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The Trump effect

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Trump throwing up a

Trump throwing up a "peace" sign

Trump throwing up a "peace" sign

Megan Phillips, Staff Reporter

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Every election season, teachers in the United States use the presidential election to impart valuable lessons to students about the electoral process and other civic matters. For both students and teachers, last year’s primary season was starkly different from any in recent memory. The results of an online survey conducted by Teaching Tolerance suggest that the campaign is having a significantly negative effect on school settings.

It’s producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among students and dramatically increasing racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom. School staff – particularly teachers – have noted an increase in bullying and harassment of students’ whose religions, orientations, or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail. Educators report being hindered by the need to remain nonpartisan, but disturbed by the anxiety in their classrooms and the lessons that children may be absorbing from this campaign.

Teaching Tolerance’s survey of approximately 2,000 K-12 teachers was not scientific. Their email subscribers and those who visit their website are not a random sample of teachers nationally, and those who chose to respond to their survey are likely to be those who are most concerned about the impact of the presidential campaign on their students and schools

The results of the survey consist of this: More than two-thirds of the teachers reported that students have expressed concerns or fears about what might happen to them or their families after the election. More than half have seen an increase in uncivil political discourse. More than one-third have observed an increase in anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant sentiment. More than forty percent are hesitant to teach about the election.

The long-term impact on students’ well-being, their behavior or their civic education is impossible to gauge. Some teachers worry that the election is making students “less trusting of government” or “hostile to opposing points of view,” or that adolescents are “losing respect for the political process.” For almost all students, the campaign is personal and their support or opposition to candidates— actually to one candidate mainly—is intense. But the effect of the campaign on students depends very much on where they stand in the school pecking order. Those who have been marginalized in the past are bearing the brunt of behavior and comments that often cross over into abuse.

Conventional wisdom and common sense dictate that teachers keep their political opinions out of the classroom. This year, though, educators are finding it tough to remain nonpartisan when all the talk about civility—something they need to uphold in schools—is primarily commentary on a single candidate. In general, they’ve chosen one of three ways forward. Some, mainly experienced social studies teachers, are doing what they’ve always done. Others are making significant changes, opting either to abandon neutrality or focus on something specific to this year’s campaign, like the use of rhetoric. And others, including fifty percent of elementary school teachers who responded to the survey, are simply avoiding it altogether.

Every presidential election is important, of course. What may be most important about this previous election is something few pundits have talked about: its impact on the next generation of voters. What’s at stake in 2016 is not simply who will be our 45th president or how the parties might realign, but how well young people are being prepared for their most important job: the job of being a citizen. If schools avoid the election—or fail to find ways to help students discuss it productively—it’s akin to taking civics out of the curriculum.

Learning to participate in government, even simply as an informed voter, cannot be achieved by interest alone. Preparation for the job of citizen means developing a civic disposition, like being willing to listen to multiple points of view, debate issues, support claims and work with others. Citizens must understand fundamental principles like the role of free speech and of a free press; the fact that majority rule can never undercut minority rights; and the rule of law. What makes presidential elections so compelling is that they’re live, real-time case studies in civic life. While no election or candidate is a model of civic virtue, and there have been some disgraceful election campaigns in our past, this one stands out for modeling the worst kind of behavior.

“One of the things that worries me is that this is the first presidential campaign my high school students are old enough to understand,” an Edmonds, Washington teacher said. “I hope they don’t walk away thinking this is what politics is all about.”

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