Learning in the Aftermath of a Divisive Election

Teachers comforted scared students and reassured others that they wouldn’t be ostracized for supporting the president-elect.

Many educators are finding that the principles they taught to their students in class are openly disregarded by President-Elect Donald Trump.
Ted S. Warren / AP

This is the first installment of a series exploring how schools are responding to the election of Donald Trump.

After an election that’s exposed deep racial and cultural divisions, teachers across the country are seeking constructive lessons for their students. Some educators have spent the past few days trying to soothe the anxieties of a student body that has now shifted to mostly nonwhite from white, given the president-elect’s campaign promises to restrict Muslim immigration, build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and resurrect stop-and-frisk. Others are cheering the outcome with their students.

Teachers face a difficult task of fostering respectful dialogue in classrooms where some children come from Trump-loving families and others from families terrified the president-elect will bring them harm. They’ve found themselves navigating an unusually extreme set of reactions to a historically divisive campaign. In some cases, they’ve guided these conversations in defiance of school leaders who would rather deflect them.

In the last week, we’ve interviewed close to 40 teachers and counselors (and a few students, too) around the country—in places like Seattle; Houston; Lawrence, Massachusetts; and Olivet, Michigan—about how the election results are playing out in schools. Nationally, more than 80 percent of public-school teachers are white, and the vast majority are female. The profession also skews heavily Democratic: According to one analysis, just one in five teachers identifies as Republican. And while we’ve attempted to gain insight from a politically and racially diverse array of voices, that reality is reflected in the teachers we interviewed.

In the following days, we’ll publish a series of pieces exploring how teachers and other educators are addressing the election and its results with their students—and vice versa. Where teachers were comfortable giving their names and schools, we’ve listed them. Where teachers preferred to remain somewhat anonymous—in some cases because they openly defied school leaders in discussing the election with students and in others because they have not revealed personal details like sexuality and political affiliation to colleagues—we’ve eliminated certain identifying information. This isn’t a scientific survey, so take these anecdotes as snapshots of how the results of the election are playing out in classrooms around the country. Up first, a look at how students reacted to the election results.

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Christina Torres is a high-school English teacher at Hawaii’s public chartered University Laboratory School. Like most of the teachers we spoke with, Torres has students who are immigrants or identify as Muslim. For many of those children, Wednesday was marked by intense—and in some cases amplified or otherwise distorted—fears about what the election results mean for their futures.

At first, Torres felt unprepared for how to address those fears. She said she started bawling on election night when a friend asked what she was going to tell her students the following day. “Normally, my kids are what make me feel hopeful when the world is awry ... [as a teacher,] you get to interact with tiny humans who are the next generation,” she said. “My worry [Wednesday], for a lot of my kids, was that I was going to have to be that source of hope or the message that it’s going to be okay.”

Gregory Michie teaches seventh- and eighth-grade social studies at a public school in Chicago that serves a large immigrant population—he estimates about 95 percent of students are either immigrants themselves or are the children of immigrants. Many students, he said, expressed concerns for the safety of their families. “This one kid, a couple days in a row [leading up to the election], had said, ‘Mr. Michie, if Donald Trump deports my mom, can I come live with your family?’ It’s awful. My initial impulse is to want to make that student feel safe and feel okay.”

David Quinn, the International Baccalaureate coordinator at Edmonds-Woodway High School north of Seattle, said a girl walked into his office afraid she’d be deported. She’s an American citizen. Why, he asked, was she worried? “Because people here are going to hate me,” came the reply. Not here, he replied—not going to happen. “It was a hard day,” he said. But then came a rare thank-you note, from a former student—an Iranian who can’t vote and often feels like an outsider. In class, though, he wrote, “I was an insider.” Quinn had been keeping it together but that was too much. He lost it.

