Education Feature: Teaching In Turbulent Times

By Adam C. Rohdie

“May you be blessed to live in interesting times.” While this quote is often purported to be the translation of a Chinese curse, no one is quite sure of its origin. That said, we do indeed live in interesting times and being a teacher (especially a history teacher as I am) has become significantly more exciting and increasingly difficult.

In just the past two weeks, Greta Thunberg has spoken at the UN creating controversary and inspiration and The House of Representatives has launched an impeachment inquiry into the President. Just these two current events alone provide a fascinating platform for teachers to explore ideas, values and the specific workings of our government and legal systems. Even though these topics have become incredibly polarizing in our country, it is imperative that educators hold these conversations in their classrooms. Sigal Ben-Porath, a professor of literacy, culture, and international education at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania said, “talking about significant news is one of the key ways that kids learn to be civically engaged.” I agree wholeheartedly and would only add that how teachers have these conversations is as important as having these conversations in the first place. 

As I plan for a discussion surrounding politics in these turbulent times, I first need to check my own beliefs at the door. That means at the end of the class, or the end of the year, the students should still be guessing if Mr. Rohdie is “red” or “blue”, liberal or conservative. If we wear our own political beliefs on our sleeve, our ability to get our students to see the complexity of an issue deteriorates. That said, it does not mean that good teachers should check their value systems at the door. We can call out behavior that is mean, racist, sexist, homophobic, and hurtful, and help children understand how to act with dignity, grace, empathy, and respect.

When the 8th grade history student asks, “should the President be impeached?”, it is critical that teachers not take that bait. This is not the time to share your thoughts, but rather is the teachable moment to get students thinking. Now is the time that the skilled teacher asks questions: What factual basis could you argue for impeachment? Against? What does the Constitution say?  What do you think the Framers of the Constitution meant by “high crimes and misdemeanors?”  How can one piece of information be interpreted in different ways? 

Moreover, when the student uses a statement rather than a question (I think the President should be impeached!) and assuming this is a majority position in the class, the teacher now needs to become the champion for the minority position. The teacher needs to throw out some energizing points which stake claim to the opposite position, thus ideally freeing up the quiet student in the minority to join the discussion. I am a firm believer that deep learning occurs when we challenge our own deeply held beliefs in the court of public opinion (in this case our classrooms).

Interestingly, some of the deepest teaching occurs when we ask children to argue the position they fully loathe. I believe it was Plato who once said, “in order to argue, you must express your opponent’s argument better than they could.” In our times of political division and polarization, it is even more important that great schools not shy away from these conversations and, as importantly, that we teach young people how to engage in them in a civil and caring way.

By Adam C. Rohdie, Headmaster, Greenwich Country Day School

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