Teaching is a Political Act

Mark M. Diacopoulos – PhD. Curriculum and Instruction. 
Assistant Professor, Dept. of Teaching and Leadership, Pittsburg State University


Mark has been an educator for over 25 years. He has taught in middle and high schools both in the US and UK. An early adopter of educational technology, he has worked as a Technology Specialist and Curriculum Specialist in social studies for a large district in Southeast Virginia. He earned his PhD. in Curriculum and Instruction in 2018 and is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Leadership at Pittsburg State University in rural Kansas. As well as researching and writing about how to best teach future teachers, he also examines issues of professional identity, technology teaching and learning, critical friendship and communities of practice. Mark is also a devoted parent, a lifetime fan of Arsenal F.C., and a self-described “retired broken aikidoka”.

For more from Mark on this topic, check out this related podcast episode from his Podcast, The TeatimeTeaching's Podcast 

Let’s not pretend, teaching IS political


Every day that I go to work, I am political. There, I’ve said it. My reasons for getting up in the morning and going to work, whether that was 25 years of teaching in schools, or now working with future teachers, is a political one. I’ve been told by numerous people higher above me in the hierarchy that it shouldn’t be. But in truth, it is. 

Teachers make a political choice every day. Each action they make has a consequence. For example, we have colleagues who choose to preserve and uphold the status quo, enforce rules and discipline, or make sure that students conform to an agreed and imposed set of “norms”.  On the other hand, we have colleagues who advocate for students. They equip them with the skills to be decision-makers and critical thinkers. They show students how to strive for improvement and make the future a better place for all.  On reflection, there were times in my career when I did the former, other times when I did the latter, and times when I did both. I’m here to acknowledge that making those decisions every day was political. Maybe not overtly so, but for all educators, your civic identity, your political make-up is transparent. Not necessarily in what you teach, but in how you teach. To think otherwise is dishonest to ourselves, our students and society as a whole.  

Let’s take, for example, teachers who focus on student centered pedagogy. They are more willing to take risks and try new strategies. They tend to be “constructivist” in their outlook. Well these teachers often align with a center or center-left political identity. On the other hand, teachers who deliver content, often via lecture, who assess using tests and worksheets. They often tend to align with a center or center-right political identity. Consequently, how we teach is a reflection of where we stand and how we act politically. We cannot pretend otherwise. (Incidentally, if you want to know more about this phenomena check out this article (Knowles, 2018), or the accompanying Visions of Education Podcast)

So how teachers do their job reflects their civic identity. For example, we all know colleagues who grade for compliance rather than growth. Their A grade students are the ones who jumped through teacher-imposed hoops the best. We have colleagues who relish failing students because it maintains some sort of hierarchy or power dynamic. They teach to preserve their power and control. These actions serve to promote the status quo and reflect a certain civic identity and outlook. On the other hand, we all know teachers who encourage students to work collaboratively, who give students choice in their learning, and encourage them to think independently. Having this mindset in your teaching is also a reflection of your civic identity and outlook. Therefore, how we choose to teach is a political decision. Of course, as with all things there are exceptions and outliers, but as a generalization (and this is how research tends to work), it’s reasonable assumption.

This has implications for us all. At a basic level, it means you don’t have to proselytize, or make statements about who you support politically for students, parents, and colleagues to know where you stand politically. As educators, we cannot hide our civic identity. This can be a problem as it flies in the face of several myths and expectations about professionalism in public education. Let’s examine two of them:

1) Bias is always a bad thing.

This is an endemic issue in our classrooms and is based on the false premise that we cannot show a source to students which contains a bias and, if we show one source, we must “balance it out” with a source arguing a counterpoint. Indeed, one of the biggest critiques of journalism in this century is the rise of “both side-ism”. No more so than with the way the science behind issues such as climate change becomes presented as a debate with talking points. It works on the myth that a biased source is not a good source of information. But why is this?  

As standards focused on what students must know, teachers became increasingly pressured into becoming deliverers of content, rather than facilitators of learning. Therefore, the information they deliver had to be seen to be factual. But that is not how the world works. Any historian can tell you that every source they encounter contains a bias, and it is up to the reader to understand that bias and make sense of the source themselves. Yet this skill isn’t taught enough, if at all in schools. Document analysis gave way to the rote learning of facts as delivered by the teacher, who is deemed the content expert. Thus, administrators, trained to preserve the status quo, and avoid controversy, actively discouraged the use of “biased” sources. 

