I talk regularly with my colleagues about our role as teachers in civic duty or political engagement. There’s fear that teachers are not professional enough to handle the responsibility of engaging these topics in the classroom without personal bias or systemic indoctrination. I’m inclined to agree.
I see it as our responsibility to develop our students towards stronger critical thinking. And what that means practically depends on the culture of your student body and community. And then to challenge those starting point beliefs.
To develop critical thinking means to move students away from the acceptance of dogma as truth and towards participation in beliefs through commitment. The result is that students who leave discussion in opposition or in agreement will be more capable of living those beliefs. They aren’t just words spouted in response to situations, learned from parents and peers and role models; they are convictions that motivate actions consistent with the beliefs.
And thus, the role of teacher is to be interlocutor regardless of personal position. It does our students—and our society—no benefit to transition them from believing in one dogma to believing in another.
This is a tall task for passionate teachers. Those who have the boldness to be interested in engaging these topics are likely to believe strongly in their convictions. Trusting it is ok for students to think differently than that may feel like a loss in the classroom. What's a teacher to do?
1. Find historic comparisons
A little separation from the present can give the opportunity to learn context for students, as well as see how our ideas change or return over time. If students want to discuss politics of the present about #MeToo or Trump, then I would take them to the 70s: Women's Liberation or Reagan's defeat of Carter. These conversations will still be passionate, but they can help with practice with the benefit of perspective.
2. Question like Socrates
I read a wonderful essay about the different roles Socrates played as teacher in Plato's writings. While all of them could be useful, one that seems particularly appropriate to this task is the analogy to a midwife. The midwife does not give birth, but has great skill in assisting the mother to do so. Similarly, the questioner may not know what the answer to a question is, nor are they looking for it from their own mind—they are skilled at drawing out the ideas of the student. Identify what goal is sought in discussion and allow that to be the focus; thus it will rarely be that students need to think a certain opinion or know what the teacher thinks for the goal to be accomplished.
The primary activity of the teacher in this role is as listener. It takes especially good listening to ask appropriate questions which lead students to question their own claims and justifications. Not because we wish for them to arrive at a certain idea—we want them to have this ability as they continue to think through ideas individually in their lives as citizens.
There’s a trade off for relationship development. Knowledge of one another is important for developing human relationships, so too much distance can cut against many of the goals in the classroom. As teachers, we need to be skilled questioners and listeners to draw out what our students know and think; we also need to share some of who we are so relationships can exist—each without ruining the other. This is an interesting balance I’m still trying to figure out.