How Are Teachers Talking About Trump?: A Round Table Discussion
Over 20 educators from around the country weighed in
The morning after Donald Trump was declared the President-elect, I spoke with my best friend — a black woman who teaches grades one through four in a diverse Massachusetts neighborhood.
“Teachers are in charge of showing students that if you are unkind, cruel and a bully, you won’t be successful in life,” she said. “Now they will have an example to point to and say, ‘What about him?’ But we can’t stop teaching that or this will happen again.”
Like anyone who was shaken by the election results, I’ve been alternatively numb, confused and angry while swathed in the blanket of media coverage and the opinions of friends and family as expressed over social media. My best friend does not have this option. She, like many doctors, mental health professionals, parents and other teachers, must continue to work and advise while processing.
I spoke with over twenty educators across the country, from preschool to university-level, about how they are handling the topic. Some are in blue states, some in red states; some teach at Montessori schools or private schools, while some are employed at public schools.
Note: Many identifying details, including names, have been changed due to school policy and personal preference. Full names have not been changed.
How are your students?
Rachel Rizzo, blue county: That varies greatly, mostly to do with what’s going on at home. I’ve seen tears, aggression, frustration, fear, curiosity, complacence and complete ignorance.
Britt Mitchell, blue county: Some of the students use the morale of the country as an excuse not to care. One third grader yelled, “DONALD DUCK WON!” That one made me laugh.
Max, red county: The younger students who know very little about politics have been echoing things they hear from their parents. When I ask them for evidence of their viewpoint, they shrug and say, “I really don’t know much about it.”
Kayleigh Wanzer, blue county: It’s a lot of middle school emotions mixed with very real fears of overt racism and deportation. We start every morning with a “chapel” where students can share prayer intentions and this morning every single prayer was either for America or for an immigrant family member. We watched Obama’s speech calling for unity and about half the students were crying.
Catye Palomino, red county: Some kids laughed or tried not to laugh as I broke down in tears in front of them talking about this. They are uncomfortable with it, and don’t know how to react.
Rebecca, blue county: One came into the classroom today yelling and swearing blaming [us] “white people” for “making Donald trump the President.” Naturally, this fueled the other students, so we pulled up some of the election information and explained popular votes versus electoral votes. Most of the responses were “but it still doesn’t make sense” or “but that’s not fair.”
Elissa Daniels, blue county: My most politically aware student, a seven-year-old girl of Mexican heritage whose mother was not eligible to vote, told me that she is scared because Trump won. I told her that I am scared, too. She is happy that Catherine Cortez Masto, our first Latina senator, was elected.
Tyler, red county: One of my [special ed] students was on his worst behavior. He spent twenty minutes in the hallway telling me and his teacher (when she could get away from the class) that he doesn’t care about anything, wants to murder someone, wants to die, no one cares about him.
Taylor Reinhart, blue county: I’ve been reminding my students (100% POC, mostly from families in Caribbean Islands) that the folks at our building do the work we do because we believe that our students are the future and face of a changing America, and that they need to be ready in four years when it comes time to vote for another President. After I reiterated that I believed that in class discussion, a kid yelled out “Why are you lying?” It’s that kind of day.
Leonard, international teacher: One student seemed on the verge of tears, others found it hilarious, the two Americans (also Muslims) in the class were both very concerned. Several students who were considering attending college in the USA started to reconsider and others were thinking long and hard about if they should avoid certain states.
How did you address your students about the Trump win?
Britt Mitchell, blue county: I said, “How many of you feel disrespected?” Most of them raised their hands. I responded, “There is a lot of negativity and disrespect in this world and in this school, but only you can change that. Think before you say a comment or do an action. ‘Is this moving forward or moving backward?’ No matter how bad things get, remember to be nice to each other.”
Max, red county: I do not feel that I should be expressing my political beliefs to students of this age, but rather creating a Socratic dialogue that makes them logically explain their beliefs and back up their statements with evidence.
Jackie, blue county: I didn’t know where to begin, so I put on CNN Student News and let the commentator explain how electoral votes work. I also tried to create a fun, safe space for them to let them know that they are loved and supported. Their lives are hard enough without the President-elect making fun of people like them with disabilities.
