I remember when my daughter announced that Donald Trump had entered the race for the Republican nominee. I laughed, thinking it was a joke. How could a shady businessman and reality TV host earn the trust of the American public? It seemed absurd. I watched The Apprentice for the first few seasons – it was entertaining enough. However, after witnessing what I perceived as sexist comments directed at Aubrey O’Day (no relation) and Lisa Lampanelli, I quit watching the show. My ambivalence to “The Donald” transformed into disdain, and I could no longer view a TV show that supported misogyny in any form. It was unfathomable to me that such a man could be elected to the most powerful position in the world.
For the 2015-2016 school year, I transferred to Western High School, the largest Title I school (essentially the poorest school) in Nevada. Demographically, the school was roughly 71% Latino, 14% African American, 10% White, and 5% other. The first question upon meeting me that my students wanted to know was whether or not I supported Donald Trump.
Previously, I never revealed my political affiliation to students. In 2012, at my students’ urging, I surveyed my students to determine which primary candidate they thought I supported. Mitt Romney received the most votes. Clearly, I had done a good job at presenting a neutral perspective. Only the most politically astute students ascertained that Barack Obama was my candidate – I was, in fact, an Obama delegate to the county and state conventions in 2008 and 2012.
At Western, when asked point blank if I supported Donald Trump, I could not take a neutral position. As a white woman at an ethnically diverse school, I would have had no credibility if students suspected that I was a Trump supporter, and it was important to me that my students knew that I did not support a man who I believed was not worthy of the job. Many of my students at Western were undocumented, or their parents were. Their fear was real. Throughout the year, I reassured students that there was no way Mr. Trump would gain the nomination, let alone win. We observed the spectacle, we discussed the issues, and we watched in horror as Trump’s campaign gained traction. Nearly every student in every class was outspokenly against Donald Trump.
Only one of my students at Western vocally supported Donald Trump. This student also insisted that President Obama was a Muslim. I calmly stated that he was mistaken and inquired about what factual evidence he possessed to support this claim. From his phone, the student showed me a photo of Obama in front of a large piece of cloth hanging on a wall. The student said that Obama was standing in front of a Muslim prayer rug. I pointed out that the president was at an official function in what appeared to be a foreign country where he had no control over the decor. Plus, the wall hanging was significantly larger than a Muslim prayer rug. I explained how Obama was criticized for attending the church pastored by Jeremiah Wright. It did not matter, there was nothing I could say to shake him of his misguided convictions. He was a smart kid and a good student, who did not impress me as a racist.
At age 15/16, most 10th graders are just becoming politically aware and engaged. It was my job as their Social Studies teacher to nurture their political mindfulness. Thus, current events were always an important feature in my classes. I encouraged students to debate the issues, and whenever either side of a debate was lacking, I would play the devil’s advocate in the argument. About a quarter of my students preferred to stay out of the fray and just listen to the classroom debates and discussions. No one was ever pressured to share or justify their political beliefs, as the classroom should always be a safe place to examine the facts and explore one’s ideas.
The Ugly and Uncomfortable Truth
- During the presidential campaign, I was shocked and appalled at the words that came out of candidate Trump’s mouth:
- Calling Mexicans criminals and rapists.
- Stating that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose support.
- Denying that John McCain was a war hero.
- While I do not support most of McCain’s policies, his service and sacrifice to our nation was heroic.
- McCain further impressed me when a woman at one of his rallies attempted to malign then-candidate Barack Obama by saying he was an Arab, and McCain politely and unequivocally shut her down, stating that he was “a decent family man and citizen.”
- Mocking the disabled reporter.
- My brother died from Muscular Dystrophy, (see my blogpost “Christmas Stockings” for a glimpse into my childhood), and this action cut me to the core.
- Spouting demeaning comments about the Muslim Gold Star family.
- Boasting on the Access Hollywood tape about sexually assaulting women.
- Since becoming president, Trump’s actions have been even more disturbing.
- Declaring that there were decent people on both sides of the Charlottesville protest.
- Retweeting scandalous and misleading videos about Muslims attacking Whites to incite racial tension.
- And now, making derogatory comments about Salvadorans, Haitians, and the entire continent of Africa.
Bottom Line: Our Nation Elected a Racist.
While writing this blogpost and listening to CNN – the current background music to my retired life – at 12:20 pm Pacific time on Friday, January 12, a man interviewed in Africa stated of Trump, “We expect more of him. We expect him to be an example.”
Since WWII, the United States has been the leader of the free world. While discussing this fact with my students, I routinely pointed out what a short period of leadership this actually was, noting that while Rome dominated the Mediterranean region for 800 years, I did not expect U.S. hegemony to last nearly that long. What I did not anticipate was the demise of our leadership to come so quickly and for an American president to literally relinquish our position of global leadership. (See my blogpost “Trump’s Short Game” for commentary on the consequences of abandoning our position as global leader.) In my opinion, Trump’s actions are truly treasonous.
A subset of Americans – roughly 35% – support President Trump, including some of my friends and family members. While many Americans are uncomfortable with Trump’s Twitter rants, others relish his trash-talking tendencies. Many Americans are tired of the politically correct speech expectations of recent decades, and they wanted someone like Trump who wasn’t afraid to take on established norms. Having lost trust with the business-as-usual machinations of Washington elites, they wanted someone to shake things up, and Trump promised to “drain the swamp.” For decades, many Americans have advocated running the nation (and school districts) like running a business. And they finally elected a businessman to do the job.
