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Teachers describe dealing with the election in America's classrooms

Teachers in classrooms across the U.S. are facing a new challenge in the wake of Tuesday’s surprise election of Donald Trump: how to cultivate civil discussion after a rancorous campaign season, and create a safe space for students — some as young as elementary-school age — who’ve come to fear the president-elect.

A report from the Southern Poverty Law Center this past spring found that the rhetoric of the election cycle was having a profound impact on students across the country. Racial tension and anxiety among students increased, and many students worried about deportation. And now that Trump has been elected, schools are stepping up to respond to the range of reactions.


Many have organized discussions and provided resources on campus for students who want to talk about the election results. Elementary school teachers have given students assignments to write or create art expressing their feelings, high schools have held in-class discussions, and colleges have provided town halls to allow students to talk about the results. The National Education Association has even published a guide on how to talk to students about the election.

But some teachers — particularly in low-income districts — have seen Trump’s victory take a toll on their students. The most dramatic impact has centered on Hispanic students and students who are Muslim, because of Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and promise to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. According to the NEA, the number of Hispanic students enrolled in public schools increased from 19 percent to 25 percent between 2003 and 2013 and has exceeded the percentage of black students. This number is expected to increase to 29 percent of all students in public schools by 2025.

Brittany Clark, a high school English teacher at a public school in Brooklyn, New York, says that those fears have been augmented since Election Day. “There seems to be this sentiment that our students no longer know how to interact around each other,” says Clark. “There appears to be internal and external tension rising: Do minority students have to mistrust white students? Do minorities have to mistrust anyone who sympathizes with Trump if they have felt attacked by Trump?”


Casey Holmes, who teaches at a school near the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, says that many of her students of color have expressed concern over the racist comments Trump made on the campaign trail. “[They] were asking me about whether there is any chance for Clinton to still somehow win, whether he’ll be able to keep all of his promises, whether they [the government] can reestablish slavery.”

“I felt incredibly helpless.”

“It was hard to cope with — there was a lot of disappointment… and honestly, fear, too,” says Lauren Capra, a teacher at a high school in Maryland. Capra’s school is in a low-income neighborhood, and many of her students are immigrants or have immigrant parents. “Before the election, [the students] were expressing concern and coming to me and saying, ‘I’m worried. Am I going to be deported?’”

But the tone of their questions has grown more serious in the days since Trump’s victory. Now her students ask her, “‘Am I safe? Is my family safe? What happens now in Trump’s America?’”

For one teacher at a low-income school outside Chicago, it’s stressful that she can’t do more to help her students in this uncertain time. “I had a conversation privately with a student and his mother. She was crying and expressed her fears for her son, who is about to graduate high school, cannot get funding for college, and is now faced with the threat of deportation. I felt incredibly helpless.”


Ryan Johnston teaches second grade at a school outside Seattle where the overwhelming majority of his class are students of color. “At age 7 or 8, their fear manifests in two forms: direct, teary-eyed terror as they start to wonder, through conversations with parents and peers, whether they are welcome here; and anxiety that presents itself as manic energy.”

Charisma Ricksy, who teaches at a private elementary school in Cleveland, says that the feeling of angst among the students and teachers has become a bonding point for their community. “I feel like the election has almost brought my students closer to one another and us (as their teachers) because we were all able to share these common feelings, worries, and concerns. We could relate to one another in a very vulnerable and real way,” says Ricksy.

One of her third grade students said that Trump was “smart” because he “only wanted to become president to make more money.”

Amid the harsh rhetoric and divisive nature of this year’s election cycle, many teachers have found it difficult to remain nonpartisan. Amy Berman, who worked in Democratic politics for a decade before becoming an educator, said Wednesday was trying for her as she hid her personal grievances to be supportive of her students. “Part of my job was also to explain to them the shift in demographic support from Obama to Trump, and what that means as we look toward 2020.”

Meanwhile, more-conservative student bodies have been experiencing a different kind of tone over the last few days. Larissa Dzegar teaches English and creative writing at a high school in New York City. Dzegar, an immigrant who identifies as liberal, says that the majority of the students at her school are conservative, which has spurred a more victorious tone there since Trump won. “Many of my students were surprised by the outcome, and had prepared themselves for Clinton’s win,” says Dzegar. “Because most of my students are conservative and know that I am very liberal in my politics, their questions have been about me and my feelings… We had a fruitful, respectful discussion about the outcome.”

Dzegar was concerned that having a candid conversation about the election could cost her her job, but she felt strongly that she had a responsibility to foster a safe conversation about the election and to be honest about her stance. “Some have said they feel more comfortable with a non-PC nation, where people say what they actually think,” says Dzegar.

In the last three days, thousands of students nationwide have protested the results of an election that they were too young to participate in. But their demonstration of activism may be the key takeaway from the Trump victory fallout. “They want to communicate that they are valued, that they have worth, that they play pivotal parts to what makes America great,” says Capra. “They want to make sure that their contributions are still visible.”