How Do I Teach High School with a Bully as President?

We’re all finding our light

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I have spent a lot of time over the past few weeks unpacking this election—with myself, my husband, and my friends, but also as a classroom teacher. I teach ninth grade English in a district that I would say is fairly reflective of our country’s voting breakdown. I’ve got about 50 percent Trump-ites and 50 percent Clinton-ites in my classroom, and it has been tense.

Real tense.

You’ve probably heard about this idea, The Trump Effect, the term coined by various members of the social work field to describe the phenomenon of having a bully run as the presidential candidate. Through the divisive rhetoric, it seeps into the classrooms of students, and soon there are more and more bullying and intimidation incidents popping up throughout the nation with our children on playgrounds and in lunchrooms. Sadly, it’s a completely real thing. It happens in my classroom on a daily basis among kids who have been friends for their entire lives, but now find themselves (or their families) on opposite sides of the political spectrum.

The day after the election, I arrived to school with numbness; I didn’t know what to do. I had received no guidance from my administration and it was shocking to walk into a building and see, already, by 6 a.m., a handwritten note taped to a student’s locker that read, “If you’re Muslim, LGBTQ, Black, Brown, or a Woman, you better watch OUT.” I tore it down. I gave it to my Principal. He looked ashamed. I felt ill.

Now that the election dust is settling, I have students who, just like me, are struggling. Recently during a session I organized after school, I listened as a Hispanic student shared that she found out her mother, who is white, had voted for Trump. She said to her mom on Tuesday morning, “But how? You know he wants to get rid of me.” She cried as she told a room full of strangers this information, and she cried harder when she said it was the first time all week she had told the story to anyone.

Another girl shared how the day the day after the election, she had come to school to find it felt “different.” When she went to her math class, a young man, wearing a Trump hat, just leered at her for several minutes, until she finally asked him why he was doing so. His response was to tip his hat to her and say, “You know exactly why.”

As an educator, we are looked to as bringers of knowledge and light. That Wednesday, I needed to get up and teach these kids; I was on the verge of tears the entire time, but I had to be strong and I couldn’t show this. We listened to “Shine the Light” by Sugarland. I honestly told my students that some days there is no light to bring and that we must rely on others to bring that light. I had them write about light and how they shine theirs. I told them that there are times in our world where letting your light shine is the most important way you can help.

They wrote about their light—where they shine it, how they shine it. We made it a live document that they could share and add to throughout the week. I visited the document this morning and it really does shine with light. There are paragraphs after paragraphs written by my students stating to one another that they are there for each other, no matter what. They are disavowing hate language and divisiveness, they are rising above the past nine months of this election, they are healing, they are looking for hope, they are giving strength, they are holding each other gently. They are strong.

I have to hope this is an indication of what we, as adults, can do. I will look to my students for that light, because it seems their light is far stronger than mine is today. And that’s just fine.

Emily Alt

High school English teacher, wedding photographer, thinker, reader, believer.

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  • Angela’s Back

    I teach in the religious school at my small Southern capital city’s only synagogue. Last weekend we were talking about propaganda and the Holocaust and boy was that ever timely and depressing…

  • InTheBurbs

    Thank you…I recently lost the place I had to connect to young people – and hearing your story gives me such hope!

  • I teach economics and English in a private, Christian, affluent high school in Louisiana. On one hand, we teach philanthropy and altruism. On the other hand, my students come from very wealthy backgrounds and live in the deep South. My Economics I class is very conservative Republican. My Economics II class is much more liberal leaning. It’s been interesting facilitating discussions in these classes and guiding my students to listen and learn from the people around them. Overall, the kind and generous students have done a great job of shutting down the hate and vitriol from other students in their class.

    It hasn’t always been easy, and, like everyone reading APW, it’s been a hard month, but I’ve learned a lot about goodness and kindness from my students, and it has given me hope.

  • Another Meg

    I had no idea that the election had that kind of impact on high school students (honestly, it’s been a long time since I was around high school students).

    Thank you, Emily, and all of the teachers who are on the front lines battling the hate that’s finally showed its face.

    • E.

      It’s hard on my elementary students! We have a lot of immigrant families in my school and there is a lot of fear for themselves and their families. There was a conversation that came up during lunch one day last year when one of my first graders said to another student, “you like trump? he’s gonna send your dad back where he came from!” (the other student really liked to be contrary so he had said he liked trump and clearly knew nothing about the election). All this to say, it’s very real and very scary for students of all ages.

    • Aubry

      The election has impact on Canadian preschool students. I had a scared classroom, with lots of questions about whether they can actually build a wall, and send everybody away. It is heart breaking to try to deal with scared children who don’t really understand, but know their parents are scared. And this is in Vancouver, Canada.

  • Kyra

    Great piece, Emily! Long time follower here, any chance the Wonderment Project will be a go sometime in the future?

    • Thank you, Kyra–I am actually planning to launch a May based Wonderment! Shoot me a contact form on my website and I’ll ensure you’re part of it! :)

  • Morgan D

    This is my first year out of the classroom in a very long time, and I remember wondering the morning after the election how on Earth I would have faced my middle and high schoolers, and how they would have turned towards me and each other to take their cues for next steps.

