Voices and Voting: Education after an Election

Democracy

The dual pandemics of COVID-19 and the racial injustices that plague our systems have created a heightened sense of unrest and uneasiness among many of us. Teachers and students are not immune to the stress fueled by the current election cycle. 

Elections have consequences. History reminds us that the results of the U.S. presidential election of 1876 were a mess. A candidate had emerged with the lead in the popular vote, but 19 electoral votes from four states were in dispute. In 1877, Congress convened to settle the election—and their solution proved to be the beginning of the end for Reconstruction in the south.

This 2020 election seemed like another turning point, with public health and white supremacy on the ballot. Schools became locations for processing the many emotions students and teachers are experiencing. 

At Teaching Matters, we see you and we hear you. We recognize there may be a need to discuss, debrief, and process the impacts that the election results may have on the members of our community, particularly for those with marginalized identities and those most vulnerable to trauma. As a way of supporting teachers and their students during this uncertain time, here are some curated resources that focus on the wellbeing of our community.

Coping and Reducing Emotional Distress (adapted from The City College of New York Counseling Center)

  • ​Unplug: Stay informed and know your limits. Make sure to monitor how consuming the news is affecting you emotionally, mentally, and physically. During these times, the urges to check the news and social media can be intense. Resist the urge and recognize that staying informed does not equal absorbing information 24/7. If this is difficult for you, schedule times in your day to read up or watch the news.
     
  • Be Present and Reflect: You may be feeling overwhelmed with thoughts of “what if” and the unknown future. Take a few long deep breaths … inhale for four seconds … exhale for six seconds … and bring yourself back to the present. Utilize reflection to explore your thoughts and feelings in a curious and non-judgmental manner. Identify and label your feelings without attempting to avoid or ignore them.
     
  • Find Balance: Reflect and ask yourself – are you getting enough sleep? Check your eating habits. Are you getting some movement every day, such as walking, stretching, yoga, or working out? Even though we find ourselves in times of high stress, we must mindfully ensure we are finding balance as well.
     
  • Connect: Touch base with your support network! Zoom, Skype, speak on the phone, text, chat, or even have a socially distant meetup. Connection during this time provides safety, comfort, and helps us feel less lonely.
  • Do Something: Stay proactive and make a self-care plan for this election season, including the days and weeks to come. Engage in pleasant, soothing, and calming activities. Channel your emotions into forms of advocacy for your communities.

Signaling your concern for students

In general, research suggests that students appreciate teachers’ efforts to acknowledge issues of deep concern for our learning communities. One study of instructional responses after large-scale emotional events found that the vast majority of students found it helpful when an instructor noted that the class would proceed, but if students were too distressed to process the material, the class would offer other opportunities for review in the future (Huston & DiPietro, 2007). 

In addition, Lynn Hernández at The City University of New York’s School of Medicine has offered the following possibilities for teachers to address the election and acknowledge the emotions that many students may be facing:

  1. You can signal your care for students and also address the need to focus class time on key classroom objectives by putting together a brief, non-partisan statement similar to the examples below:

    “I understand that this is likely a challenging day to be thinking about [subject or class topic]. I also imagine that by being here today, like me, you find some reassurance in observing this moment as a community. In a minute, I will turn to [your scheduled topic], but I do understand that it may be difficult to focus, so I will record the session for you to review later. I will also share opportunities that our school is making available for us to come together as a community to reaffirm our values during this time.”

  2. It is important to help students feel supported and understood by opening space for reflection and empathy, and by providing channels for valuable support services when necessary:

    “November 3rd was a long night and we are all likely to be very tired. Different people in this classroom may have strong emotions from a variety of perspectives, and it may be hard to focus. Therefore, I want to make you all aware that our school has put together a variety of events for students to process their feelings and/or identify people they want to contact for whatever connection and processing would be beneficial to them.”

Deciding to Hold a Discussion

The City College of New York’s Office of Diversity and Compliance has identified some helpful resources for connecting and processing with your students and the larger community.

Depending on the learning objectives of your class, a discussion of the election can benefit student learning, engagement, and well-being -- and help you address classroom material in a highly relevant way. If you decide to hold a discussion, it is important that you become as informed as possible about the impacts of the election that are likely to resonate with your classroom topics and the discussions your students may want to have.

Thinking intentionally about a controversial discussion is important to avoid some common pitfalls, which may include unintentional silencing, abruptly cutting off dialogue, and allowing the discussion to develop in unproductive and potentially harmful ways. If you choose to have a discussion during class, planning the contours of the discussion and anticipating hot moments are important considerations.  

  • Vanderbilt University has put together a useful guide, “Difficult Dialogues,” which provides specific strategies and resources that educators can use to create a more productive conversation.

During the discussion, it will be important to acknowledge the range of perspectives and intense emotions that are likely present in your classroom. 

Discussions Raised by Students

The City College of New York’s Office of Diversity and Compliance also recommends some helpful strategies for when students mention the election: 

  • If a student raises the election as a topic when you had not planned to discuss it, these resources may be helpful if you want to engage everyone in the conversation. 
  • If you do not feel prepared to discuss the election, you can recognize why the student might want to have the conversation, but explain that you want to think further about whether and how to engage it as a class because it is important to do so carefully, given the intense emotions and divergent perspectives around this election.
  • Teachers can also invite students to write a brief minute paper or 321 reflection, encouraging them to reaffirm their own values, or invite students to link how they are feeling about the election to classroom content. 

Confident teachers are able to cultivate confident students, and a supportive school context is crucial to a productive learning environment. We hope these resources both support and scaffold the conversations your classrooms will have in the days and weeks ahead. The care we demonstrate should model the kinds of action we want our students to take in their communities, reflecting opportunities for choices we want all people to have, and recognizing the responsibilities that accompany these freedoms.

Our democracy is the culmination of our individual actions toward a collective purpose. Anti-racist values, along with culturally responsive-sustaining practices that affirm and validate all identities, permeate political parties.

Just as we strive to create safe spaces in our classrooms that allow students to take intellectual risks, our schools must be spaces where we each feel comfortable taking care of everyone’s well-being. 

By: Lance W. Ozier, EdD

Sources:  Huston, T.A., and DiPietro, M. (2007), 13: In the Eye of the Storm: Students' Perceptions of Helpful Faculty Actions Following a Collective Tragedy. To Improve the Academy, 25: 207-224

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