By Guest Writer Maggie Mnayer
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As a high school English teacher in an urban school district smack in the middle of Iowa, I take seriously my responsibility to teach my students the importance of their word choices, of respecting and valuing the diversity of their peers, and of always, always treating each other with dignity and respect.
We spend the first few weeks of every school year establishing a classroom climate that is free of bullying and hurtful words, a space where we do not attack or belittle each other. We commit to being a community of learners that support, encourage, and empower one another.
But on a daily basis, I am reminded that the “Trump Effect” is very real in my school and in the lives of my students.
My students and I were dismayed long before Election Day at the debacle our presidential race became, specifically by the behavior displayed by then-Republican nominee Donald Trump. It has been heartbreaking for my students to see a presidential candidate brag about committing acts of hate and getting away with it because he is famous and wealthy.
Now Trump is the president-elect, and I, like many educators across the country, am having very difficult conversations with terrified students about what it means for them and their families. My students have given me the green light to share how we have come to grips with this tumultuous election in our classroom.
Since long before November 8, students have expressed during class discussions their shock at how Trump talks about people from races other than his own, other religions, women, and the disabled. My students of color have shared how they have felt more vulnerable to attack by white students since the start of election season. Some are terrified about what Trump can do to their families now that he has been elected.
“I’m a Mexican-American and even though I was born here, I am worried that Trump will deport me and my family just because we are Hispanic,” wrote my 16-year-old student Antonio as part of his classwork. “He won’t ask questions or check, he will just do it.”
“The president of our country should not make people . . . feel down about themselves,” said Paishence, who is fifteen. “A lot of bullying is taking place and if it isn’t stopped it will result in many deaths.”
Many of my students have brought up fears that Trump might start a nuclear war with another country. They are unnerved by the capricious attitude he has displayed toward weapons that could potentially wipe out a country.
I can’t let my students sit with this level of fear. So all throughout the election and now in the aftermath, we’ve worked together to create the world we want to see, if only in our classroom.
We start by sharing our perspectives. We acknowledge that we might see complex issues like race differently, even if we agree with the basic premise that everyone deserves equal rights. I provide facts about how the government works and remind my students that a president cannot go entirely unchecked in our democracy.
But beyond just giving students facts, I want to empower them to face tough issues head on, express themselves with passion, and learn how to truly listen to those who don’t agree with them.
I also try to give them a better understanding of how hate operates.
Early in the school year, my classes discussed the Pyramid of Hate developed by the Anti-Defamation League. We focused on how critical it is for them to speak up on behalf of those being targeted—even if the behavior is at the lowest block in the pyramid (stereotyping and acts of prejudice) before the perpetrators have a chance to move up into the more aggressive acts (discrimination and violence).
I challenge them to be agents of change, to use words to defuse tense situations and encourage others in their spheres of influence to examine their own beliefs and how they treat others so that our community becomes more inclusive, more compassionate, and more reflective.
I believe the president-elect would benefit from spending time with my students, who understand that it takes self-control to do the right thing.
Donald Trump has done so much damage to many of my students’ sense of hope and belonging that it will take years to overcome. My students are losing faith in our government to do and be what is best for us as a nation.
I leave school every day hoping that they understand it will largely be up to them to change all of this. They will be able to vote in the next presidential election. And when they do, they would do well to remember what their classmate Devin said: “We can’t have someone as President of the U.S.A. if they don’t respect everyone in America.”
Let’s hope we never do again.
Maggie Mnayer teaches English at Waterloo East High School in Waterloo, Iowa.