    I love the idea of living documents holding room for an ongoing conversation about this issue. Getting pre-teens and teens to hold each other lightly can be a struggle in the best of circumstances. It sounds like you’ve done a beautiful job making space for authentic, constructive meaning-making.

    I’m also so grateful for your final lines: people are often surprised that I prefer teaching adolescents, but I think there’s something beautiful about how vulnerable and deep in the process of becoming themselves they are. There’s also something uniquely potent about that age group’s ability to combine open imagination with an increasing ability to engage complexity. Thank you so much for bearing such pure, clear witness to the best in our children, and for recognizing it’s call to the best in ourselves :)

    • Morgan D

      PS I hope you and the others out there are finding space and time for self-care! I imagine it’s extra challenging these days to make space for ourselves as professionals and people in the caring fields!

  • MC

    Just to add another perspective: My partner is a teacher in the southwest – 96% of his student body is Hispanic/Latinx – and he teaches government, so it’s been a really hard few weeks for him & his students. Lots are afraid of deportation (of themselves, parents, or friends), big fear of hate crimes, and a general uncertainty about what their future will look like. Many of their families are talking about whether they need to move back to Central America. Many are only able to work legally thanks to DACA, which is one of the easiest things for our next president to overturn.

    Thank you, Emily, for having conversations about this in your classroom – it heartens me that many of the students who are afraid and hurting have caring, compassionate teachers who validate their emotions and let them know that they are safe in their classrooms. I can’t imagine how those who don’t have supportive teachers must feel…

  • Maggie

    I’ve been teaching Intro Psych at a local college this fall. Most of my students are just 18: this is their first election. That Wednesday, while almost all of them managed to drag themselves in, no one (me included) could quite bring ourselves to care enough about the class material to really make it through.

    I ended up starting Friday’s session with an acknowledgement about how last time was hard for all of us. But I also told them that things we’d talked about before, like the Bystander Effect, were now no longer theoretically important but practically so. I told them that while they may be unhappy about things overall and feel powerless (I sure as hell do), breaking the social norm of “not helping” and intervening, even in a small way, when some act of intimidation or damage is being done is incredibly powerful and impactful for individuals and for whole communities (to send the message that hate will not be tolerated).

    For some, I’m sure it just rolled off. But for others? I hope it helped give them some concrete action to hold on to before anything else started to come together to make sense.

  • Thank you all–I didn’t realize this was being published today–what a lovely surprised to see all your beautiful words when I logged in for my daily APW fix.

    I must emphasize, though, that I am doing nothing any other teacher in this country isn’t doing–all of my friends who are teachers are lost–we all are lost–more than our students, probably–we are all so fragile right now as educators–it’s a hard place to be. You want to remain unbiased, but you also want to validate important emotions like fear and frustration, which so many of us as adults and our students are feeling.

    I wrote this piece a couple weeks ago and I wish I could say the classroom feels better today than it did the day I wrote this…but sadly, I think it feels even more tense. I had to get at a kid the other day who said, “All Mexicans are criminals” and when I shut him DOWN he excused it away by saying it was something he had heard Donald Trump say. And this is a very NICE student…I mean, I know he felt badly about it, but gosh…it was hard.

    I will hope my kids keep shining their lights…I am trying to find hope in public education, which is something I have wholeheartedly dedicated myself to for the past 13 years…but with our incoming Secretary of Education actively working to dismantle public schools, it sometimes feels so purposeless.

    • TrueGrit

      I just want to say I’m sorry and that you have my solidarity. I know teaching is very hard. I also know what a huge impact my teachers had on me when I was in middle and high school, and how very, very grateful I am for that. It meant a lot to me to have caring adults outside my home who also taught me things I never would have learned at home. I’m sure at least some of your students feel the same way, even if they don’t express it.

  • Johanna

    My 4th graders in Brooklyn came in to school the day after the election upset and angry about the results. Honestly, I couldn’t process enough overnight to come up with any way to help them make sense of it. But on Thursday we researched a bit about Trump’s proposed ideas- because I pointed out to them that social media and overhearing discussions on the street/in their homes were not the most credible way to get info. (A lesson everyone should learn…) Then they wrote letters to Trump explaining why they disagree with many of his ideas and statements and giving advice for what he should do as president. I sent all those letters to his campaign email so that someone will have to read them and know that my nine year olds think “Why do you talk bad about women? Your daughter is a woman, you hypocrite.” and “You can be respectful to women, girls, men, boys, everybody because I think you’re mean. You should stop being racist because people won’t respect you as president.”

    • revooca

      I wish I’d had more teachers like you when I was kid! When I was that age, something happened that made me feel powerless and terrified (a quadruple homicide involving a school friend). I attended Catholic school at the time, and to say they didn’t handle things well is putting it mildly. But to this day, one of my few positive memories of that event and what followed was when my mom encouraged me to write a letter to my (dead) friend. Even knowing it couldn’t possibly reach her, expressing myself gave me a sense of control and validated my self worth in ways I can’t explain. I’ll bet your students will remember writing those letters 20 years later, too. Did they get to keep copies?

  • Fundamentalist Anonymous

    I hate to say it, but that note doesn’t feel authentic to me. In your experience, would a teenage Trump supporter use the terms “LGBTQ” and “Brown”?

    • You’re right–that language isn’t the language that was used on the note. I sanitized it for this piece. Sadly the “real” language was far too offensive for me to even feel comfortable typing.