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Editor’s Note: Over the past year there has been a growing number of states seeking to surveil teachers and curtail the content and curriculum they teach. Many states have implemented laws that limit conversations about race, racism, LGBTQ+ identities, and other topics. In this context, alongside the recent roll back of abortion rights by the Supreme Court, we asked our writers when is it okay for teachers to disobey? You can read another response by Emma-Kate Schaake here.
The 2016 presidential election was noteworthy for many reasons. Like much of the country, my middle school students were intensely polarized about the candidates. And like typical middle schoolers, they made their views known: in their essays, in-class debates, and their individual blogs.
While I may have disagreed (vehemently!) with some views, it was important to me that all voices were heard in our classroom. This resulted in supporters of both candidates becoming exasperated at times and in equal measure. However, I had to commend my young students for behaving with the kind of decorum that I wish we had seen from the adults involved.
I’d like to think I’d be as confident today having those debates as I was a few years ago, but going against the grain is becoming a full-time job. I’m acutely aware that my high school students are interested in what I believe and how I see the world, but I have to be careful. Given the ubiquitous challenges to curricula from parents across the country, it’s been feeling a bit like standing in quicksand. Additionally, educators are facing “Don’t say gay” laws and the misperceptions about American history as critical race theory. So it’s no wonder that teachers are leaving the classroom rather than risking censure. But maybe there is a way to maintain the jobs we love, remain advocates for all of our students, and practice a form of civil disobedience in the classroom.
The Importance of Questioning
Regardless of district directives and state standards, my ultimate goal is to inspire all my students to stay curious and flexible in their thinking and to develop the habit of questioning. What they think is not as important as developing the habit of questioning what they see and hear and read, regardless of how dazzling the sound bite may be.
I may want my students to believe as I do, to share the same vision for our future that I have. Still, it’s much more important to me that they decide for themselves what to value and fight for and what to ignore or reject. So I employ the Socratic method. Granted, I may be a bit pointed with some of my questions, knowing where I hope they land, but they’ve still got to get there on their own. And one of the most grueling questions for kids to answer is: How do you know?
From young children to older teenagers, the reflective question, “How do you know?” puts the onus on them to question not only whether what they believe has validity but also whether the source from which they got that idea is credible. It’s also a side-door tactic to getting kids to consider whether what they’re being fed at home, at school, online, and in the media agrees with their lived experience.
For example, when kids hear that only criminals are attempting to use our southern borders to enter the United States, it’s not incendiary to ask them how we know this and whether it’s possible that all immigrants are criminals. Of course, the truth has become a casualty of the 24-hour news cycle, which means there are plenty of seemingly reputable outlets clamoring to sell us their version of the truth. If I can get kids to question even some of what’s out there, maybe that can create some doubt, and with doubt, hopefully, will come a deeper dive for the truth. It is tempting to feed them the truth as I see it, but then I’m robbing them of their ability to figure it out for themselves. What cannot ever happen, however, is any student feeling singled out or forced to represent a particular group they may be a part of.
Should Educators Encourage Disobedience?
Teaching is a profession that attracts givers. We care about shaping a future that is better for all beings, not just the ones we like and with whom we agree. However, we also have bills to pay, children to support, and we need to take care of our mental health. This is not to say that we should ignore directives that egregiously conflict with our primary mandate: to educate children. However, each of us can decide for ourselves how much and for what we are willing to speak out, stand up, and push back. Although it’s a hard pill for me to swallow, those who care about the truth and a future that is equitable for all need to remain in America’s classrooms. We need to pass on the messages about democracy, history, and, yes, compassion. This has become especially challenging in the current climate of polarization.
Much of today’s society lacks the appetite for spirited debate and civil disobedience. Instead of exercising our Constitutional rights as citizens of a democracy, anyone who expresses an opinion or addresses a topic risks insults, scolding, and threats. This is especially true for teachers. Much of the public is now expecting that we ignore what’s happening in the world and not speak about what our hearts and minds tell us is right.
But how can we do the jobs we love and believe in if we constantly fear for our jobs or worry about Internet trolls or getting doxxed? The good news is that encouraging disobedience doesn’t mean you have to risk your safety and livelihood. The bad news is that there will still be risks, as careful as you may be. There will probably be someone who takes issue, at some point, with what you said or didn’t say. Or with how you said it. Or with the fact that you said it on a Tuesday wearing a green shirt and drinking tea.
How can we teach our students to stand up for their beliefs when we’re too afraid to stand up for our own? There’s a reason we are instructed on airplanes to put on our own oxygen masks first, should the need arise. We can’t be there for our future students if we’re hobbled by a closed-minded and ill-informed public. But most of us also can’t afford to risk our livelihoods, no matter how justified it may be. However, we can teach our students to question, push for answers, and to dig deeper. After all, questioning is a cornerstone of education.
If Not Us, Then Who?
To my mind, teachers are the first line of defense against untruths and misunderstandings about the world. Even in the best cases, it’s difficult to change someone’s mind, even if we know they are dead wrong.
Rather than bemoan how the Supreme Court is reversing protections for women and hinting at rolling back rights for others who fought for decades to have them, we can ask our students why a branch of government is defying what a majority of Americans support. The answers are messy and complex, but so is today’s society.
When we ask probing questions, or we urge students to validate how they know what they know, we not only protect ourselves. We also protect them from the kind of mindless obedience that can be dangerous. This is not to say that those who have the courage to speak up, march, fight, and protest should not be supported. Their valor is noteworthy because of the risks that come with it. I suspect that most of us would like to do what we think is best without putting ourselves out of a job. Sadly that’s the very real climate we find ourselves in today. We can encourage disobedience without being disobedient ourselves.
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Laura Sofen has been a middle and high school English teacher for the past 20 years. Prior to that she worked in publishing and corporate communications. She is an avid reader, hiker, traveler, and dog lover.