We learn a great deal from our teachers. Beyond rote knowledge, a good teacher can teach how to process information, how to reason, and how to arrive at logical conclusions. Good teachers can teach their students how to think. But a teacher does a disservice when he or she tries to teach what to think.
High school students are in the midst of a formative period. Many students are just becoming aware of issues affecting their world, and their beliefs are not entirely defined. Consequently, they can be easily influenced by others, particularly those who hold positions of authority. In a classroom context, students provide a captive audience. Willing teachers have nearly an hour each day to impart their views on over a hundred young people. Through this influence, teachers wield enormous power.
That power is amplified by the fact that a teacher typically has significant discretion over a student’s academic experience and grade. A student can experience substantial pressure to conform political expression to the plainly articulated views of a teacher. Even in the absence of retaliatory behavior, the pressure to conform can influence students’ expression or maybe convince students to keep quiet altogether.
Here at Lyons Township, Global Studies division chair Paul Houston lays out an ethical and professional policy for his teachers. In the classroom, social studies teachers are instructed to facilitate discussion about political issues, but not to influence students by revealing what they think or telling the students what they should think.
“A good social studies teacher is a professional devil’s advocate,” Houston said.
A student’s beliefs should be formed and influenced primarily by personal experience, in addition to those people that the student chooses to surround himself with and what he chooses to read. But it is unfair for a public employee randomly assigned to the task of their instruction to tell teenagers what they ought to think.
The best solution and the most professional approach is for teachers to keep private their views on politics, religion, and controversial topics. But that is not to say that teachers should ignore a student’s views or leave them unchallenged.
“I don’t try to impart my individual views to students. I don’t even share my views with my students, though I do see it as my job to challenge a strongly held view, regardless of whether I might agree or disagree with that view,” AP United States History teacher Andrew Newcomb said.
Every department at LT should follow Houston’s lead. There is more opportunity for political discussion in social studies and English classes than in math and science, and it is important that students feel able to share their opinions. Language arts division chair Karen Raino agrees with Houston that the professional approach is facilitate political discussion in the classroom without influencing it directly.
“I don’t believe teachers should share their political beliefs,” Raino said. “There’s just a professional way to approach the classroom.”
Although the Language Arts division does not have specific guidelines for the issue, the framework does exist to easily implement in the Language Arts division the policy already in place in the Global Studies division.
The approach that both Raino and Houston support gives a student an opportunity to reach sound conclusions and to form well-considered views. It teaches how to think, not what to think, which should be the aim of an education in the humanities.