How Do I Talk to My Students About the President?


How Do I Talk to My Students

About the President?

by Sara Schmidt-Kost

I’m a middle school teacher in a suburban, mostly white area. I am ‘out’ on a need-to-know basis, but everyone is very supportive and accepting. Everything that has been going on politically since the election has had a profound effect on me personally, and I have been struggling with how, or if I should even try, to talk about this stuff with co-workers and students. Any ideas on an appropriate way to bring it up?
— Anonymous

Sara Says:

Hello, fellow teacher.

Thank you for your question! I completely understand and share the same feelings around how this election and the resulting current Administration has affected us as queer teachers. I know for me personally, I’m lucky to have found comfort and solidarity with colleagues at work. I’ve also found a place to detach from the emotional stress of the news and just be in the moment with my students.

Many people in the education profession are feeling frustrated, sad, and fearful every time a new news report comes out. With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education (*shudders*), the rollback of protections for trans+ students, and the overall political climate as of late, we educators have a lot to be stressed about. We want to advocate for ourselves, our profession, and our students. We want to scream from the roof of our schools about how important free, public education really is to our country and our society. But most of all, we want to share our thoughts and feelings with our co-workers and students.

Talking with co-workers and talking with students are two very different situations, so let’s tackle co-workers first. Depending on how friendly you are with your co-workers, there have probably been times where you’ve had the opportunity to talk with them about a wide variety of topics. Lunchtime conversation topics in the teacher’s lounge may vary from personal life, to students, to curriculum, to current events and politics, to cool deals at Target, and more! Whenever current events and politics come up, you can absolutely add your opinion to the conversation. Of course, time and place matter. Talking politics while on hallway duty or bus duty or during a team meeting might not be the best time. Before school, after school, or during lunch when students aren’t around would be appropriate times to chat with co-workers about the state of our union.

You may find that your co-workers have differing opinions from you, or you may find that you share similar values. Respect your co-workers differing opinions, while challenging racism, sexism, homophobia, and overt falsehoods. One easy way to do this is by asking where your co-workers are getting their information from. Fact checking and exposing fake news is easy to do, and it’s one way to remind your co-workers that, as teachers, we need to be able to think critically about the news we are getting. Of course it’s important to teach students how to fact check, but it’s just as important for adults to do the same!

Additionally, you can steer your conversation topics to how current events have affected your students, students’ families, and their community, which may feel more relevant than broader election topics. You can ask how the election has affected your co-workers and their families, and you can also bring up how the election has affected you personally as a queer person. As we found out during the fight for same-sex marriage, knowing someone who is gay or lesbian affects how people view LGBT issues and, in turn, can affect how people vote. The more out, open, and honest we can be with our families and friends, the more likely they are to think about us when they go vote. Making that connection between their own lives and our lives is important because it humanizes us.

In addition, have you thought about checking in with your union or becoming a union steward for your building? Public education is a target of the current Administration; Rallying your co-workers around cuts to Education, either federally or in your state, is a good way to build coalition and community around resistance. Find like-minded staff in your building, and plan a time to meet up after school to write or call your representatives. Your resistance can and should be multidimensional and intersectional, and focusing on Education issues as well as LGBTQ+ issues is a great way to validate two very important parts of your identity.

As far as bringing up current political events with your students, there are a few things to consider. First, did your District or Admin provide any guidelines from which to work? For example, my District and Admin team sent out a few different emails right after the election with guidelines and tips to have these tough conversations with students. See if there’s a framework or any considerations your superiors have laid out for you first. Tread carefully: politics in the classroom can get and has gotten teachers in trouble.

With that in mind, some small ways you can show your support for your students might be to wear a safety pin, a rainbow pin, or another small token as a non-verbal signal that you are a safe and supporting adult in the building. You could also put up a safe space sticker or poster in your classroom, put up posters of diverse important people for your subject area, or make a poster with any number of supportive quotes that are going around social media right now, like #RESIST. I saw a quote from a teacher on the internet a while ago that started out “Dear Undocumented Students… Dear Black Students… Dear Muslim Students…” which I really liked.

You could also try to incorporate these topics into the curriculum! This may look different depending on what subject you teach. For example, current events in Social Studies are easy to fit in. Reading news articles, practicing non-fiction reading, and examining fallacy in arguments is good for English Language Arts. A Fine Arts class can examine forms of protest art. A Math class could look at the Elector count or the budget. There are ways to be creative and work these topics into your classroom, regardless of what subject you teach.

If your school permits it, you might also think about starting an after-school club for community service to turn your student’s post-election energy into action. The club doesn’t need to have a partisan lean to address important topics. Your students can design community service projects for local community problems, learn about community issues, and feel like they can change the world one small step at a time.

I believe the most important thing to help youth feel less frightened and more powerful is to encourage them to take action. As a community, LGBTQ+ people have been traumatized by the aftermath of the 2016 election, along with many other marginalized communities. Every day we reexperience some of that trauma anew with whatever recent screwed up thing is in the headlines now. It’s exhausting. Depending on the amount of energy you already spend in your daily life outside of school, it may feel good to spend some energy on your students, encouraging them to write letters to the editor, organizing an after-school community service/action club, or helping them find resources or information about participating in the political process at their age. Good luck!

Sara Schmidt-Kost is an out, queer Educator in Minneapolis, MN. She spent five years as a leader in the LGBT student organizations at St. Cloud State University where she completed her undergrad in Secondary Social Studies Education. Sara currently leads the after-school GSA at the high school where she works, and she is thankful for the opportunity to support her students as they grow into fully-functioning adults. She has also created a training workshop on LGBT Issues in Schools and has presented it to groups of Social Studies teachers, other educators, and students alike.