How to Talk Inclusively About Politics in the Classroom During an Unusual Election

by Kalyan Balaven, Dean of Equity and Inclusion

Many of us will tackle conversations about the upcoming elections in our classrooms as we have done in previous election cycles.  This year proves to be difficult especially for our community as a result of the ‘phobic, racist and sexist language used by candidates during this presidential campaign.  

What exacerbates the challenge further is that we pride ourselves on being an inclusive space and this also means being inclusive of different political views in and out of the classroom. 

There is a line between political arguments that are anti-immigration, anti-refugee, pro-gun, anti-same-sex rights, anti-abortion/pro-life, and language that is ‘phobic, racist, and sexist.  We should allow for the discourse of the former but the latter is unacceptable and is a safety issue for our students who would be impacted by such language.

The Southern Poverty Law Center came out with a compelling report earlier this year (“The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nation’s Schools“) around bullying and anxiety amongst minorities during this presidential campaign.  The study and report look at the specific impact on students and the teachers’ answers show “an increase in the bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates.”

This is disturbing and something we have a right to protect our students from, and at the same time Donald Trump (the focus of the article) and others during this campaign have used vitriolic language to put themselves in a position to be elected, and hence they are relevant components of the political viewshed facing our students.  If navigating this seems considerably difficult, I have included the following bullet points to help with the challenging conversations ahead.

1.  Do not allow any homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, racist, misogynistic and/or sexist language in the classroom. 

a.  Just because candidates have used such language does not give license to our students to.

b.  This should be a norm set up prior to discussion and students should be given the reason why—to ensure the safety and inclusion of everyone in our community.

2.  Discuss conservative perspectives on issues at stake in the election from the 2nd Amendment to immigration, etc., but do so using the statements put out by the Republican or Libertarian parties and not necessarily by the candidates themselves. These are akin to the statements that show up in your voting booklet and are bereft of the offending language described above.

3.  Check in with minority students in class after discussions, making sure their emotional safety is being safeguarded. 

a.  Often times conversations that begin in the classroom do not end there and it’s important we check in to keep an eye on how students might feel, especially when the conversation continues outside the classroom and is no longer facilitated by a culturally-competent instructor.

b.  This check-in can be done via writing, so as to not single out or draw attention to students who may be feeling particularly affected.

4.  If a student wants to advocate for the positionality of Trump specifically in the classroom, allow the student to make political arguments for their positions, but remind them privately of point #1. 

a.  Trump does have talking points for his positions that do not include the language he has become infamous for.

b.   If you plan on having specific conversations with students about these elections, make sure you include those points.

5.   Finally, if in doubt, feel free to reach out to this office and let’s problem solve together so we can remain an inclusive space that also safeguards all our students at the same time.

A Community of Kindness, Compassion, and Respect

By Eric Niles, Head of School, read at Convocation, our annual all-school kickoff meeting.

Welcome to our seniors, the Class of 2017. Welcome to our 8th graders, the Class of 2021. And welcome to our 6th graders, the Class of 2023. I always like to say that because it sounds so futuristic. Welcome to the faculty and staff—I hope you all had a great summer and a great start to the year. Welcome to members of the Athenian board of trustees.  These trustees are all volunteers, so they do this work not to get paid, but to support the efforts of a school they love. They are, in short, making a very meaningful contribution in our world.

My summer was mostly great.  I am not one to focus on the negative—trust me, my “glass” is way more than half full as a member of this Athenian community—but there was one particular time that was very hard.  In early August, about 30 of us came together in the CFTA to honor the life of Safar Shakeyev, an alumnus from 2010 who sadly passed away in late July. Mark VanWarmerdam, Michelle Park, and Emily Shinkle are in Kazaksthan with Safar’s family as I say this.  He was actually the second young alum who died this summer.  Dan Goldberg ’03 had passed away just the week before.  Also, this summer was a time of deep unease, both politically and socially, in the United States.  We have a presidential campaign that is more divisive than any in my lifetime and this June we witnessed the death of unarmed people of color at the hands of police and then the death of 5 police officers in Dallas.  I was reeling.  And you know what I wanted rather than the quiet of summer vacation?  I wanted my community together.  Sure, there was a smattering of us here working this summer and we hugged and cried at the deaths of our young friends.  That was comforting, but I wanted the power of the whole community here.  We feed and nurture each other.

So I see some people looking around.  Is he advocating year-round school?  Is this the end of summer at Athenian?  Well, no.  Selfishly I would want you around, but I understand the power of summer to help us all catch our breath.  But that is what I wanted in that moment.

Why?  Because this community, at its core, is about kindness, compassion, and respect for everyone. Everyone.  If you are new to Athenian, that is an important message for you to take in today.  Because not all communities have those values, live those values.  But we do.  It means that you will be welcomed here, respected here, with open arms.  It means that we will soon be confused about who is new to 9th grade and who came from Athenian’s Middle School.  Wait, hasn’t she been here for 3 years?  Well, no.  Three months.  It means that if you fall short of that standard—if you are mean—your fellow students will likely intervene before any adult has a chance to respond.

I wanted to thank you for that ethic of kindness.  It is a power of this community and, trust me, the world needs all of you right now.  We need to be strong and united in the face of a world that sows divisiveness and fear.  Equity and inclusion can’t just be words we say to be politically correct; they must be truths we live because they are the right and human things to do.

Not having you all with me this summer, more than anything, reminded me not to take it for granted.

There is so much power in this community each day that I can sometimes take it for granted, I can feel entitled to this and more.  Not deeply thankful, but instead wondering what the world has done for me lately.  I lose my perspective.  The deaths of Safar and Dan gave it back with a slap in the face.  And I can see that entitlement around me at times.  The dishes left out at lunch, the complaints about things—from all of us—that honestly seem so small in the face of all we have.

Knowing that we have each other, the respect and kindness of each other to lean on, let’s together shed that entitlement.  Instead let’s see what we have as a call to do more, to be of deeper service to our community and our world, to be a beacon of kindness to which other beacons can attach and gain strength.  We are not simply the joiners of communities at Athenian, we should be the creators of communities.  There is so much human goodness out there.  All of you are proof to me of that.  It took Safar’s and Dan’s deaths this summer to remind me of it, and I won’t soon forget.

I hope you had a rejuvenating summer and thanks for coming home to Athenian for this year.  I am glad to have you all here.  Have a wonderful year.