The election of Donald Trump has forced many progressive teachers into a quandary: they disagree with everything he stands for, understand the role of social media in contemporary American political discourse, and view their own classrooms as a space to teach social justice. And yet, they also feel stymied or even terrified at the potential repercussions for openly criticizing the new President, either online or in class. This is not a new problem: teachers who raise political issues or consciousness are often challenged by community members or silenced by administrators. But the Trump era has exacerbated the tension, as social media platforms are saturated with political news, fake news, and opinion. It seems especially important now to resist. Several teacher friends have been taken to task or even suspended for their political statements inside the class or online (all were against Trump). What is a progressive-minded teacher to do when confronted with the offensive personality and politics of our new Commander-in-Chief? I am still figuring this out, but here are few guidelines:
- Recognize the power and danger inherent in your political Facebook posts, Tweets, statements, and gestures. Since the election, at least two Michigan high school teachers have been reprimanded or suspended for posted anti-Trump tweets or showing symbolic resistance to Trump in the classroom by wearing a safety pin. Trump seems to have emboldened his supporters to seek out dissent, just as he has provoked his opposition toward activism. It is happening and can happen to you. Many schools are warning or encouraging teachers to avoid political posts on social media altogether. That doesn’t mean that you should stay silent, though, especially as Trump has already taken many decisive steps to restrict human rights in our country.
- Keep your social media separate from your teaching career, at least for now. When it comes to intellectual freedom outside of the classroom, the general rule is that teachers have free speech as long as their speech does not disrupt their teaching effectiveness. This is hardly a clear-cut issue (see misinformation over the Betsy Ross flag incident at Forest Hills as an example), but it might be wise to scrub all references to your school and your students. On Facebook, make sure your email address is not your school email, and remove your employer information. Purge your photos of students if you have any. And you may also want to unfriend students or even former students who might not agree with your politics. Don’t mention your school or students in your posts, even if you are casting them in positive light.
- Stick up for yourself. If you are challenged by an administrator or a parent, resist the urge to immediately delete your social media accounts or to cower. With no explicit links to your school, you are safe to say, “I have the right to express my political beliefs. My beliefs do not represent those of my employer or constituents, and there is no connection between my social media use and my teaching.” Then get in touch with your union rep ASAP. Do NOT sign agreements to limit what you say on social media.
- Keep your posts positive in tone and focused on the issues. As angry as many of us are about the ascendency of Trump, try to keep your discourse as civil as possible, following Michelle Obama’s lead to “go high when they go low.” If you attend a protest march and post a picture, use language that promotes advocacy and avoids personal attacks on the President (save these for your f2f conversations with sympathetic friends). As much as possible, avoid endless Facebook feuds with the handful of Trump supporters still in your circle of friends. These will consume your energy, and you will never win a political argument or be convinced by the arguments of your opponent. This is especially true in the “alternate facts” gaslight reality of the Trump administration. So steer clear. If you do have it out on social media–crazy Uncle Joe gets under everyone’s skin–try to model civil discourse. If you are a little more paranoid, consider deleting your discussion after it finishes.
- In class, avoid personal attacks on the President or students who support him. Remember yourself at 16 or 17. Was your worldview fully established, or did you pretty much parrot the political beliefs of your parents and classmates? If you say, “President Trump is racist/sexist/corrupt/illegitimate,” you will likely provoke a fight rather than persuade them to your view. Many Republicans are already suspicious about public education, so you don’t want to feed into their fear that their sons and daughters are being brainwashed by some leftist hippy teacher. There is probably value in using neutral, first-person statements about the election, if you can hold back your anger: “As a life-long supporter of both refugees and immigrants, I am very concerned about the closure of sanctuary cities and the ban on immigration.” Teaching Tolerance has good resources on teaching/modeling civil discourse in the classroom.
- Offer support and safety to students who feel personally threatened by President Trump and his policies. This is another reality of the Trump era: students of color, Muslim students, LGBTQ students, children of undocumented workers, and others may be feeling bullied and unsafe. Pay attention to what happens in your room and in the hallways, and report any intimidation that you see. If your school does not have a LGBTQ support group, consider becoming the faculty sponsor.
- Find other ways to protest. Social media can do a lot of good in the world, but it can also presents the illusion of real action: if you just sign that petition, the policy will never go forward. Critics call this kind of point-and-click advocacy slactivism. If you can, attend a march or join a protest. Donate to a good cause. Call your Representative or Senator. Even make small talk with people. These are all good ways to resist.
- Examine the language/rhetoric of power. For English teachers in particular, Donald Trump’s use of language and his broader rhetorical strategies are worth closer examination. When it is safe and productive to do so, interrogate his language and rhetorical maneuvers, especially in his rally speeches. How do his word choices, syntax, and argumentative strategies reinforce his message?