In a relaxed school environment like Nueva’s, it’s not uncommon for teachers to foster energetic political discussion amongst their students, a practice which has even manifested at a school-wide level through special events centered around topics like practicing civil discourse. This is intended to give students a platform to express their opinions and learn how to engage in tough conversations with their peers, as well as build trust and create a “safe space.”
Some teachers have found that, while personal, sharing their political opinions help create a closer classroom environment.
“I do feel very comfortable sharing my opinions,” said Japanese teacher Chris Scott. “My students know where I stand on many issues. I think it makes for much more authentic learning and classroom conversations.”
While his personal opinions are most influenced by his identity as a gay man, Scott said, other aspects of his life shape them as well. He spent much of his school life moving back and forth between Japan and the US, and then attended Princeton University, which was a conservative environment at the time. After graduating, he lived in rural Japan for three years, where he experienced what it was like to be in the minority and had a “political awakening.”
“They say the personal is the political,” Scott said. “That holds true for me.”
Scott, who was a panelist last year at an assembly where teachers and students shared their experiences and struggles surrounding identity, made the decision to speak up in the hopes that his words would resonate with students who may be fighting similar battles.
“If I’m asking my students to take risks, then I should be willing to take risks as well,” he said. “Hopefully, I could give inspiration or courage to someone else who is struggling with their identity.”
While some teachers share Scott’s views, others choose to keep their opinions more private. English teacher Jasmin Miller cites her past teaching experience as part of the reason why she’s less comfortable sharing her opinions in class.
“I come from a public school background, where you’re not supposed to talk about your religious or political beliefs at all,” said Miller, who just finished her first year teaching at Nueva. “[We were told,] you’re in a position of power, and you have a particular job to do. You shouldn’t abuse that power by swaying your audience one way or the other.”
Miller only brings politics into the classroom when it’s especially relevant to the coursework, and tries to encourage discussion without expressing a personal opinion. However, she recognized the difficulty of abiding strictly by that principle, especially when local issues directly affected her students.
During her time teaching at UC Berkeley, Miller’s students once had to walk through union worker strikes to get to class, and she recalled wanting to address those issues. “I said, this is what’s happening right now. These are the issues that people are trying to get addressed, and if you don’t agree with them, that’s fine. But there are ways to not break the strike line.”
While Jana Comstock largely shares Miller’s views on voicing opinions in class, both her reasons for doing so and her approach to politics draw on her experience as a math teacher.
“If [a current event] is backed by significant evidence and might impact students’ lives, I am likely to bring it up, regardless of whether it has somehow been politicized, and to try to discuss it from a evidence-based viewpoint,” Comstock said. “As a mathematician, I find it extremely disturbing that the very existence of facts is being politicized.”
When she is encouraging political discussion in her classes and advisory, Comstock tries to ensure that it’s based in the principles of civil discourse, which is centered around trying to understand opposing viewpoints and why someone may hold them, instead of trying to win an argument. She aims to be mindful of her students’ comfort levels, Comstock says, and is often cautious with her own words.
“I always worry that my natural tendency to joke around about things, even things that I feel are very serious, will unintentionally alienate someone who disagrees with me,” said Comstock.
According to Scott, the distinction between discourse and debate is a vital one to make in schools.
“All too often, political discourse tends to lead to severe polarization and infighting. Just look at Washington. You don’t want a school to turn into the U.S. Congress,” he said.
Since it typically takes a breadth of knowledge and experience to really understand the nuances of another person’s argument, Scott recognizes the potential pitfalls of introducing political discourse in a school environment. If discussions devolve into right-or-wrong debates, it could undermine the school’s sense of community, he says.
“I think it’s important to recognize that some students aren’t prepared to talk about [politics] yet,” Miller said. “Getting informed is definitely the first step.”
Along with the polarization, political tensions have risen recently, as the 2020 elections, the onset of a global pandemic, and the protests against police brutality inflame high-tension societal conflicts around race and privilege. In trying to help their students process and discuss recent events, many teachers have adapted their curricula to involve discussions about public health, safety, and government in a crisis. At the same time, teachers are doing their best to keep their classrooms open and encourage discussion as usual.
“I think teaching Japanese and promoting multilingualism and multiculturalism, is, in and of itself, a political act,” said Scott. “In this day and age, especially with the Trump administration, America’s government has been turning more insular and xenophobic… In this climate, continuing to teach about different languages and different cultures is really a radical political statement.”