In many cases, rhetoric from the election had transformed in the children’s minds into doomsday scenarios. “Are we going to be sent back to the places we were born tomorrow?” one 8-year-old reportedly asked Angela B., a music teacher at a school in southwest Philadelphia. Angela is white, but virtually all of her students are children of color, and many fear Trump’s election means instant deportation or worse. “I’m going to die today,” a first-grader at her school said as he got out of his family’s car Wednesday morning. He’d heard that as president, Trump would push a button and send a bomb that would blow everyone up. Aly A., who teaches science at a high-poverty and predominantly black middle school in Miami, said two students on separate occasions asked her whether the new presidential administration would reinstate slavery.

At Dolores T. Aaron Academy on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans, the music teacher Andy Bower’s morning started with a question from a student that was hard to answer. “Can you keep me safe?” a fifth-grade black girl reportedly asked Bower, a white man. “I saw the news this morning.” He gave her a hug and tried to reassure her.

“They see the speeches and they hear the sound bites and they don’t necessarily have a ton of context for how the political process works,” Bower said. “So to a kid, if someone says ‘I’m going to deport people’ and then they win the presidency, they don’t necessarily understand what sort of steps would have to be taken to do that.”

“They are upset, and they think that somehow this new president can change things right away,” said Angela, the Philadelphia teacher. “But as educators and people they trust, we need to keep reminding them that they are cared for and protected and, as much as we can, we’re going to stick up for them.”

Many students, of course, didn’t need to be convinced that the election would turn out all right. “I’m happy Trump won,” was a sentiment whispered in Karissa Devore’s first-grade classroom at an international school in Denver full of multilingual, multicultural kids who she said mostly felt scared. How could she prevent kids who shared that sentiment from being ostracized, while reassuring the others? “The general sense of disbelief that was pervading among adults was affecting them and making them feel uncertain,” Devore said, “and with little kids, that’s not a good thing for them to feel.”

Patricia Farley, a middle-school English teacher in Phoenix, said she explained to her students that “Donald Trump’s vision is to unite America and make it strong again. I believe that he can, and will, do that. But only if people come together.” Emphasizing that all her students, including some who are undocumented, are “her babies,” Farley, a former Marine, said she’s used Trump’s campaign as an opportunity to talk with them about immigration policy. The president-elect, she said, doesn’t hate Mexicans; he simply believes that “people need to go through the proper channels to legally immigrate.” That conversation led to discussions in her classroom about the definition of “illegal” as well as the immigration policies in other countries.

Educators as a whole seemed to reject that the election results would seriously interfere with learning. “We’re not letting it stew,” said Meria Castarphen, the superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, on Thursday, two days after the election. “Yesterday, [teachers] spent more time talking to kids about the election—there were concerns about kids who were immigrants, minorities, Hispanics ... Today, we’re trying to do a really good job moving back into their normal rhythm.”

Kate Roseman teaches music at an all-girls K-8 private school in San Francisco. Some students arrived on Wednesday with tears streaming down their cheeks. Others were outraged. One first-grader, according to Roseman, demanded to know how a “bully” like Trump got to be president in the first place. But then the principal gathered everyone together for an assembly. “When we sang ‘America the Beautiful,’ our principal addressed that it was okay to choose not sing, and it was okay to sing, even if you didn't feel like America was ‘beautiful’ at the moment,” said Roseman in an email.

Sophie, a teacher in the Chalmette area of St. Bernard Parish just outside of New Orleans, wanted to help her students process the election. But her principal didn’t want teachers bringing it up. She told Sophie and the school’s other teachers not to talk about the election. If you must talk politics, she said, focus on the student-council race. But Sophie couldn’t avoid it—not when the first child she encountered, a sixth-grader, certain she’d be deported, reportedly said, “I’m going to miss you.”

When one little boy said he’d have voted for Trump, a little Muslim girl got up and moved seats. Talk to each other, Sophie urged; ask questions. Later, a little girl wearing a traditional Muslim headscarf piped up. “This is a hijab,” she said to her classmates. “It’s really hot. I don’t sleep in it. If you have questions, ask me—don’t say terrible things.”

“Let’s have real talk,” Sophie told the children, crying in class as she outlined why she, a woman of color, was terrified of the election results. “I couldn’t hold it in anymore,” she said. “It was probably the hardest day I’ve ever had teaching, but it was the most rewarding day I’ve ever had teaching.”