Trump’s success as a businessman is undeniable. He is a master at marketing – especially himself – and he is skilled at hiring great people – especially lawyers – to enact his desires and find loopholes to maximize his profits, such as not paying subcontractors or delivering on promises. He is the quintessential Machiavellian prince, whose bad actions justify any end result that personally benefits himself and his cronies – essentially the 1%.
As an educator, my job was to prepare students for their future by building their academic skills, developing a lifelong love for learning, and nurturing their self-confidence so that they could pursue and achieve their personal and career dreams. As a Social Studies teacher, my job expanded to also prepare students to be functioning citizens of our great democracy by requiring them to analyze how the historical past affects the present and how to critically evaluate how current policies will affect the future. So how do you explain away to students Trump’s bullying tweets? If I as a teacher made similar comments on social media – not even in front of my students – I would be fired, as would most working people. Yet our president is allowed to speak his race-baiting filth and spread dangerous lies on a daily basis.
The majority of my teaching career was spent at two amazing and nationally-ranked magnet high schools. In that situation, I would have relied on simply allowing the facts of Trump-talk to speak for themselves and monitor/facilitate student debate/discussion. However, in a teaching assignment wherein students feel – and indeed are – targeted by the president’s words and actions, taking a neutral stance is complicit support. When my students and their families are maligned and threatened by the president of the United States, it is my duty as an educator, a mentor, an American, and a human being to acknowledge the injustice of this president’s words and actions.
The World Is Watching!
We are in dangerous and uncharted territory. This president needs to be less concerned with how his comments and actions play with his base (the 35%) and be more concerned with how his comments and actions play with our allies and enemies and how they affect our international status. Reputations are hard to repair. President Trump’s supporters in Congress and in the business world will be held accountable, as will be teachers – particularly Social Studies teachers at the high school level – who fail to acknowledge the truth of the matter.
In today’s world, teachers are frequently blamed for the poor state of the nation. At times it feels like all of society’s ills are our fault. Our mission is to prepare students to analyze facts in order to make wise decisions regarding their personal and professional lives. However, there are some historical and current events where taking a neutral position is unreasonable, unethical, and unconscionable. Examples include the atrocities against Native Americans, Slavery and Jim Crow, the Holocaust, and Imperialism. Taking a neutral stance on racist and sexist comments made by the president of the United States is not within my capacity.
To be clear, as an educator I would never use my position to indoctrinate students or unjustly malign a current elected official. However, in a classroom situation, students have questions and concerns. Ignoring Trump’s endless harassment of the press and the judicial system, his destruction of the agencies and organizations that protect the American people and the environment, and his dangerous taunting of Kim Jong-un is simply too much for me. On top of all that is the constant barrage of lies this president has stated or tweeted since assuming office, which The Washington Post identified as 2,000! Call me old-fashioned, but I like polite society, and I want a president who behaves with the dignity expected in the office of the presidency, not a president who crudely denigrates anyone and everyone who does look like him.
What kind of example are we setting for the next generation?
Whitewashing or normalizing the racist comments and tweets made by our president is beyond my capacity. Furthermore, while teaching my unit on WWII, I would have been obligated to draw the obvious parallels between the Trump and Nazi regimes. (See my blogpost on “America’s Correlation to Nazi Germany” for specifics.) Because of that, I suspect that at some point, an administrative admonishment would have come my way after a student or parent complained, and depending on the relationship I had with my administration, I could have found myself in a tenuous situation, fighting for my job and possibly my pension. My last official day in the classroom was on October 27, 2016, after which I was on medical leave for the remainder of the school year, officially retiring on August 31, 2017. So fortunately, I never had to address a room full of students during the Trump presidency. While I worry for my friends and colleagues who remain in the profession, I am thankful I retired!
© Joyce O’Day 2018. All Rights Reserved.
4 thoughts on “The Challanges of Teaching Truth in the Age of Trump: If I Had Not Retired, I May Have Been Fired!”
“Call me old-fashioned, but I like polite society, and I want a president who behaves with the dignity expected in the office of the presidency, not a president who crudely denigrates anyone and everyone who does look like him.”
~ I’m old-fashioned like you and a former high school geography teacher. Under an autocratic government, I had to be very careful about criticizing the policies of our government lest I lost my job.
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Teachers must walk a very fine line under this administration. I worry about my former colleagues who could be targeted by their administrators. A professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas – my alma mater – got publicly harassed by the local media and called out by Sarah Huckabee Sanders after being secretly videotaped by a student for saying that the Trump presidency would result in deaths after the October 1st shooting on the Las Vegas strip. Her comments were taken out of context, and the student who taped her allegedly was angry about his grade and wanted to punish the professor. https://www.reviewjournal.com/news/politics-and-government/las-vegas/unlv-class-erupts-after-professor-blames-trump-for-shooting-video/ People’s jobs and retirements are at stake. Sadly, Trump wants to push the U.S. in an autocrat direction. He clearly admires autocrats. Thanks for responding 😊
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What never fails to astound me is when someone says, “But he’s not fake! He says exactly what he thinks!” Apparently it doesn’t matter what his thoughts are. He wins all the brownie points simply for blurting them out.
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Trump is absolutely vulgar in speech and action. He is a horrible role model for young and old. Is this really the type of society that Trump supporters want? We are living in the movie: Idiocracy.