Consequently, learners became trained to trust the information delivered by teachers. Learners were assessed at how well they could replicate that same information. They were not trained to ask questions of sources, corroborate information, or make inferences. Yet, these are vital critical thinking skills. Traditionally, teachers have either been compelled to teach in this way or they have chosen to. Either way this is a political decision which influences civic outcomes. Pretending that bias can be eradicated is the same as not seeing color or differences in your students. It’s a conscious decision to do nothing and preserve the status quo.

Solutions. Since, 2008, all the knowledge of the world is available via our smartphones. But the way educators teach students to make sense of this information is sorely lacking. Asking students to refer to “reputable news sources” rather than teaching them how to make sense of information, is woefully inadequate. It is a practice that is at least 12 years out of date, if not longer. Making sense of digital media is a key skill we must foster in our students. The folks at Stanford University have some excellent resources to teach Civic Online Reasoning.  Likewise, there is an excellent Crash Course on Navigating Digital Information. We all need to get familiar with this 21st Century Skill and teach our students how to use them. It’s a political decision not to expect students to blindly repeat facts as taught by their teacher, just as it’s a political decision to equip students with the skills they need to make sense of information themselves.  Only one has a better outcome for a functioning democracy.  

2) Don’t talk about the election

Whenever it’s an election year, teachers often receive an instruction from somewhere in central office that they should not cover the election. This “let’s pretend it isn’t happening” approach might mitigate accusations of bias but does nothing to model citizenship skills. Shutting down debate and discussion of civic issues during an election in the interests of balance and non-partisanship, is a political stance. In a democratic society, this practice models civic disengagement as the least offensive way to exist. Students in these situations are made to feel that having an opinion is discouraged and their opinions or concerns may even be detrimental to academic success. 

We know that some schools do hold “mock” elections during election years. Sometimes while also enacting policies of avoiding political discourse in the building. This places value on the act of voting as an act of citizenship but implies that the only action a citizen can take to enact change is to vote. Moreover, when this happens in a mock election, with limited access to information, it renders the process meaningless. What does it demonstrate to our students? That discussion and understanding is not important. That we shouldn’t engage in civic discourse, and furthermore, if we do vote, it’s an ill-informed decision based on a hunch, or gut-instinct. We must acknowledge that the way in which schools and teachers approach education in an election year is a political decision with civic consequences.

Solutions. We know that teachers are worried about their political identity showing. But it is unavoidable. Journell (2016) established that students made assumptions about their teachers’ political stances no matter how they acted. Furthermore, students tended to respect the teachers that were able to model civic engagement and encourage civic discourse in their classrooms over those that refused to acknowledge an opinion and discouraged their students from articulating their stance. This doesn’t mean that teachers should openly declare their political allegiance, as this might unduly influence student’s interpretations of information. But they should provide personal context and encourage students to make their own meaning and decisions, just like we would expect a democratic society to do. This might mean that a student would know how political a teacher is. Absolutely, but as the research argues, being apolitical is also a political stance, and probably more harmful and disenfranchising to students in the long-term. 
So, foster a sense of community and value students as individuals. They have rights and responsibilities as citizens and are not powerless. Establish a classroom where students are trained to listen to one another, examine multiple perspectives, agree, disagree, find common ground, and highlight where there isn’t any. This political stance models what we would expect students to do as adults. Alternatively, you could chose to maintain the status quo, stifle discussion and critical thinking, and push the idea that citizens comply with all instructions from above and only exercise a voice by voting. Either stance you chose to take is a political one and reveals much about your civic identity.    

 As educators, administrators, and parents, every decision we make is a political act. 

Taking action is political. 

Not taking action is political. 

Treating everyone equally is political. 

Treating everyone with equity is political. 

Closing our eyes and ears to the world outside our classroom so that we can deliver content and facts is political. 

Embracing the world outside our classroom so that students can make sense of their learning in context is political. 

How we assess and grade is political.

How we provide access to information is political.

Playing a devil’s advocate role is political. 

Modelling an apolitical stance is political.

So, let’s not pretend that we are bias-free, apolitical, inoffensive, or nonpartisan. Teaching is a political act. Every decision you make as an educator says something about you as a person and a citizen. So now that you are armed with this knowledge, what are you going to do about it? 

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