Posts Tagged 'politics'

Are Teachers Real People? Life Inside and Outside the Classroom

By Claudia Felske – The age old question persists: Are teachers real people?

I remember one morning in high school when Mr. Yach’s wife stopped in to drop off his V8 during Freshman English. I was amazed that he had a wife and that he drank V8! I was dizzy with this insider info: It felt like Teacher TMZ.  

Another oft’ repeated story in my family is when one of my sisters saw our kindergarten teacher…wait for it…wait for it…smoking a cigarette!

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She was not on school property, she was not at a school event, and it was years after we’d had her as a teacher, but none of that made the bite any less venomous. Mrs. Hintzman was smoking a cigarette! Our blood ran cold, our memories had just been sold. It was at least as bad as J. Geiles discovering the fate of his childhood girlfriend.

And so, becoming a teacher, I was well aware of the importance of reputation and the odd fascination that can surround teachers’ personal lives.  

Case in point: I am a resident of the small community in which I teach. So although I’ve lived here almost 20 years, I’ve never stepped foot into the legendary annual ETBT (East Troy Beer Tent) because…I’m a resident of the small town in which I teach.

Those types of decisions are no brainers.

The harder ones involve things that matter more – my beliefs, my opinions, my values.

In my younger years, this was not a problem. I grew up in a family that had dinner-table debates, intense ones which often included the use of dictionaries and encyclopedias and occasionally featured my dad’s fist hitting the table, spilling our glasses of milk.  We were raised to speak our minds and to back up our opinions.

High school and college provided similar opportunities. As an editorial writer for The Mustang Express and The Marquette Tribune, I became accustomed to using the written word to speak my peace and to challenge conventional thinking.

Public education, though, is a slightly more complicated arena.   

One of my first years teaching, our local library referendum was overwhelmingly defeated on the same day the US Congress allocated billions of additional funding for the war in Iraq (Part I, that is). My hot little fingers (mimicking my hot little temper) pounded out a letter to the editor singing the injustice of it all.

Version 1 was no holds bar. Then, I had my husband–Mike Felske a.k.a. My Filter–read it and help me tone it down, making my liberalness a tad less flaming. Then, and only then–or so I thought–did I send it off to the East Troy Times.

Not until one of my students, jubilantly quoting me, entered my classroom the next week (one who would regularly don a homemade T-shirt reading “Books Not Bombs!”) did I realize it was the pre-edited version of my letter that had somehow made it to the paper.  A deep crimson crawled down my face as I realized my untamed message was now community-wide.

Backlash included a few weeks of ugly gazes (some legit, others just my paranoia, I’m sure) at the grocery store and post office. Soon enough, though, things were back to normal but with a slightly more savvy me.

But back to our question: Are teachers real people? Or, less hyperbolically, as a public school teacher, to what extent can I be true to myself and my beliefs in and outside the classroom?

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Enter another teacher story (surprise, surprise). After high school, I learned that one of my favorite teachers held political views diametrically opposed to mine. This surprised me for two reasons: 1) I never would have guessed that she held those particular views  2) Though she taught me history for two years, those views had never surfaced in her classroom.

The lesson I gleaned from all of this was the importance of keeping one’s personal views out of the classroom. I learned so effectively from Mrs. Rice because she didn’t teach me what to think, but how to think. She never risked alienating her students by telling them her views. Teaching them to think for themselves is what was most important.

And so, it has always been my position to keep my political views out of my classroom. Yes, we talk about controversial issues in debate and persuasive writing, in our discussions of nonfiction and fiction alike, but I don’t state my opinions; rather I ask questions, I nudge, I play both pro and con. My mission is to get my students to think, to weigh, to investigate, to support.

Okay, that’s all well and good, but we still haven’t answered the question: Can teachers be authentic and “real” people, true to themselves? I am a teacher, but I am also a citizen, a voter, a human being. Just because I don’t express my opinions in my classroom doesn’t mean they’re not important to me. The 10 year old at my parents’ dinner table still dwells within. The editorial writer in me still has a row of sharpened pencils on her desk.   

