Today was a hard day at work, trying to help students make sense of an election that for nearly 2 years has shown us some of the worst of American politics.
An electoral campaign was in full swing in my first year as a classroom teacher (1992 election), and as a civics teacher I’ve had my fair share of election conversations with students since then. None of them have felt as bizarre as those that I have had in this 2016 election cycle. Few of the conversations were as hard as those I had with disillusioned young citizens today. In 2008, helping students understand why Californians passed a ban on same-sex marriage was difficult, but students were at least happy the nation had elected the first black president. The high schoolers I worked with today do not believe the 2016 election gives them anything at all to celebrate.
I have long known that my purpose as an educator is to prepare students for daily, active citizenship. The hardest part of that work may be to develop within students the capacity and inclination to seek to understand people with values seemingly opposed to their own. To have a truly functioning democracy, we all must be willing to talk to, and work with each other. The instinct to say that the supporters of an opponent are “stupid” because they don’t see the world the way we do is not helpful. Instead, we need to try to walk a mile in their moccasins. Considering the rights and interests of fellow citizens, and working to understand others’ perspectives builds empathy, critical thinking, better citizens, and a better society.
Educating students through an election requires us to model and coach them how to engage in civil discourse, not so they can prove they are correct, or to win an argument, but so that they learn how to seek to understand and to be understood. We need to make this even more of a priority in our schools over the coming weeks and months.