Don't Say Politics? Where Teachers Stand on Its Presence in the Classroom

Teenage girl raising hand in high school classroom

Maskot / Getty Images

Children are more receptive and aware of what’s going on in the world around them than in years past. Technology exposes them to more than ever. Anything they want to know is right at their fingertips since they have access to the internet through smartphones, tablets, computers, and other devices. 

Social media is especially influential. Children go on platforms like Instagram and TikTok to participate in fun dances, watch trending videos, and keep up with what their friends are doing. However, they also have access to content from people who discuss controversial subjects. As a result, children can be exposed to political content that leaves them confused or buzzing with questions. 

When young people have complex questions, they seek answers from adults they trust—parents, teachers, and other authority figures in their lives. Since they spend so much of their day at school, it’s inevitable for political topics to make their way into the classroom. So, how should teachers handle it? 

Follow District Guidelines

Given the sensitive nature of political discussions, some school districts may have certain rules or limitations around discussing politics in the classroom. You don’t want to put yourself, your colleagues, or your students in a difficult situation by neglecting to respect a district policy.

“Before embarking on any discussion of politics, determine what your district’s policy is,” recommends Dr. Suzanne Barchers, education advisor and vice president of curriculum at Lingokids. “Keep good records of your discussions if you do undertake a discussion of politics.”

These records can help you if you’re in a pinch. If someone files a complaint or has questions about your lesson, you’ll be ready and able to share your notes. 

You should also consider whether or not the topic at hand is appropriate. Controversial issues have their place in the classroom, but not if they aren’t productive and timely. According to Sarah Kaka, PhD, assistant professor and chair of the Department of Education at Ohio Wesleyan University, the best way to determine if a topic is appropriate for the classroom is to assess whether it’s an open or closed issue.

Dr. Sarah Kaka

Open issues are those that are being currently debated. Closed, or settled, issues are those that are resolved.

— Dr. Sarah Kaka

Closed issues like slavery and women’s suffrage aren’t productive debates. Constitutional amendments made slavery illegal and gave women the right to vote, so debating these issues may not add any value to the classroom environment. Issues like climate change, immigration, and gun control, however, are open issues that students likely have strong opinions about.

Be Mindful

Political ideals span far and wide on nearly every political issue. Even though democrats and republicans are the two most highly visible political parties, others like the libertarian and green parties have different ideas about each issue. 

The result? Parents, teachers, and students may have very different views on politics. From hot topics like abortion and immigration to more mundane topics like foreign policy and the legislative process, there are many different perspectives that may arise. 

Dr. Suzanne Barchers

During politically turbulent times, even 10-year-olds can become vocal and stubborn about their point of view, even if it is purely representative of—or in opposition to—the views of their parents.

— Dr. Suzanne Barchers

Any political discourse in the classroom should take these differences into consideration. “Teachers aren’t just educators,” explains Dr. Barchers. “We’re also role models for students, so it’s important to be mindful of how we discuss and debate political issues so we set a positive example.”

Encourage Healthy Debate

Most people who become teachers understand that the job is more than teaching a state-approved curriculum. They’re also responsible for helping young people develop into well-rounded, productive members of society. Part of that duty is teaching about interpersonal relationships and social norms

“Teachers have to spend time setting classroom norms and expectations, and building a culture of trust where students can be brave and open with their thoughts,” shared Dr. Kaka. This creates the perfect opportunity for a healthy political debate. 

Teaching people how to have a healthy debate has several benefits, according to the Stanford National Forensic Institute. It helps them develop and strengthen skills, including:

  • Public speaking
  • Confidence
  • Critical thinking
  • Research
  • Communication skills

Participating on a debate team also encourages creativity and teaches students how to communicate effectively while working on a team. 

Classrooms Should Be a Safe Zone

The classroom is a place where students should feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions, even if they differ from their peers. Establishing the classroom as a safe zone is key to achieving a welcoming environment that encourages healthy discourse. 

Setting ground rules before opening up a controversial discussion benefits everyone involved. Dr. Barchers proposes rules like respecting differing opinions, suspending judgment, avoiding interruptions, and determining when students may ask questions.

You can also teach students accountable talk phrases to help them respectfully share their opinion without alienating their classmates. “Before starting a discussion, generate acceptable statements,” Dr. Barchers recommends. “Put them on the board so that students can use them before offering their thoughts.” She suggests phrases like:

  • "I hear you"
  • "That’s a good point"
  • "I get that, but I have a different idea to offer"
  • "I have been interested in…"

These are also lifelong skills students can use to participate in healthy dialogue about politics and other controversial topics.

Make it a Learning Opportunity

Facilitating a healthy discussion about politics is a great opportunity to give students the tools they need to figure out what political issues are important to them. A general rule of thumb is to avoid influencing students with your own political beliefs.

Dr. Suzanne Barchers

Teachers need to be 'Switzerland'—neutral when discussing politics.

— Dr. Suzanne Barchers

“Focus on student voices,” Dr. Kaka says. “Students’ opinions and beliefs need to be at the center of the discussion.” They should be learning from each other as well as how to make informed decisions about politics. 

“Teach students to be informed consumers of controversial topics,” Dr. Barchers emphasized. “Teach them how to fact-check claims and identify trusted sources.” She also suggests teaching about propaganda so students learn to dig deeper into the issues that the sound bites, stereotypes, and other tactics candidates and politically aligned news organizations employ. 

Tread With Caution

Classroom discussions about politics are a great way to help students expand both their intellectual knowledge and interpersonal skills. These teaching opportunities often encourage deeper learning opportunities because students are invested in current events. Leveraging them in the classroom is usually productive with the right rules and an environment of respect.

“It’s fair to say that you are not comfortable with an extended discussion about a particularly troublesome topic,” Dr. Barchers said. “But if you do want to discuss something controversial because it’s so timely…be prepared to de-escalate if the topic gets heated.”

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Stanford National Forensic Institute. The power of speech & debate education.

  2. Kennedy, R. R. (2009). The power of in-class debatesActive Learning in Higher Education, 10(3), 225–236.

By Brianna Graham, MPH
Brianna Graham, MPH, is the founder and CEO of Mixed Media, LLC, a Black woman-owned consulting business. Currently, Brianna holds a certification in public health, and a teaching certificate. She is an expert in copywriting and content writing for healthcare and education organizations.