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Presidential Election Creates a "Gray Area" for Iowa Teachers

The antics, accusations and scandals of the presidential campaigns are creating heated conversations in some classrooms. (Lead Beyond/Flickr)
The antics, accusations and scandals of the presidential campaigns are creating heated conversations in some classrooms. (Lead Beyond/Flickr)
October 26, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa – In what used to be a perfect time for a lesson in how government works, the tone of the presidential campaign is creating uncomfortable conversations in high school classrooms.

With the presidential election focused on the antics, accusations and scandals involving the candidates, some civics instructors say they've been faced with questions that would typically not be topics of conversation in their classrooms.

It's been a challenge, says social studies teacher Joe Judge of Albia.

"You want to have students be able to have a discussion, but then – when discussion turns to one-liners that they use in the campaigns – you have to explain why that's acceptable out there and not acceptable in the classroom," explains Judge. "It's a pretty gray area."

In a survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than half of teachers said they've seen an increase in uncivil political discourse in the classroom, and some reported hearing students use slurs and make inflammatory statements in regard to another student's gender, race or ethnicity.

Forty percent of teachers in the survey also said they're reluctant to teach about the election.

While some have opted to ban conversations about it, Judge says his approach is to allow discussion. However, with degrading talk about women and immigrants in the presidential race making headlines, he notes it takes a strong presence to not let things get out of control in the classroom.

"The neutral role that teachers are supposed to be playing is hard when the discourse comes close to violating bullying and harassment rules. So, how does a teacher walk the line of being able to call out bullying and harassment, when the students are hiding it in campaign rhetoric?" he asks. "That's the challenge."

And more than two-thirds of the teachers surveyed reported that some students, mainly children of immigrants and Muslims, have said they're worried about what might happen to their families after the election.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - IA