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“I Can’t Just Let Those Things Stand”: How Social Studies Teachers Make Sense of Political Disclosure, Classroom Safety, and Controversial Issues in Contentious Times

  • Author(s): Geller, Rebecca Genevra Cooper
  • Advisor(s): Rogers, John S;
  • Howard, Tyrone C
  • et al.

While discussions of controversial social and political issues are described as vital to a quality school-based democratic civic education, teachers may find it difficult to broach divisive partisan issues, especially during times of increasing political polarization and contentiousness like the United States in the Trump era. It is often taken for granted that when leading controversial issue discussions, teachers should create an open classroom climate and should enact a neutral political stance. In this dissertation, I studied the limitations of these traditional approaches to discussions in contexts of sociopolitical hostility.

This study follows up on Rogers et al.’s (2017) nationwide study of teaching and learning in the Trump era. I draw on qualitative semi-structured interviews that were conducted with social studies teachers in diverse communities across the United States in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Drawing on theories and frameworks of teacher political disclosure (Kelly, 1986), pedagogy of political trauma (Sondel et al., 2018), and sympathetic touch (Du Bois, 1935), I explored how U.S. public high school social studies teachers made sense of their experiences leading discussions in this time of contentious and polarized national politics.

Findings from this dissertation speak to the conditions and priorities of teachers in controversial issue discussions. First, I describe how teachers experienced and understood the contentiousness and sociopolitical hostility of the national political climate as it played out in their classrooms. Second, I examine how teachers prioritized competing goals related to classroom climate; specifically, as teachers described wanting to build classrooms that were safe for their students, I explore what they understood a safe environment to be, and whose safety they prioritized. Finally, I look at how teachers thought about disclosing their personal political beliefs and opinions in the classroom.

This research offers insights into how teachers conceptualize their roles in discussions of controversial issues with young people, including the complexity and contextual nature of these seemingly straightforward pedagogical decisions, and the need for teachers to take proactive, empathetic steps to provide support and protection to young people from marginalized groups in order to challenge intolerance under the guise of academic discourse.

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