My 10th grade US Government and Politics teacher was an intelligent goof who was constantly talking about fitness, random history facts and coupons. His best friend taught across the hall, and when the only time that the two weren’t making fun of each other, is when they were making fun of their other friend down the hall. It was the bromance to end all bromances.
Naturally students joined in on the teasing, and the atmosphere of the class was very jovial and sassy. No nerdy pun was off limits. Overall, the class proved to be a fun and rigorous learning environment.
As members of our class grew into bigger and bigger poli nerds, we naturally began to wonder about the political leanings of those around us. One day, we asked our favorite poli nerd, our teacher, about his. To our shock, he refused. Being determined scholars, my class resolved itself to rout out the truth.
We laid elaborately thought out mental traps in order to capture the quarry of our curiosity. We asked him questions about certain policies to ascertain his feelings, but to our dismay, our teacher had seen through our scheming. Between his implementation of strategies of avoidance, sarcasm, changing answers and the rare truth, our teacher had successfully thwarted us at every turn. Even when we talked to his bromantic partner, across the hall, we got incredibly mixed responses.
I struggled to comprehend why an individual with so much knowledge would not want to divulge and discuss with students.
I hadn’t thought about this teacher, this game, or this point of confusion until yesterday afternoon while I was reading The Theoretical Roots of Social Justice: A Literature Review by sj Miller. The entire piece is thought provoking, but I fixated on questions raised within the last section about the ethics of teachers imposing (or upholding) morality within the classroom. What should a teacher do when “a bigoted paper…meets the criteria for a strong essay,” or when students “openly use hate speech?” How can one promote the values of social justice without limiting speech? Does one value hold greater weight than another?
While I do believe that creating a safe, tolerant classroom for everyone demands a certain degree of moral conviction, and at times moral imposition, the relationship between a deliberative, open classroom and principles of social justice is a complicated and tense one. First and foremost, every student has a right to feel safe and respected, as an equal, within the classroom. This element of social justice should become normalized and should never be sacrificed. But, teachers also must demand of their classrooms the capability to accommodate discourse among individuals with very different backgrounds and belief systems, even when such belief systems differ from that of the teacher.
By withholding his personal beliefs, my US Government and Politics teacher allowed students, many who were interacting with politics for the first time, to learn about our own political thoughts through discourse and debate with one another…and the various alter egos that he assumed when we questioned him. The end result was a more inclusive environment. By staying silent about his thoughts on current events, he taught us far more than he ever could have by making his opinions known. In doing so, he gave us the tools that we needed to explore complex arguments, evaluate evidence, and, for many–although not all–students, the critical thinking skills that we needed to arrive at certain principles of social justice on our own.