Vermont’s educators watched aghast on Wednesday as a pro-Trump mob swarmed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of November’s presidential election.
And, many still reeling, they walked into their classrooms — or logged on to Zoom — to make sense of it all with their students the next day.
Bob Metz, a public issues and world affairs teacher at South Burlington High, said he prides himself on letting his students debate pretty much anything, except whether climate change and institutional racism are real.
And, speaking Wednesday evening, just as police had finally begun clearing the U.S. Capitol of the mostly white mob that had — without much apparent effort — evicted the nation’s lawmakers from their posts, Metz said he would not “mince words” with his students the next day.
“I’m going to hammer this tomorrow: What would happen if these were Black Americans doing this? What on earth would be the reaction? And it certainly wouldn’t be what we’re seeing today,” he said.
David Rider, who teaches AP classes in U.S. politics and history classes at BFA-St. Albans, planned to begin the day with Ben Franklin’s (perhaps apocryphal) answer to a passerby outside the constitutional convention of 1787, about what kind of government the new country would have. “A republic, if you can keep it.”
He wanted his students to think about the social contract, and each generation’s role in upholding it.
“It’s kind of a tough time to be a social studies teacher. My joke with my friends over the past several years is like, I feel like I’m a dentist, and I’m witnessing a nation suffering tooth decay,” he said Wednesday. “Is there some sort of civic hygiene that we missed?”
Rider has been thinking lately about something a historian he follows on Twitter recently said about their role, which he believes is analogous to how he and his peers should view their jobs. A social studies teacher, he said, is not tasked with getting students to “love America” or to “be ashamed of America.”
“Our job is to get kids to understand America. And to figure out how that they can live in it, and have some sort of connection to civic life. And clearly we need to do much more work with the 100% of our population that is going to inherit our future,” he said.
Some said they read their students the statement, issued Wednesday evening by Gov. Phil Scott — a fellow Republican — calling for Donald Trump’s immediate removal from office. Others said they would give their students space to process the events of the day in an open-ended way. Joe Emery, a social studies teacher at BFA-Fairfax, said Wednesday night he planned to let his students “grieve; be angry; ask questions.”
“I will try to provide context and precedent, but other than (the) War of 1812, how much is there?” he wrote in an email.
Civics and social studies teachers have long used current events to stoke discussion in their classrooms. But the news of the day has become ever more difficult for teachers to navigate in a polarized nation, and educators expressed both anxiety — and urgency — about broaching increasingly explosive topics with their students.
“Teachers are struggling with how to figure out how to do the things that they should have always been doing — especially white teachers — and doing so in a sociopolitical context that feels really constraining,” said Alyssa Hadley Dunn, an associate professor of education at Michigan State University. Dunn researches how educators teach about equity and justice, and in particular how they deal with days after major events, tragedies, or instances of injustice.
Dunn has spoken to many teachers who have taught through a litany of explosive news events and tragedies, and many, she said, will say that the 2016 election stood out as even harder to teach after than 9/11. And that’s in large part because Trump’s election laid bare just how divided the country — and often, their own classrooms — had become. When Trump was elected, some students came to school traumatized and scared. Others were elated.
In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks in 2001, Dunn said, “teachers felt like there was a community and unity. Right? And in 2016, that was not the same.”
Dunn maintains a Facebook group called “Teaching on Days After,” which serves as a forum for educators navigating the classroom on days after difficult or traumatic events. The group counted only about 100 members for about four years, before swelling to about 2,800 in the midst of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests following several high-profile police killings.
Between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, its membership exploded by nearly 10,000.
She speculates that’s in part because so many educators are teaching online and feeling isolated. But she also thinks it indicates that plenty of teachers are looking for support, and worried about stepping over the line.
Several educators who spoke to VtDigger said that, while they had embraced talking to their students about Wednesday’s shocking events, many of their colleagues didn’t. Some felt ill-equipped to do so; others were worried about what kind of pushback they might receive from their community or administration.
Rachel Whalen, a kindergarten teacher at Union Elementary School in Montpelier, discussed Wednesday’s events with her students on Thursday. In an age-appropriate way, she told her students that some people were angry that Joe Biden had won the election, and that when people are angry they should “use their words,” and that in this case, some people didn’t.
“And then I reiterated the fact that people are now safe, and that we are safe, and our families are safe, and we’re together,” she said.
She balanced out the rest of the day by doing some of the things her students love most: dancing, listening to music, and reading their favorite books. And after class, she wrote to parents to let them know she had discussed the previous day’s events in class.
Whalen knows that schools are often expected to remain apolitical, neutral spaces. But she also thinks recent events call into question what should or should not get categorized as political.
“We’re talking about human issues, we’re talking about people in the way they’re being treated. And we’re talking about, like, what we are allowing to exist in our world,” she said.
Still, she’s not sure she would have discussed what she did if she was teaching elsewhere.
“You have to have a supportive colleague group, you have to have a supportive administration. And I feel like I have that. Which probably — definitely — emboldened me to do that. But if I didn’t, I can see why the only option would feel like walking in and saying nothing today,” she said.