade Writer’s Workshop) to the importance of giving back through community service (6th grade homeroom) I’m not afraid to engage my students with real issues. That necessarily includes sometimes providing my own input in regards to those issues.
Now, I’m not saying that teachers should push their opinions on students. Especially with younger students, who may be more impressionable or more likely to look up to teachers, it’s important that we clearly distinguish between giving our views and giving more objective information.
But there’s no such thing as value-neutral information. Even 1+1=2 can have a political impact based on who you’re teaching, who you expect to understand it, and what tone you deliver the information in.
When you get to scientific discoveries, history, and literature, the lines get even more blurred.
So I prefer to be open and explicit about sharing my opinions and views, couched in an environment that encourages disagreement and open discussion. I want my students to be critical of my views, as well as their own. Part of that is being open about those views and showing appropriate ways to disagree and use point/counterpoint.
In terms of the argument that these things should be left to the parents, I disagree. I know I want my own children to be exposed to people with different views and backgrounds than my own, even if that means challenging my worldview.
Scratch that: especially if that means challenging my worldview. And if parents have strong beliefs, they should be prepared to defend and explain them to their children, using disagreement as teaching moments rather than threats. Or they can homeschool their children, which is a much stronger form of potential indoctrination than exposing them to an environment of diverse people and opinions, but certainly within their rights.
Obviously, this kind of educational practice requires professional judgment on the part of the educator and administration of the school. There’s a difference between sharing with your class why you think privacy is more important than security in law (a discussion sparked by our study of the Constitution and current events) and sharing with your class that you think boys are inherently better than girls at math. For one thing, the first can’t definitively be proven, while the second theoretically could, and has a scientific basis (or lack thereof).
More importantly, the second has the potential to hurt students, making a girl feel less capable or less valued in your classroom. I think, though, that we need to trust teachers to make these professional evaluations, and include transparency in our classroom practices so that parents and students are able to raise concerns and be heard.
I know it’s scary as a parent to wonder what educators are saying to your child all day, especially if you’re concerned about them saying things you don’t agree with. It may seem easier to just tell teachers to keep their opinions out of their teaching, but that’s unrealistic and ultimately harmful. If we want to educate students to be critical thinkers and logical decision-makers, and able to function in the increasingly global economy everyone keeps worrying about, we need to teach them to form and evaluate opinions.
I believe that an important function of public schooling is to empower all students. Empower is a word that’s thrown around a lot, but what I mean is that students should be educated in a way that allows them to explore their identity(ies) and learn to express themselves. They also need to learn to live and work with people different from themselves, and to disagree with and evaluate ideas respectfully and intelligently.
A lot needs to change before that ideal can be fully realized, but a big part of that is for teachers to stop pretending that we can be some sort of neutral arbiter of knowledge and instead be the full people that we are. In this way, we can model for students how to do the same. If we let them, the selves that we often try to suppress can actually help us do what we’re there to do: educate.