Auburn professor explores classroom response to political trauma

November 30, 2018

In the days following the 2016 presidential election, schools and teachers served as a point of contact for youth as they made sense of the campaign and election, according to new research from Auburn University. Across the U.S., teachers faced students with disparate feelings and reactions: some were excited and spoke about how Trump would bring the change they and their parents hoped for; others arrived to school with fear, sadness, and anger, wondering whether they would be safe in their homes, schools, and country.

Two recent studies by a team of scholars, including College of Education Assistant Professor Hannah Carson Baggett, explored how teachers navigated the two weeks following the 2016 presidential election. Based on a nationwide questionnaire of more than 700 educators, these studies addressed the idea of political neutrality in the classroom. The authors found that just avoiding the issues was not an effective teaching tactic.

“This research is less about teachers responding to the election and more about responding to their students,” Baggett said. “Teachers reported that many students were coming to school feeling anxious, scared, and upset.  Our data capture how teachers responded to those students’ needs.”

Those findings echo other studies about the ways that college students experienced the election, as noted in a recent CNN article.

Baggett and her coauthors, Alyssa Hadley Dunn of Michigan State University and Beth Sondel of the University of Pittsburgh, first outlined pedagogical approaches for practicing teachers in Teaching and Teacher Education, based on data from teachers’ descriptions of their responses to students. These included:

  • supporting students emotionally and provide space for students to process the event;
  • teaching civic knowledge so students understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens; and
  • using events like elections as opportunities to analyze justice and injustice.

In their second article, published this fall in the American Educational Research Journal, Baggett and her coauthors analyzed the ways that contexts shaped teachers’ decision-making.

“Teachers were made to feel they should respond in a certain way, or not at all. Teachers feared backlash. Parents and principals suggested it would be wrong to respond. But the data push back against the idea of neutrality,” Baggett said.

Many teachers, however, feared coming off as pushing a specific agenda, as the article title suggests. Baggett explained that a prevailing notion in these polarized times is that schools are somehow not appropriate places to discuss elections and current events that may be perceived as “controversial.”

“But if students are hearing rhetoric that is threatening to their own or their families’ identities, or facing consequences from policy, such as deportation, the idea that schools or teachers shouldn’t be addressing those things is misguided. In other words, if teachers are operating under the idea of neutrality, they are communicating the message that the status quo is fine, whatever it may be.”

Teachers are under a lot of pressure in many areas, especially in communities experiencing racism, poverty, and transience. Before coming to Auburn, Baggett herself was a public school teacher, as were her co-authors. They speak from experience.

“Teachers in many schools are already struggling,” Baggett said. “Teachers naturally want to address student concerns, but fear a backlash. We do not want to contribute to the vilification of teachers; we want to see them operate on the side of justice and equity. It’s an incredibly difficult situation for them. In the final analysis, we are saying that teachers should use current events to analyze inequality, and perhaps go beyond standard civics education.  They could examine efforts to roll back the Voting Rights Act, for example, or the many efforts nationwide to reinstate voting rights for formerly disenfranchised people. These can and should be teachable moments.”