Politics in Teaching

I’ve heard commentators talk about parents’ struggles to talk to their children about the presidential election and have read corresponding online articles. As a Counseling Psychologist and professor, my internal debate is, “how do I talk to my students about politics in general?”

Counseling psychologists have expertise across research, therapy, and social justice. I’ve derived principles from these pillars of our profession to guide my approach to talking politics in class.

D17 Denver-588Am I making assumptions? I spend so much time with other counseling psychologists that I tend to assume everyone shares my political beliefs. Even in writing that sentence, I assumed that most counseling psychologists lean left, a real-time demonstration of how difficult it is to not assume. I address certain topics in my classes (e.g., educational rights, health disparities) and keep them grounded in theory and research. However, I contextualize these lesson plans within my students’ experiences and identities. Many of my students are from different backgrounds compared to each other and me, and many may support Donald Trump. My endorsing a candidate or explicitly politicizing a discussion without an application to course material may shut down student engagement or critical thought. My endorsement might also reinforce someone’s assumption that psychologists are the ‘liberal elite’ and widen the gulf between political factions even more, leaving students more unwilling to critically examine their stances.

How do my identities impact the dynamic? Professors have power in the classroom (even if it does not feel like it). Students may be uncomfortable challenging their professor or may fear that their dissenting opinions impact their grade or standing in the department. Equally important is the consideration of how the current political climate, in and outside of the classroom, is impacting us. When I practice therapy, the outside stresses I hold can seep into therapy sessions. The same is true in the classroom. As a woman, after the second presidential debate I felt more on edge and upset, and I am sure this impacted my teaching. Self-care is critical. On the other hand, I hold many privileged identities, and so even my approach to the issue of politics in teaching is a step removed from living in the “isms” that are threaded into the fabric of this election. Therefore, there are many topics for which I can be an ally in the classroom with less personal burnout.

Meet students where they are. Motivational interviewing works on the premise that directly confronting a person’s behaviors or attitudes only increases polarization and shuts down connection. When I disagree with a client, I use my curiosity to approach and connect with them while discussing their framework.  I try to do the same with my students. It is a long-term process, but creating dialogue and trust lays groundwork for thought-provoking, respectful debate later on. I would hate to inadvertently turn a student away from counseling psychology before they have had the opportunity to fully reflect on how their values and objectives align with the field.

What does the research say?  Most prejudice on campuses occurs in classrooms (Marcus et al., 2003), and resulting stress impacts concentration and learning (Blair & Steele, 2010). Boysen (2012) found students want us to speak up when prejudice enters the classroom. If you are able, tackle these attitudes head on – your power in the classroom allows you to speak out with authority. This models appropriate strategies to addressing prejudicial views to other students and signals your status as an ally to students impacted by the prejudicial statements.

What does this actually look like? This ultimately depends on your teaching philosophy, values and beliefs about change, and most importantly your students. For me, I find ways to integrate political issues into ongoing course content. I used a lecture on brain development in middle childhood as an opportunity to use the Flint crisis of lead poisoning to explain the importance of community systems working together in transparent conditions, as well as the impact of systemic and environmental racism. When students questioned the existence of racist systems, we walked through a scenario and played out different explanations and possible individual and community-level solutions to removing lead from the water. Students could then challenge each other in the context of a learning activity that was real and relevant, and I could ask students about their childhood experiences and how these impact their solutions, and then reflect and guide the discussion based on research and theory.

Where and how does change happen? We are in the business of promoting change for healthier individuals and healthier communities. It may be difficult or inappropriate to have the conversations you are craving in your classroom. Make sure you are taking time to contribute to your communities in a way that uses your knowledge and your skills. Volunteering at phone banks, canvassing, or engaging family or friends in an ongoing dialogue will promote change and also increase your sense of connectedness to the social justice values of our community and the greater community.

About the Author:

stephanie-winkeljohn-black-headshotStephanie Winkeljohn Black, PhD,  is an assistant professor of psychology at Penn State Harrisburg in Middletown, PA.




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