Ask a Teacher

Teaching is a Political Act, Just Not Like People Think

Sarah Styf is a 19-year high school English teacher currently on a teaching sabbatical. She lives in the Houston area with her husband and two children. She is passionate about education reform and civic engagement and recently started the podcast Lit Think with a former teaching colleague. She can be found on Instagram @sarah.styf and Twitter @sarahstyf.
I sought to be the English teacher who kept her politics close to her chest.
I wanted my students to think for themselves. I wanted them to read information, learn how to analyze it, and come to their own conclusions based on their understanding of the text and their own experiences. I wanted to expose them to the experiences of others to push them out of their bubbles to make their opinions more informed and compassionate, but I still wanted them to form their own opinions. I wanted to teach them how to think, not what to think.
So I never told them who I voted for. As long as the piece was factual, I brought in resources from multiple political perspectives. I didn’t argue with them about their opinions, even when I disagreed. I would sometimes ask probing questions to get them to see different perspectives, but if the research was sound and the facts to support their position were there, they were rewarded with good grades and a “good work” written on the paper.
But if I’m honest, I was never politically neutral. I’m an English teacher who also majored in history. Social justice has always mattered to me. Holocaust and genocide studies were an integral part of every sophomore English class I ever taught. I never hid my love for environmentalism and preserving our planet. And maybe that’s because I never saw the issues above as up for debate, contrary to what I saw in the public arena of social media.
As much as I wanted to remain neutral in my classroom, as much as I just wanted to give my students information and allow them to come to their own conclusions, the painful truth is that this has become increasingly difficult. Click To Tweet
In a world where wearing a mask or getting vaccinated to protect yourself and others is considered political, teaching is a political act.
In a world where declaring that Joe Biden won the presidency in a free and fair election is considered political, teaching is a political act.
In a world where demanding that all people in America be treated with basic human dignity is considered political, teaching is a political act.
And the reality is, teaching has always been a political act.
In the film, Life is Beautiful, there is a scene early in the movie during which an Italian teacher speaks of how advanced the German education system has become. She recites a math problem with violently anti-Semitic undertones, yet her amazement has nothing to do with the racist text and everything to do with the advanced nature of the math problem.
This fictional teacher’s decision to praise the advanced mathematical knowledge of German children and not criticize the dangerous rhetoric of the Nazi government was political. The inaction of every teacher who watched as their Jewish students were forced out of their classrooms and didn’t say a word was political. The decision of every teacher who continued to teach anti-semitic propaganda, even when they disagreed, was political.
When Socrates was condemned to death for corrupting the minds of young Greeks, he died believing that he had stood by his principles. He had followed his conscience and was educating young minds for the betterment of the republic. If the price of doing so was his death, so be it. His legacy would live on in Plato, Aristotle, and eventually even Alexander the Great.
Regardless of what we like to tell ourselves, being a teacher has always been a political act.
Even the very concept of adopting a growth mindset is political, as it requires people to change their opinions as they learn new information. It requires that we always be learning, always be seeking the truth, and always be working towards something better. A growth mindset isn’t just an educational gimmick being forced onto teachers to improve the way our students learn; it should be a way of life for all of us. Adopting a growth mindset in all things not only makes us better students and teachers but better human beings and citizens.
Here is the uncomfortable truth concerning teaching twenty years into the 21st century: Even a decision to remain neutral in our classroom is a calculated political decision. If a strong education system is essential to a thriving (not simply surviving) republic, then making our classrooms spaces for honest, truthful, uncomfortable conversations about everything from our nation’s genocidal past to the complexities of our economic system to our fragile ecosystem is a political act. We can hold onto our political beliefs, but we have a responsibility to be truthful, as both teachers and citizens.
And by embracing that truth, maybe we can finally see the change we want to see in our world. After all, isn’t that why so many of us went into teaching in the first place!

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