As a public school teacher and an opinionated human being, here’s my imperfect solution:

I DON’T:

  • Tell students who I’m voting for
  • Keep one shred of political affiliation on my body or in my classroom
  • Take sides on political issues in class

I DO:

  • Write a monthly blog expressing my views on educational issues
  • Put bumper stickers on my car when I feel the urge
  • Attend protests when I am so inclined
  • Speak when interviewed (as a private citizen, not as a public school teacher)

Though these do’s and don’ts delineate between my public and private spheres, they don’t come without soul searching. Not being 100% myself in the classroom means not being fully authentic while (here comes the hypocrisy) trying todownload help my students become their fully authentic selves.

Like anything that matters, it’s cloudy, imperfect, and complicated.

A year ago, my do and don’t lists were further tested when I wrote an Open Letter to Governor Walker.  What I thought was a routine blogpost on educational issues turned into a public declaration of my political views to the nation. My blogpost went viral (I’m used to a readership of about 30, not 300,000). This was, to say the least, new territory for me.

I don’t regret the letter; I’m proud of the attention it received and the conversations it engendered.  

There were SO many lessons it taught me as a writer and as a teacher of writing: the power of words, the intricacies and speed of social media, the “new” layered world the internet, social media, politics and news, the interconnected web of bloggers, vloggers, and online newsmakers. There were so many practical and ethical facets to that experience. When I stop to think about it, my mind is still reeling.

But here’s the weirdest part: All of those lessons—authentic, real-life, unscripted, powerful lessons about the written word—will never make it into my classroom.

Bringing those “lessons” into my classroom would be crossing the “don’t” line: it would be bringing my politics into my classroom; it would be taking a side; teaching the “what” instead of the “how.” It would be violating the Mrs. Rice Rule.

And so, the whole ordeal will remain The Best Lesson I Can Never Teach.

Meanwhile, both sides of me–the conscientious teacher and the opinionated citizen, though not in complete unity–will coexist imperfectly.

When and if to Talk to Student About Politics

3002972826_5f146862c0_o.jpgBy Peggy Wuenstel – As the rhetoric around the upcoming election heats up, conversations in the classroom inevitably are peppered with some of what our students are hearing and seeing on the airwaves. It is always a careful line to walk when kids ask you to participate in this exchange. While it is always our responsibility not to present our political opinions as fact to students, it is also our right to have those same opinions.

One of the most challenging aspects of being a teacher is to be a consistent, appropriate model of participation in our system of government. I proudly wear my “I Voted” sticker back to class after casting my ballot and welcome their questions about the process. I answer factual questions when I can, and when I can’t, make the promise to find out, just as I would in every other area in which they ask for information. I help them to distinguish between fact and opinion and to consider their sources, even as early as kindergarten. I have fielded a lot of questions this year about why anyone would WANT to be president. We are raising a generation of kids who do not see female or candidates of color as historic, unlikely, or impossible. How encouraging is that?

I am also aware of my role as a role model and the necessity not to use that in inappropriate ways. They know which aging blue mini-van in the parking lot is mine. As it is visible from my classroom, my choice of bumper stickers reflects that caution. They are issue-related, not candidate-specific. I am unabashedly pro-public education, anti-money in politics, and pro-income equality.  I am active politically in the community and the political action chair for my local education association. I have promoted local referenda, campaigned for pro-education school board candidates across the spectrum of elected offices, written opinion pieces, and financially supported individuals and causes I believe in.

My selection as one of Wisconsin’s Teachers of the Year in the turbulent year of 2010 presented me with a new set of responsibilities and directives. I must be the kind of teacher who knows what is happening and participates in the decision making at all levels possible. It has changed my life. Being informed, active, and concerned about the welfare of the others is the kind of role model I want to be for my students.

I was providing a reading lesson to two third graders a few weeks back about former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. (This was before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, so their engagement surprised me even more than if it had followed the media coverage of his death and resulting controversy about a new appointment to the court.) The online article traced her path from student to justice, but did not thoroughly explain how a justice is selected. Much to my delight, they asked, and the process of presidential nomination and senate confirmation came up. I briefly discussed that this is one of the reasons that it is important to choose a president whose values are those we want on the Supreme Court and how the system of checks and balances is outlined in The Constitution.

