“The Days After:” Teaching, Trauma and Trump

November 5, 2018

Teachers felt immense pressure from school leaders and families to respond in a certain way—or not at all—in their classrooms following the 2016 presidential election, according to new research from Michigan State University.

The findings, published in October 2018 by the American Educational Research Journal, address the widespread but often unspoken idea of political neutrality in the classroom, and how that is not an effective teaching tactic, said lead researcher Alyssa Dunn.

“There were many teachers who said they wanted to talk with students about the election and related issues, but were also afraid of backlash,” said Dunn said, who conducted the nationwide questionnaire of more than 700 educators.

Alyssa Dunn headshot

Responses included that teachers felt election-related topics weren’t appropriate in schools, or weren’t relevant to their subject. Others felt they shouldn’t, or couldn’t, share their political affiliations or feelings. They didn’t, in the words of one teacher who responded to the survey, “want to come off as pushing an agenda toward my students.”

But the idea of neutrality, as this research indicates, doesn’t always work in schools.

“One thing we try to teach is that education is inherently political,” continued Dunn, an assistant professor of teacher education at MSU.

By remaining neutral, the scholars argue that teachers are enacting the opposite of neutrality by “choosing to maintain the status quo and further marginalizing certain groups.”

Dunn and her colleagues, Hannah Carson Baggett of Auburn University and Beth Sondel of the University of Pittsburgh, say the election is just one example of a renewed call for all teachers to consider the ethics of neutrality in the classroom. Teachers and schools, they say, have not only the opportunity but the responsibility to challenge issues, using current events as a moment to adapt curriculum and create a space for reflection.

“Events like the upcoming midterms are an opportunity for them to say: ‘I’m not going to be neutral,'” said Dunn. “Knowing what neutrality means, and how it can be a disservice to students and to themselves, teachers can think about how to adapt their curriculum leading up to and after the midterms and other major events.”

“This is real trauma”

Dunn explained many educators and administrators believe that because something is happening “outside of school,” it means it isn’t relevant in the classroom. That mentality is an injustice, she argues, and undermines the fact that the classroom is part of the real world.

In another study by the same authors, the researchers found that by acknowledging current events, teachers can create opportunities to teach students about what is happening, and react to any feelings, questions or concerns in regards to it. Major events like natural disasters, mass shootings or elections can and do have real, lasting impacts in students’ lives, Dunn says: “Whether you talk about it in school or not, students know and absorb what is happening from a very young age. We found that teachers reported students experiencing political trauma.”

The February 2018 publication in Teaching and Teacher Education includes teacher-provided examples of concerns from students, including many who described students in the days following the 2016 presidential election as fearful, anxious, excited or curious. The study expands on the nationwide questionnaire that included responses from educators across all grade levels, years of experience, preparation pathways and geographic regions in the U.S.

Classroom stock photo

“The study shares trends in teachers’ responses, including what teachers did post-election that worked well. Because we know teachers can do these things, we’re saying teachers should do them, instead of claiming neutrality,” Dunn said.

In the wake of political trauma, teachers can help students by:

  • Supporting them emotionally
  • Discussing civic knowledge and helping them understand their rights and responsibilities
  • Explaining the relationship between elections and other issues of justice and injustice

“Give students a voice in the curriculum and let them lead the way on what they want to learn and why they want to learn it. The world is full of teachable moments that can move us further toward justice if we just recognize them as such.”

If you are interested in learning more about Dr. Dunn’s work or, if you are a current teacher, participating in her new study on teaching on days after, please contact her at ahdunn@msu.edu.