A Politicized Space?

I began teaching in the Fall of 1992. If you were around then, you probably remember how politically charged that presidential election was. Bill Clinton was facing off against the incumbent George H. W. Bush and the daily news was filled with stories about their respective campaigns. Like today, each political party was setting up their camps. At the time, almost everyone was either for Clinton or for Bush and people were actively showing their support for “their guy.” I was teaching in a relatively conservative area of Western Pennsylvania and many of my high school students were wearing Bush t-shirts or pins to class. Before class one day, a student asked, “Mr. Dreon, who are you planned to vote for?” I paused for a minute, before stumbling through my response. “I’m still deciding,” I awkwardly said.

It was a total lie. And to this day, I don’t regret that decision. In fact, I’ve probably lied dozens of times when faced with similar questions about my political affiliations or my support of individual candidates. It’s not that I’m embarrassed by my political background or ashamed to admit the candidates I support. From early in my career, I’ve simply chosen to remain politically neutral in my classroom. While I know that some of my colleagues who are steeped in Freirian perspectives would argue that being neutral is taking a side (and maybe the wrong one), I’m looking at the individual impacts of my teaching role and the campus culture that I’m attempting to create. I’m trying to create an inclusive space for ALL learners, even the ones that don’t share my political affiliation or my opinions. And I worry that saying that I support this candidate or this movement in my classroom would undermine that goal.  And while our classrooms and schools are becoming increasingly more politicized, I still think that’s the wisest of decisions. And there might be some research to back me up.

This morning, I was listening to an episode of Hidden Brain titled “Group Think.” The episode examines how our group loyalties affect us more than we may realize and how they can even impact how we see the world around us. Throughout the episode, researcher Jay Van Bavel shares a bunch of different studies to demonstrate the impact of our “partisan brain.” For example, in one clever study, researchers from the United Kingdom studied how school affiliations could impact an individual’s smell. During the study, researchers introduced sweaty t-shirts to groups of students. Students smelled shirts with logos from their home institutions (which researchers labeled as the “ingroup”), shirts with logos from a rival school (which researchers labeled as the “outgroup.”) and shirts without any logo (which researchers identified as an “ambivalent group.”) To measure students’ disgust, the researchers relied both on self-reported data as well as more concrete measures (walking time to wash hands and pumps of soap used). Looking at the self-reported data, students’ disgust was lower for in the ingroup condition than the other conditions studied. After examining the other sources of data, researchers wrote:

“Participants went to wash their hands more quickly and used more soap after smelling a t-shirt that was associated with a member of another group than when it was associated with an ingroup member. We did not obtain significant results on how long they spent washing their hands. However, this may be simply because once participants had got to the point of applying sufficient soap, they felt decontaminated and had no need to apply more.” (Reicher et al, 2016).

I know this is a pretty random (and cool) study, but it highlights the concerns I have. Depending on the situation, a teacher who outwardly shares their political affiliation or the candidates they support can be in the “ingroup” or the “outgroup” for individual students. And I worry that those identity dynamics will impact how students view the teacher, which ultimately may negatively impact the students’ ability and willingness to learn from the teacher. If I’m interested in supporting ALL of my students, even the ones who don’t agree with me politically, I need to check some of my political beliefs at the classroom door and appear neutral within the classroom space.

I feel like I need to offer some caveats to this neutrality. If I want to create truly inclusive spaces, I need to advocate for broader principles such as democracy, justice, equity, equality, and freedom. I don’t see these principles as being owned by a single political party. But I do recognize that how they may be manifested in a classroom space is often interpreted differently by the “team” one is on. And maybe that’s where I show my political “cards” a little more regularly, but I don’t know. To me, it’s more important to be thought of as a supportive and effective educator or as a Democratic or Republican one. And I worry that identifying as either a Democrat or a Republican within the classroom space would undermine my ability to be supportive and effective to all of my students.

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