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September 1, 2021
Vol. 79
No. 1

Classroom Conversations / A Matter of Opinion

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September 2021 Kay Header image: A teacher leads a discussion in a classroom.
There has been a lot of concern about indoctrination in schools lately. Most of the recent ruckus was sparked by fearmongering from bad actors about “Critical Race Theory,” and is therefore not worthy of analysis here. But hidden in all the noise is a sincere concern among teachers of goodwill about whether—and how—to share personal opinions about controversial topics with students without being seen as trying to influence them.
This concern has its roots in two basic truths. First, we teachers have strong opinions. Not only about our curriculum, where we’ve got plenty of spicy takes on the books, historical figures, and scientific theories that we discuss with students, but also about the art and science of our profession. Not only do we feel strongly about our various positions, but we tend to also be naturally confident, declarative speakers. Even those of us who self-identify as introverts tend to come alive when either our subject area or our practice is brought up.
Second, we know many of our students come to us from school environments where the teacher is always “right.” We see this when our most “school-y” kids ask us to approve their every approach to every problem or ­situation. These students often equate “smartness” with the ability to produce ideas that have teacher approval.
These two truths lead many teachers of good will to an obvious decision: Since we have both strong opinions and the ability to argue them well, and since our students have typically been trained to accept what their teachers say as gospel, it is wholly inappropriate for us to share personal opinions about controversial topics with them. We facilitate tough conversations, but we don’t lead them. We might call balls and strikes or blow the whistle on fouls, but we don’t play the game. And crucially, when a student asks us, “What do you think about X?”, we ­typically answer with a slightly more scholarly version of, “I don’t know, buddy. What do you think?”
This approach will not get you filleted in the news or make your surreptitiously recorded class discussion go viral on social media. It certainly respects the uneven power dynamic inherent in the teacher-student relationship. And yet, I have often wondered if we’ve fully considered all of the consequences of playing dumb.
When students ask our opinion about any controversial aspect of the day’s learning, they are expressing a need for understanding. When we deflect, we send a clear signal that this need is unimportant. Every time we do this, we are that much closer to assuming the role of an automaton “processing” this particular discussion rather than an empathetic flesh-and-blood human in a shared learning community. The best of us work hard to show students the power of their voices, making it clear that they should speak and listen authentically and that they have a right to be included in tough conversations. When we deflect their questions about our own ­perspectives, I believe they feel misled and patronized, as if guided back to the kiddie table.

We should share humbly and authentically, inviting critiques and modeling the scholarship we want from students.

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This deflection also means a key missed opportunity. As teachers, we are theoretically not only knowledgeable about our subject area, but also scholars. As we learn more, some of our deepest-held opinions morph in fascinating ways. So, when students ask us what we think about the more controversial issues in our curriculum, they are essentially asking us for a window into our own scholarly journey through the same labyrinth we want them to traverse. If we balk at the opportunity to show how we’ve personally applied our best research habits, analytical habits, or collaborative habits, we miss a chance to model how important it is to seek the scholarly path through tough issues.

Responding Authentically

Don’t get me wrong: I respect the humble spirit behind not wanting to broadcast our opinions every time a student asks. We shouldn’t use the classroom to proselytize our political beliefs. We’re educators, not preachers. But there is a richer option for educators who find themselves uncomfortable with the consequences and missed opportunities that deflection brings. The most important part is for us to be honest about our opinions relative to our expertise.
For example, I teach multiple units on the Holocaust. In one of them, students examine how the Nazis used propaganda to strengthen their grip on power. Students read Hitler’s Mein Kampf section on propaganda, wherein the führer says:
The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan. As soon as you sacrifice this slogan and try to be many-sided, the effect will piddle away, for the crowd can neither digest nor retain the material offered.
Every time that we get to this point, a student raises his hand and compares Hitler’s advice to the sloganeering of a modern-day politician. They say, “That’s just like [contemporary political slogan]! Right, Mr. Kay?” I certainly don’t want to dismiss this kind of analysis. But for me, when answering, it makes sense to let kids know there are fields like political science and communications that study the use of language to manipulate people—and I haven’t worked in any of them. I am not an expert on propaganda or mass media. From this more humbling starting point, I feel I can more appropriately weigh in on the question and engage in the discourse.
This discourse, however, has a required element: We must also offer reliable invitations for students to disagree with us, or better yet, to find holes in our arguments. I introduce language for this, my favorite being, “But tell me, honestly, does this hold water?” Another is, “What am I missing?” Or sometimes, the more subversive, “I’m older [or “a man” or “a city kid,” etc.] and might not know what I’m talking about. Educate me.”

Engagement Tip

Show students the power of their voices by making it clear that they should speak and listen authentically and that they have a right to be included in tough conversations.

Being reliable in these invitations for disagreement is key. Often, kids don’t know when it is a good time to disagree with their teacher. ­Sometimes, questioning an “authority figure” is applauded, and other times it gets them sent to the dean’s office. So the invitation to respectfully critique a teacher’s personal opinions should not just be offered, but offered earnestly.

Richer Conversations

Returning to the Mein Kampf example, this invitation might look like, “Language-wise, I definitely see the connections between ___’s techniques and Hitler’s advice. But, I’m also a pretty progressive guy, politically. Do you think my politics might make me a bit overeager to associate techniques I don’t like with fascism?” This always sparks an enriching conversation.
This approach to eliciting feedback to our own opinions models three lessons we want our kids to learn. First, that criticism and clarification can be humbly sought and thoughtfully engaged. Second, that it’s OK to critique a person who holds authority over you. And third, that we can express ideas before they’re perfectly formed.
Of course, we don’t have to share our opinions about controversial curriculum topics every time students ask. Refusing to do so does not, by itself, make us cowards. Sometimes, it would distract from a student’s contributions. But we should emphatically refuse the idea that to share our opinions is inherently inappropriate or somehow constitutes indoctrination. And when it’s right to do so, we should share humbly and authentically, inviting critiques and modeling the scholarship we want from students.

Matthew R. Kay teaches students English at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and is the author of Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom (Stenhouse, 2018).

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