One of these students is of Hispanic heritage and the other’s background is African American, although he has been raised by loving Caucasian parents who are educators. The only difference this has ever made is in the need to provide reading selections and lessons that are diverse and inclusive. On this day, they gave me the instruction. V, the first student, said vehemently, “We’d better not pick Trump then. He wants to send all Mexicans back to Mexico and I don’t want to go.” V was born here and his parents run a successful local landscaping business. J, his partner in this reading group replied, “Well. I’m black and he doesn’t like me either.” My teacher radar kicked into high gear, realizing that some kind of explanation was going to be needed.

They provided the direction for our conversation, asking me directly, “Are you voting for Donald Trump?” My response, “It is not my place to tell you who to vote for, or to influence your decisions about things like that. What I can tell you is that when I choose who to vote for in a presidential election, I look for the best leader. That, in my view, is someone who tries to bring people together and make everyone feel like they have an important part to play in making our country work well.” They said in reply, almost in unison: “Then you are not voting for Donald Trump.” My smile was my response.

I like to think about a broader definition of politics when I consider whether or not to discuss it directly with students. They need to have a basic understanding of how schools are funded, how elections work, or don’t work, and their eventual place in it. As a mentor of mine once told me, “It is not my job to tell you what to think, it is to give you something to think about.” And these kids are paying attention to some things. We need to make sure that that partial knowledge doesn’t pass for comprehension of the issues and direct the hard choices that have to be made.

This anecdote from back in the recall election days illustrates the point. While helping a fourth grader complete his Wisconsin government test, he had trouble recalling the first name of Governor Walker. I suggested that he remember the signs he had seen in the community and the ads he had seen on television to help him complete his response. What did he write? Recall. It will forever be a reminder to me that if we want kids to look for the whole story, we have to be willing to tell it in a way that inspires them to be an informed participant in democracy.

What’s Wrong With Vanilla?

By Ryan Manning — To me, there aren’t many places more exciting than a college campus during an election year. Especially this year. While the experts seem to always say how monumental nearly every presidential election will be, this year they seem to mean it. Talking to students about this year’s race has really brought me back to the 2008 election.

I was a senior in college, and the University of Missouri campus was Senator Obama’s last public appearance before becoming President-Elect Obama. Sure, the Mizzou campus is decidedly more liberal than the rest of the mid-Missouri area, but it’s not exactly a stronghold of the Democratic Party. But the lines wrapped all around campus to get a spot on the Carnahan Quad would have told you otherwise. The electricity of the event rivaled and maybe even surpassed the atmosphere of Mizzou Arena on the day the Tigers (The only NCAA basketball team closer to my heart than Marquette) take on the arch-rival Kansas Jayhawks. To see such a huge presence from both students and community members in what was so often considered a purely “Red” State made me love being a student and excited to see student activism grow as a new professional.

But, I’m not having much luck here.

Last night, I helped to facilitate a training session for RAs about supporting Civic and Political Engagement as Resident Life staff. I was surprised to hear a number of Resident Assistants describe the student body as “vanilla” in terms of the level of activism on campus. Admittedly, I have been underwhelmed by the level of civic engagement that I’ve seen from students here, but I mostly attributed that to being new or having high expectations coming from Marquette, where students are often so very outspoken about their causes. So it was interesting to hear that students, even RAs who are so often some of the most aware of campus climate, shared the same sentiments.

We showed videos of protests on campuses at comparable schools like Berkeley and Penn State, where students were coming together to make a difference. But our students simply described the sit-ins or marches as, “senseless,” or “misguided.” I started wondering about exactly could have led to this sort of apathy on campus. To me, the campus lends itself very well to a high level of civic engagement: the proximity to Washington DC, its location in Maryland’s most underserved county, and academic programs that recruit a high number of stellar students. But still, there’s a sense of “vanilla,” that permeates the campus.

