Teachers across the country say students are so troubled by the inflammatory rhetoric of the presidential race that addressing the election in schools is essential. At the same time, offensive behavior on the trail is making it increasingly difficult to incorporate the campaign into classrooms, especially for teachers of younger children.
Fifth-grade Los Angeles Unified School District teacher Kristine Shahine, who is passionate about nourishing a love of democracy in her students, says she completely changed the way she taught the election this year.
“To say that it’s a challenge would be a gross understatement,” she said.
After a thorough introduction to the electoral process, Shahine instructed her students to watch the first presidential debate. As they watched, the class communicated on a group portal, answering her questions and commenting between each other in real time.
“It was really fascinating and they loved it!” she said.
But by the time the third debate came around, she felt she couldn’t “in good conscience” risk exposing students to the unpredictable content.
“I said ‘boys and girls, I just feel I can’t assign this. You can watch it with your parents, but some of these topics are very offensive and really above your understanding,'” Shahine told Mom.me.
While many teachers are attempting to focus on process and policy to bypass the candidate’s often shocking behavior, Shahine says this was also challenging because "with Donald Trump it’s hard to even discuss his policies. Everything that comes from him is more of an attack or responding to some slight.”
In the end she realized, “I just have to move away from this election.”
The girls are very affected and feel very hurt by some of the comments that have been made.
She turned to historical political figures as better examples of America’s political system than the current nominees.
“I showed them debates from the past. We did a whole lesson on past debates and about what behavior is considered stately and what is considered dignified,” she said.
Shahine said the election did prompt constructive dialogue about race relations, immigration and appropriate behavior, but she said many of her students were genuinely worried about the election’s outcome.
“I think it has impacted the girls the most," she said. “They are very affected and feel very hurt by some of the comments that have been made and feel great pride in the fact we may have a (female) president.”
While Shahine wouldn’t reveal to students who she was voting for, she felt she had to point out that certain things they heard are simply unacceptable.
“Some of these racist, misogynistic comments, I have to tell them that I think are wrong. It has nothing to do with politics,” she said. For Shahine, it was vital to address her students' fears about the future.
“I tell them I worry about the same kinds of things,” she said. “It shouldn’t be belittled.”
Huge numbers of teachers report they are also finding it difficult to address these problems. A Teaching Tolerance survey of 2,000 teachers showed the 2016 campaign is having a very negative effect. Teachers said immigrants and Muslims students were scared while others were copying politician’s violent, racist rhetoric.
“We’re deeply concerned about the level of fear among minority children who feel threatened by both the incendiary campaign rhetoric and the bullying they’re encountering in school,” said Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen in an introduction to the report. “We’ve seen Donald Trump behave like a 12-year-old, and now we’re seeing 12-year-olds behave like Donald Trump.”
“Honestly, I just can’t wait until it’s over. The campaign is ruining a lot of classes.”
In a recent article in the New York Times, teacher Brent Wathke from Wisconsin echoed Shahine’s experiences, calling the election “a total mess.”
“Honestly, I just can’t wait until it’s over,” Wathke said. “The campaign is ruining a lot of classes.”
He too decided not to show his 12-year-old students the third debate. He has also avoided television ads and political cartoons, as their content was simply too inappropriate. Instead he is focusing on guided discussions in small groups, with many reminders not to behave like the real presidential candidates.
Wathke said the atmosphere among students was so heated he feared staging a mock debate, as students could mimic the insults they heard on the media.
High school teacher Daniel Jocz of the Downtown Magnets High School in Los Angeles told Mom.me he hasn’t changed the way he is addressing the election, which he says has produced some very teachable moments for older students. At the same time, he says many of his students are scared.
“Many of my undocumented students have expressed genuine concern about the prospect of being separated from their families,” he said.
Jocz said the conflictive atmosphere of the election and the candidates' scant respect for facts have definitely heightened tensions in his classroom.
“The sweeping generalizations about immigrants, Muslims and other groups does nothing but create division and oversimplify extraordinary complex issues,” he said.