Prior to the presidential election. Prior to Donald Trump’s victory and place in line and President-elect. Even before Donald Trump had secured his place as the Republican Party presidential nominee. Before the full spectrum of the contentiousness which enveloped the 2016 presidential election became realized, there was concern about the effect Donald Trump would have on American society. Not just American politics, but American society. Suddenly there was a major political candidate who used out-sized rhetoric and an out-sized personality to give voice to those on the fringes of American society. A candidate who gained and necessitated major media coverage because of those words uttered. A candidate who thereby brought that rhetoric, that personality, and those extreme views into the homes of millions of Americans. Homes occupied by not just American voters but their children. Won’t somebody please think of the children.
And they did. The “Trump Effect” documents, details and demonstrates the effect that Donald Trump’s words have had not on potential voters but on the children of those voters. How Trump’s words, actions and attitudes become imprinted on children, children as young as elementary school. And in the days following Donald Trump’s victory there has been further evidence as to how Trump has emboldened children to act out against minorities and others simply because of who they are and what Donald Trump said about them during his campaigns. This is not to say Donald Trump created bigoted children, or bigots of any age. He did not. But he has emboldened those already bigoted.
In the macro this is a societal issue. How to best deal with those outwardly expressing such beliefs, including those who have attacked others in the days following the election is a legal and political issue. On a micro level there are those who must interact with such children almost every day. Those who need not concern themselves with the macro or even the bigotry. Except they have to teach the bigots who abuse others in their classrooms.
Teachers. Teachers across the country are on the front lines of dealing with the Trump Effect. In many cases they must counteract that effect in order to be able to teach their classes, or at least be able to minimize those attitudes for as long as they are in the classroom. So how are the teachers coping? Below are excerpts of letters from teachers solicited and published by Jezebel:
“Teachers and students are generally devastated. It seems to be the worst in the high school because they understand the full stakes of the election. My 7th and 8th graders don’t fully know how to react. They talked about the election all day, but they had trouble understanding and defining their views. I felt awful for everybody, especially members of all of the groups that Trump disparaged (in particular my Muslim students). I saw many of the high school students and faculty crying openly today. The most powerful move I saw at school was several senior girls wearing large posters that displayed some of Trump’s most offensive statements. It was a brave statement of protest. I’m hoping that this generation never forgets their feelings on this day.”
Katie, kindergarten teacher, Memphis, Tennessee:
“I deal with hard to answer questions from my students everyday. “Do cows burp?” “What would we look like with teeth on our feet?” “Why don’t bees have thumbs?” Yesterday I got one of the hardest I probably will ever get.
‘”If Trump is elected, will I be a slave?”‘
“I didn’t know how to answer. I still don’t. Because the honest truth is, I really have no idea what a Trump America will be like. And the fact that in the year 2016 I don’t have a definite answer to a question like this, from one of my 5 YEAR OLD students, is exactly how I can’t understand that we let someone like Trump get elected.”
Noah, 7th grade English teacher, Harlem, New York:
“My students voted overwhelmingly for Clinton in our mock election. Yesterday morning, I brought donuts for comfort and kept my voice low. How do you feel, everyone? Betrayed. Indifferent. Anxious. Nostalgic. (They have a test on emotion words today). All I said was “you matter and you are safe here.”
“At lunch, I made individual check-ins. Jay said, “One side of me feels like it’s no big deal. But another side feels like I should be uncomfortable and full of fear.” Maria didn’t want to stay in the room with Hector because she’d heard his dad voted for Trump. Ben said he was fine with the outcome as long as he makes America better. Jaden said, “Regardless of, like, their policies, she was my choice because of the things he said about Mexicans. It seems like if the president says those things, other people will think they can say them, too.” Their questions revolved around the actual powers of the president. Many asked about war. How is it declared? They have a vague idea of a previous president seeming to make war happen all by himself.
“So we will talk today about the powers of the president, focusing on Executive Orders and how they work. But first, we have a vocabulary test.”
Tamika, high school teacher, Chester County, PA:
“I let my students vent. I let them see my emotions (within reason) and allowed those that needed to to express theirs.
“My students just kept asking How? and Why? They wanted to know why people thought it was okay to vote him in office. I had many who said they were scared. A few were sad. They discussed Trump’s statements, especially the “wall.” A few spoke about how they felt unsure of what the future held as a members of a racial minority or identifying as a member of a LGBTQ+ group]. A few were discussing how they were more fearful of those who support Trump.
“It was a rough day, but we have an awesome school community and we made it through.”
High school teacher, Virginia:
“I have quite a few young men in my classes who are ardent Trump supporters, and that’s been difficult throughout the campaign. This morning when my emotions were particularly raw after a sleepless night and an anxious commute, a group of about five teenage boys galloped into my room whooping and shouting about how excited they were. It’s a really difficult position to be in, because I genuinely don’t want to dampen their enthusiasm for democracy, and I want to set an example about graciousness in defeat, but as a result I’ve spent all day suppressing a personal upwelling of moral, intellectual, and emotional outrage at what has happened, and it’s giving me a headache. I cried in the car on the way here, and I’m just waiting until the final bell so I can do the same on the way home.”
And there are so many more. As reflected in many of these stories teachers are the front line of democracy in the United States. For some it is their job to teach the tenets and institutions of American democracy in our schools. For others it is their job not necessarily to teach the lesson but to affirm the principles. And to encourage your students to be politically active. So what do you do when your students support Trump and support his rhetoric vilifying minorities and foreigners and degrading women? Is it your place to question their beliefs and political support? What is the line between teaching and preaching? What is a teacher’s job when dealing with the range of emotions and attitudes prevalent during a presidential election? And how does this change from elementary school to junior high to high school? And the demographic makeup of whatever school must matter.
Those letters from teachers truly demonstrate that teacher’s are on the front line of American democracy, whether they want to be or not.