Teachers Feel the Strain of Politics. Can Better Political Engagement Help?

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In September, a teacher in the Hamshire-Fannett Independent School District, in Southeast Texas, was fired when district leaders learned that an eighth grade class was reading a graphic novel based on the diary of Anne Frank.

The novel had not been approved and was deemed inappropriate, and the firing made headlines. It was an extreme example of the political strain public school teachers are under from parents and activists. Along with a rise in Holocaust denialism — fueled by misinformation, along with poor knowledge of the history — researchers have noted that disagreements over curriculum, book bans and politically contentious issues have ratcheted up the pressure on educators.

When schools are already suffering from severe staffing shortages, it’s a dynamic that may have dire consequences. At least one survey found that the majority of teachers have decided to limit talk of political and social issues in the classroom, with some being asked to do so by their school or district. But the real trouble for schools may come when those teachers decide to leave.

Political scraps may speed up teachers’ decisions to quit, according to Zachary Long. A former history teacher from Florida, Long left the classroom in 2019. Long and his wife Brittany Long, another ex-teacher, started Life After Teaching, a Facebook group meant to help others transition out of the profession. Since the pandemic, the group has exploded. Their group now has 107,500 members, with 6,700 members joining last month, Long says.

While politics wasn’t what pushed Long out, he has seen it impact some teachers. When added to the other issues — low pay, long hours and the increase in students’ social-emotional issues coming back from the pandemic — it makes the job just that much harder, he argues. That can make an exit more attractive.

Long says he notices the issue particularly in “hotbed states,” like Florida or Tennessee, where political battles are racking education. He also adds that other teachers often swear they will never move to those states, with teachers within those states warning others not come.

Fierce Scrutiny

This all adds to teacher stress and attrition, according to “Political Polarization and Its Repercussions for Public School Teachers,” a report by the Constructive Dialogue Institute, a nonprofit devoted to encouraging civic dialogue.

It can be fierce. Outside of the classroom, the pushback against critical race theory and social-emotional learning has really affected teachers, says Mylien Duong, senior director of research for the institute. It’s a relatively small number of parents who are leading the charge, but they are outspoken and hard to engage in a constructive way, Duong adds.

A clinical psychologist with experience in school mental health, Duong conducted a qualitative study of how the increasing political tension is affecting teachers. She interviewed 14 teachers, mostly in English language arts and history, from around the country. The study found that the problems are especially notable when schools are deciding which textbooks to use and which curriculum standards to adopt. One teacher quoted in the report suggested that, during the review process, what state a book came from and how the community politics might influence its reception came up before the quality of the resources.

One of the history teachers Duong interviewed had hit a breaking point. When teaching about the Holocaust, including graphic depictions of its horrors, one student kept laughing. “The teacher was like, ‘I don’t even know how to deal with this. I’ve not been trained for this and never come up before,’” Duong says. That teacher took a leave of absence. Intense interactions involving students, more than anything else, seem to shake teachers, she adds.

Confronting these trends means overcoming new realities.

It’s becoming easier to believe falsehoods because they are being confirmed by our immediate environment, Duong argues, since people no longer interact as much with others who disagree with them and it’s easier to seek out information that confirms your biases.

But this doesn’t only impact current teachers.

More Than Just Skin Color

For other observers, the pressure is worrisome because of what it might mean for future teachers.

District leaders say they want more diverse teachers, says Sharif El-Mekki, the founder of the Center for Black Educator Development, a teacher pipeline program based in Philadelphia. “But just in skin tone, not in thinking, not in curricula,” he says.

For El-Mekki, part of the reason there are so few Black teachers is that their experiences have been pushed out of the public school system for a long time. Feeling unable to speak openly and truthfully about their perspectives without fear of repercussions deters prospective Black and Indigenous teachers from joining the profession, El-Mekki argues.

In a report co-published by El-Mekki’s organization and Teach Plus, an organization trying to diversify the teaching force, Black and Indigenous high school students interested in becoming teachers highlighted inclusive curricula and a sense of agency in the classroom as crucial factors in making them want to teach. Political pushback against those gives them pause about joining the profession, El-Mekki argues.

For El-Mekki, this exposes a conflict in district priorities.

“They’re basically saying, like, ‘yeah, we want diverse teachers, but we want you to erase yourself,’” El-Mekki says.

What should be done? Surprisingly, observers believe the antidote to divisive political rhetoric may be more and deeper political participation.

For El-Mekki, it’s about making sure families are aware of what’s happening and how that may shape student growth and development. For instance, he argues, more families of color should seek representation on school boards where they can influence policy decisions.

Duong, the Constructive Dialogue Institute researcher, thinks that broader political engagement could improve the situation.

The groups dominating school board fights right now are only a small percentage of the overall population, Duong says. There’s a much larger percentage, an “exhausted majority,” who are tired of the fighting and who support compromise, she argues: “I actually think that activating or engaging more people in politics more of the time would actually provide a level of moderation to our current discourse.” In school, that means parents and teachers coming together, trying to have constructive conversations with each other and with more members of the broader community.

It’s also vital, Duong says, that administrators are clear about the expectations for teachers around these issues, which can reduce the stress caused by these fights. She suggests that administrators give clear guidance that spells out how teachers can respond when they receive political pushback and how the administrators will support teachers who find themselves under fire.

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