Kayleigh Wanzer, blue county: We had a roundtable conversation about thoughts and fears, and how far America has come as a country. Personally, I’ve grown really tired of the calls for tolerance and unity from well-meaning liberals, but I think it’s a necessary thing to pass on to middle schoolers in general, so we discussed that as well.
Catye Palomino, red county: I started each of my classes by telling them how disappointed I was with the outcome of the election. I told them that many of us were in mourning, mourning a democracy we thought was better than this. I gave anyone a chance to share their thoughts. Some did, most didn’t.
Nick Ortolani, blue county: We were given a set of phrases, basically to reassure the kids that they are safe for the time being, that no laws have changed yet, and that they are protected by the schools and other family organizations.
Andrew St. Pierre, blue county: I didn’t. It was hard.
Tyler, red county: We were on strict lockdown to not talk about it in our resource room. That was also the message from the administration for the whole school. Our [special ed] kids already have a tendency to harass and bully each other. It was a real struggle keeping them from not talking about it in our room. When my kids ask me how I voted, I tell them I don’t believe in affecting their political opinions.
Holly, blue county: Our workshop with them today happened to be about teen pregnancy, and I took all the girls into a room to talk away from the boys about the topic and ask any questions they might have. They talked about how [Trump] is a racist and how he publicly disrespects women and immigrants but his wife is both. I talked about victim blaming and how we see it all the time in regards to issues around teen pregnancy and assault, and how Trump and men like him perpetuate these ideas. [I said] that no matter what, “I don’t care if you’re drunk, on drugs, what you’re wearing, where you are, if something happens to you without your consent, it is never your fault.”
Leonard, international teacher: To be honest, it was just too raw for me to properly address it at the time. It was clear to the students that their teachers were all Clinton supporters, you could see it on our faces, you could see it in our body language. For the vast majority of my students, this just an election in a country they’re not a citizen of. An important country, but they don’t have the same kind of stake in it that American students do. They’re worried about if Trump will attack their country.
What have discussions among your fellow teachers been like?
Tyler, red county: The kids’ case manager said “I wish they could just be kids.”
Jackie, blue county: We’re concerned about our students’ safety now more than ever.
Kayleigh Wanzer, blue county: I’ve been very impressed with my teaching coworkers in their resiliency, openness and kindness. You know, we kind of all wanted to just run up and down the hallways screaming “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCKK WHAT THE FUUUUUUUUUUUCK” but uh, we didn’t.
Catye Palomino, red county: I eat lunch with the same group of coworkers every day. I refer to us as the Brain Trust because we are intellectuals who all agree politically. Today, we were all a little teary, a little pissed off and a little shell-shocked. Other than that, no one said anything. My principal did email me and said he had heard I was having a hard day. He told me I could take a break and someone could cover for me, but I didn’t want to leave my kids. Also, and this struck me as odd and irresponsible: He told me I did not have to talk about the election today, but to try to make the day as normal as possible. I disagreed. That doesn’t seem right.
Elissa Daniels, blue county: Elementary education is a field dominated by women, and most of us are very worried. A substitute whose children attend our school said that her neighbor was so mad that he was literally throwing all of his furniture out of his front door this morning. I have at least one colleague who is an outspoken Trump supporter. I avoided her today. I don’t know how she could face her students.
Rachel, blue county: The librarian made an “Escape Zone” with a table of books and games and a sign that says that in the next few days we’ll all be stressed. The Escape Zone is a place where you can go to not talk about politics, to hang out, play games, read, etc.
Leonard, international teacher: The collective response from my colleagues has been shock, depression and a sense that maybe we’re not as connected to our fellow Americans as we thought. Though the realization that Clinton won the popular vote is helping with that feeling. We’re all struggling how to explain this to our students. We thought America was better than this, we thought we had moved past this kind of language and hatred. Some of us even felt embarrassed. Our country elected a man who would hate the vast majority of my students. What are we supposed to do with that?
Joseph Gels, blue county: We discussed how we considered not coming in that day, but felt we needed to come in for the kids.
What do you feel is a teacher’s role in helping students cope with a Trump presidency?