Maybe the students, many of them growing up in the shadow of the capital, have become disillusioned by the protests and rallies that are so frequent there, or maybe it’s just easier for today’s students to post a video on Facebook about a social issue, and consider that doing enough. . Maybe the skimming over of civics courses in high schools to make room for a greater focus on reading and math has played a part. Maybe they just don’t think they can make a difference, or maybe they don’t even care to. Whatever the reason is, I’ve decided that I need to stop wondering why my students don’t seem to care, and start wondering how I can change their minds.

College campuses have so often been the epicenters for civic engagement and are usually considered ahead of the curve when it comes to social issues, from the Civil Rights movement, to the Vietnam War, to more recent economic issues. My college campus even had a free-speech zone, “Speaker’s Circle,” which was the site of so many debates as students argued against groups like the Westboro Baptist Church. I wonder what Speaker’s Circle is like today. Are students still there making a stand for gay rights, or has it instead devolved into a spot for catching some rays on this sunny day?

My recent thoughts have brought me back to thinking about what leadership is, and how I can best encourage students to be leaders for a better world. It seems clear that students seem fed up with activism that they don’t see as having a goal, a means with no end. So perhaps in order to inspire students to become engaged, I don’t need to teach them how to be engaged, but I need to help them understand why they should care. So many of the students I work with came to college to get a degree and secure a job, as well as make friends and have a social life. Those ideas of what college is for haven’t been challenged to expand. Should students be going to college to get jobs for themselves, or should they be going to college to help the world change so that everyone else can have jobs too? This hopefully comes with helping students understand their values and develop a much greater level of congruence between their values and actions. Only then, when students are living out their values instead of just saying that they’re there, does that shift from self to others really occur. This is a lesson I learned so well at Marquette. Once students understand what’s important to them, then they can find others with similar values and then collaborate to create social change.

Our job as educators isn’t to tell students what should be important to them. It’s to help them see that for themselves and then show them what to do with it. So, I’m dedicating myself to become a better role model for social consciousness, and giving students a model for living out their values. Hopefully, this will allow students to see what they can do as long as they care enough to do it. And then, with just enough caring, that “vanilla” taste throughout campus turns into something a little bit more flavorful.

Improving Education through Political Action

By Nick McDaniels — For the last few months my wife, Amie, and I have spent some of our free campaigning for our friend, Bill Barry, who is running for our district’s city council seat. He, like us, is a Green Party member and is passionate about fixing our schools, greening our workforce, and cutting huge corporate development breaks that have long limited our city’s ability to provide for her citizens. Amie and I are both dedicated to finding solutions to environmental and educational problems and, as a result, have befriended and campaigned for a candidate with like-minded ideals.

As I walked around my neighborhood knocking on doors and meeting new friends, two things stand out from nearly every one of the dozens of conversations I had. First, most people had no idea who their city councilman is. Second, every time I mentioned that I was a school teacher and that we need to focus on funding and improving our schools, people immediately became receptive to the conversation. Most citizens I talked to in my district believe the schools are failing, that students and teachers do not have enough supplies, but also that there is hope for our public schools if our city government would simply take interest.

Sadly, in Baltimore City, the voter turn-out during our municipal off-year elections is abysmal. In fact, this years primary election, which most people, because of the entrenchment of the Democratic Party, consider to be the election, turned out the lowest number of voters in history. To combat this apathy, a group of Baltimore Libertarians and Baltimore Greens turned out to march down the main street district in our community. About 30 of us humans and a few dogs carried signs, greeted people, and made an effort to inspire folks to take control of their city through democracy, and as us Greens like to say, recycle the city council.

On the march, I had a wonderful conversation about education in Baltimore City with Vietnam War veteran who also campaigns with us. He asked me what it would take to fix our education system in order to better provide for students. My initial thought was, “Go ask Bill. He’s the one running for City Council.”

And then I realized that this is a question that we all have a duty to answer and a problem we all have a duty to solve. Continue reading ‘Improving Education through Political Action’


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