Teachers, keep your politics on Kavanaugh hearings out of classroom

Teachers, keep your politics on Kavanaugh hearings out of classroom
© Getty Images

On the heels of the Kavanaugh hearings, some teachers have wondered aloud — via Twitter — how they should handle the contentious topic in their classrooms. While some teachers have no interest in touching the issue with a 10-foot pole, others may find it nearly impossible not to make mention of an event that consumed the nation for weeks. But we can learn a lot about how one educator in particular asked the Twitterverse for suggestions.

“I’m a teacher, and I don’t know what I’m going to say to my students if Kavanaugh gets confirmed. Do I tell them that this country doesn’t take sexual assault seriously? Do I tell them that truth and integrity don’t matter? What do I say?” asked Nicholas Ponticello.

ADVERTISEMENT

Speaking as a parent, I’d have a huge problem if these were the best ideas my kids’ teacher could muster on how to discuss a topic that is complex, highly partisan, and very painful for many, not to mention far afield of his professional wheelhouse. Mr. Ponticello is a high school math teacher. And while many will say — and have said — that his only job is to teach math, I disagree. His responsibilities as an adult who spends his days with kids do extend beyond fractions and coefficients. But these additional responsibilities do not include injecting his personal politics or biases into the classroom, especially not in a way that may alienate some students — and by extension, their parents — who undoubtedly hold a starkly different opinion than he.

If I saw this tweet online and Mr. Ponticello was a teacher of one of my children, I’d be wary of the Kavanaugh discussions unless I knew that a free and open exchange of ideas could and would happen. And a conversation like that is incredibly hard to initiate and moderate on any topic, let alone one as sensitive and fractious as this. On the one hand, Mr. Ponticello is a private citizen and has the right to say what he wants online. And nothing about the tweet would bother me if it didn’t indicate that a) he had plans to try to “explain” a country that would allow Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughMcConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch Lindsey Graham's Faustian bargain Liberal, conservative Supreme Court justices unite in praising Stevens MORE’s confirmation to the Supreme Court and b) it’s not clear that there’d be much room for nuance or opposing views.

Unsurprisingly, the thousands of responses Mr. Ponticello received reflect wide range of opinions because teachers across America are far from an ideological — or pedagogical — monolith.

Here is a small taste of the more than 8,000 replies:

“Nick, as a retired History and Government Teacher, I would present a factual timeline of events, (and eliminate all spin) and allow them 2 decide for themselves. Remember, a thousand questions are better than one good answer. It may take an entire period, block, or day, but do it,” wrote Steve Georgeff.

Said Sylvia Chan-Malik: “Remind them of history. Had class morning after election, my students were crying, despondent. Said think about the 60s, murders of Medgar Evers(’63), Malcolm X(’65), MLK (’68), Fred Hampton (’69), entire gen of Black leaders jailed, silenced. Said, “We fight. We always fight.”

“I would suggest an unslanted view of government. No matter how you stand politically it is wrong to offer a bias perspective to students of any age. You are a critical figure in their lives, teach them how to see both sides and make up their own mind,” offered Chris Gubbrud.

And from an educator who identifies herself as Michele@mca4ham: “I know exactly what you’re feeling, cried at school day Trump won. Impress upon them importance of voting, no matter which side they are on. How to be active citizens. How to be critical thinkers and how to evaluate media sources. Make sure they know they can pre-register to vote.”

Suffice it to say that there are countless parents, some of whom I know personally, who would be high-fiving Mr. Ponticello for the sole reason that they happen to share his views about Justice Kavanaugh. But I know just as many parents who would have a major problem with his tweet and who, if feeling generous, would advise him to “stick to teaching math.” Others, in a less forgiving mood, would be calling for his job. Parents have strong and varied ideas about the role of teachers and personal politics in classrooms.

So let’s flip the script. Let’s imagine a more politically conservative teacher who sent out a similar tweet in search of advice but followed by these very differently framed questions: “I’m a teacher, and I don’t know what I’m going to say to my students if Kavanaugh gets confirmed. Do I tell them that due process no longer matters in this country and that people are now presumed guilty instead of innocent? Do I tell them that corroboration and consistency of testimony don’t matter?”

This tweet would have those who align more with Mr. Ponticello seething and likely accusing the district of hiring a rape apologist to teach children. But if we are to believe that teachers should bring their politics and activism into the classroom, it seems that we need to include all teachers and all opinions. I know more than a few teachers whose tweets would more closely resemble my hypothetical than the one Mr. Ponticello posted.

Mr. Ponticello told The 74, “I really feel that civics is the No. 1 most important thing we can teach our students. You can’t just bury your head in the sand just because you’re the adult in the room.” He acknowledges that educators are expected to keep their biases at bay in the classroom and that these conversations are “tricky.”

“Tricky” is an understatement. And if his tweet is any indication of what a classroom discussion would be like, then, as a parent, I’d prefer he stick to math.  

Erika Sanzi, a mother of three sons, taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She writes about education issues for Education Post and The Thomas B. Fordham Institute.