Rachel Rizzo, blue county: It is incredibly important to get to know your students and their families personally. Teachers need to invest in meaningful relationships with students so that they know they are cared for and respected, and that their voices are heard. Above all, we need to maintain a safe, inclusive environment that promotes tolerance and mutual respect. Once those things are established and practiced, it is incredibly important to promote critical thinking.
Luke, blue county: All we can do is teach kids to be engaged and advocate. Art plays a big role in empathy. Part of what I try to do is show how art and technology go hand in hand.
Kayleigh Wanzer, blue county: As it becomes clearer that a white majority is more vocal, as teachers, we need to promote diverse representation in what we read and teach.
Tyler, red county: Too many teachers are too worried about controversy with politics or saying too much, so they say nothing. This is common in West Michigan [where I teach]. Kids have feelings about these things, especially our kids, and to ignore it is irresponsible.
Andrew St. Pierre, blue county: I feel like we failed. At some point it became much easier and less of a headache to ignore them than to actually engage them and tell them that their parents are wrong [for who they voted for — this was a conservative area in a blue state]. It just didn’t seem realistic that [Trump] would win, and we were just hoping it would be over soon.
Michelle, blue county: My role is the same as it has always been: to use English to help students become better thinkers with more empathy and understanding for others who are unlike them. We read about warriors who fight for their beliefs and everyman characters who stand up for what’s right, then connect it to our lives.
Mark, blue county: Find solutions that are constructive. Find ways to get involved. What are the takeaways from a situation like this? A lot of the country told us they aren’t going to listen. We need to listen.
Ella, red county: Maria Montessori believed that children between the ages of zero and six are essentially sponges who soak up what surrounds them, and that in turn creates the basis of their character; what they get is eventually what they bring with them into the world. I believe that the children are the ones who will break the cycle. Our job is to model respect, kindness, love and peaceful conflict resolution, and hope that the next generation will not feel the need to bully and shout and prey on fear.
Leonard, international teacher: As a teacher at an international school with such a varied student body, I am always helping students make sense of events from around the world. A Trump presidency is just another thing to add to the list. For the older students, particularly those in my AP US History class, we can try to look at this in the context of other elections. This election was not the most divisive ever, it was not the nastiest ever. This election will still result in a peaceful transition of power from one party to another, something that doesn’t always happen in other countries.
What can those who aren’t teachers do to support kids and their teachers through this time?
Rachel Rizzo, blue county: First, make sure they feel safe, valued and loved, and then teach them how to stand up for themselves and others who might need it. Teach them how to stand up against bigotry and hatred, and how to be an ally. Teach them the value of being part of a diverse community, and to deeply value diversity and inclusion. Don’t talk down to them, they are way smarter than you think.
Jackie, blue county: Open up your businesses or workplaces for students with disabilities. Let them volunteer to learn vocational and social skills. Volunteer with after-school programs to show kids that we haven’t given up on their futures. And please, please let your local politicians know how important strong and lasting educational reform is.
Catye Palomino, red county: Support us by knowing that thirty kids with thirty different experiences and issues are dealing with this. Recognize this and encourage us to do our jobs and educate kids on all things, not just what’s in the textbook. This is not easy, and simply supporting and saying that we are supported, without judgement, is what we need.
Nick Ortolani, blue county: Professionals need to coordinate measured responses to Trump’s foreseeable domestic policy. For example, many families will lose healthcare if Trump is successful in repealing the Affordable Care Act. Therefore, I would implore people who work in healthcare, particularly health insurance agents, to educate low-income families in navigating their new options for health insurance. Food stamps will also likely be cut, so I encourage everyone with even a modest amount of disposable income to, every time they go grocery shopping, purchase five nonperishable items they don’t plan to eat to donate.
Elissa Daniels, blue county: It would be helpful for non-teachers to educate themselves on educational issues before taking stances. For example, I have found that a depressing number of people are vehemently opposed to the Common Core, but don’t actually have the slightest idea what the Common Core is. I’m guessing Trump is among them.
Taylor Reinhart, blue county: Continue to teach the values of stoicism and common sense. With so many conflicting “facts,” we need to teach younger students how to research issues and fact-check the information they gather.
Interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Photo by Krista Anna Lewis.