Educator, expert offer guidance on rising tide of Trump-fueled bias in schools

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by Félix Pérez; feature image courtesy of Joe Catron

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The first step in addressing student fear and anxiety resulting from the election of Donald Trump is listening, even if it means setting aside that day’s learning objectives. And educators need not feel they should have all the answers.

These are among the practical tips offered by San Francisco social studies teacher Fakhra Shah and hate and bias investigator and expert Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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Maureen Costello

“Kids who are vulnerable — and by that I mean Muslim students, immigrant students, students who are perceived to be immigrant, gay kids and anybody who is perceived to be an outsider — are really suffering. There is a lot of anxiety, a lot of nervousness. They are also being targeted,” said Costello. A former high school history and economics teacher who directed Newsweek magazine’s education program, Costello said there has been a marked increase in hate and bias incidents at schools since last month’s election.

In a national survey of more than 10,000 teachers, counselors, administrators and others who work in schools, Teaching Tolerance found that the election results are having a “profoundly negative impact on schools and students.” Ninety percent of educators report that school climate has been negatively affected, and most believe it will have a long-lasting impact. A full 80 percent describe heightened anxiety and concern on the part of students worried about the impact of the election on themselves and their families.

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Fakhra Shah

Shah described changes at her school this way: “We have these type of incidents where students are lashing out at each other or they’re just repeating something they might have heard somewhere, and they don’t realize the impact of that on the school climate and culture.” She said the bias, often unintended, is not only among students. Sometimes it’s unknowingly displayed by educators and embedded in curriculum.

Costello said students may not realize that what they intend as a joke can cause fear and anxiety or, in the case of refugees, renewed trauma. “The most frequent comment, story that I got told were jokes made to immigrants or people who are perceived as immigrants about ‘packing your bags,’ ‘Have you gotten your papers yet?,’ ‘Did you get your ticket?,’ ‘I’ll say goodbye now. I’m not going to see you next week’. . . This is something we really have to think about. It doesn’t mater what the intention is. It’s always about the impact.”

Costello and Shah offered these suggestions that educators and schools can take:

  • Listen to, believe and validate students’ fears, worries and concerns. “The most important thing an educator can do is to spend time listening,” said Costello.
  • Survey school staff, educators, administrators and students to unearth gaps.
  • Have a trained team of staff members designated as school leads.
  • Do not reflexively double down on discipline policies when an incident occurs.
  • Vary your response according to the severity of the incident and the student’s developmental stage. In the most serious cases, police should be notified.
  • When an incident occurs, attend to the student or students targeted, publicly reaffirm the school’s core values and principles, denounce the act and acknowledge students who feel guilt or regret because they didn’t stop or anticipate the incident.
  • Tap into community resources such as translators, student-to-student peer trainers and faith based groups. Be specific about your need.
  • Don’t make false promises. On the issue of deportations, for example, no one knows what policies the new presidential administration will enact.
  • Create a “safe space” or “hate free zone” where students can go to share their concerns or unburden themselves. It could be a counselor, social worker, teacher or other school staff member(s).

Following are resources for educators:

  1. Teaching Tolerance has published a guide titled “Responding to Hate and Bias in Your School.”
  2. If you know of hate or bias incidents in your school, you can report them to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks and monitors hate and bias.
  3. NEA has gathered into one location a variety of resources for educators, students, and families to counter hateful rhetoric and foster positive dialogue.
  4. Shah developed a lesson plan that answers the curiosity of students, deconstructs stereotypes about Muslims, Arabs (or those resembling these backgrounds), and seeks to create a geographic, ethnic and historic knowledge base for students.
  5. Shah wrote a lesson plan to help teachers struggling with how to answer students’ questions and concerns about Trump becoming president.

Reader Comments

  1. As educators we are obligated to teach our students not to be afraid to discuss their opinion even when it goes against the grain. We should encourage an open dialogue and respect each others differences and ideas. I believe students should back their opinion based on facts and not based on what they hear. Educators should never never never push their ideology onto their students or have them suffer a backlash reflecting in their grades.

  2. Several students have expressed to me how upset they were with Trump’s victory. One said she cried all night.

    What I have reminded these students is that we have elected a President and not a king. I reminded them that the President does not have dictatorial powers and has to abide by the Constitution. I also reminded them that in two years if Trump doesn’t deliver the public can give him an oppositional Congress.

    I try to do this in a way that doesn’t show support or opposition to Trump because my belief is that our job is to teach students to come up with their own thoughts and not tell them what to think.

    I think this is the civics lesson we need to impart.

  3. The lesson for my students is that mature people should think before they speak; that words matter and have consequences particularly when they’re delivered by people who are in a position to influence voters. Coarse words spoken by a candidate running for the highest elected office can create division. Random tweets by someone who’s in charge of a nation have the power to start wars and send financial markets tumbling. Kids, these are things mature adults DON’T do. Words matter.

      1. Bobbie – Then why aren’t you hurt and shocked by some of the remarks your own president-elect made against minorities, women, veterans, and the disabled while campaigning? You must have selective hearing.

  4. I am a teacher in a very diverse school district & community and witnessed just the opposite. Several minority students verbally harassing & attacking anglo students or students that looked anglo about the election, however no resources listed for this type of hate speech.

  5. How likely is it that all of the teachers who are reporting this are Clinton supporters. Do we really need Sherlock Holmes to say his signature line here? I have not seen any of this and I teach in a very diverse middle school. No I did not vote for the Clinton machine!

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