The silver lining to discussing politics in the classroom


“Google Meets Recording 11/03/2020 9:50 AM” Students show up to an engaging classroom discussion about the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Illustration by Gisselle Flores

By Gisselle Flores, Opinions Editor

Despite remote learning bringing exceptional challenges this year, the student body has shown that student activism can make a change. It’s no surprise that this year’s election had a higher voter turnout within the youth population due to youth activism and the urgent encouragement to vote. 

The 2020 presidential election was not only an important election, but a very close one as battleground states seemed to be unpredictable at times. Illinois is a historically Democratic state, and Chicago is a strong liberal city

Given that this generation, filled with either aspiring or proud voters, has more of an inclination to talk about politics in classes, to what extent should teachers insert themselves into the conversation? The line between unethical and ethical political discussions in the classroom is unclear, and remote learning has made discussions feel less authentic.

This year in particular, discussing politics was met with a challenging obstacle: trying to have a deep discussion while remote learning, where students don’t use a camera or don’t participate at all.

Ms. Sebestyen, a Law in American Society and AP US Government teacher, said, “This year, I really do believe that a lot of it is the pandemic fatigue, the election fatigue, and the fact that we’re remote. I think the discussions would probably be a lot more organic if we were sitting in a classroom.”

Being a student at Lane, I have experienced and felt this disconnection among my classmates regarding socio-political issues. In the Omega program, we frequently talk about social issues in class and have open and honest discussions, but this school year, it did not feel the same as it would have if we gathered our desks in a circle and talked for 50 minutes. 

Although this disconnection is felt, the teachers are still present in facilitating these discussions. In a highly liberal city, how do teachers talk about politics in a way that connects with the students without aiming to sway their beliefs towards one ideology or against the other?

Ms. Sebestyen said, “I’ve been a history teacher for 20 years and I can say with confidence that 99% of the teachers I’ve taught with absolutely have no interest in indoctrinating or making kids think like them.”

I have a memory of the day my seventh grade class asked our math teacher who she had voted for in the 2016 primary election. Though we never had a political discussion in class and were instead more focused on learning basic algebra, it was something that interested us. More importantly, we never had a political discussion in class but we asked her if she voted for Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton; the thought of her being a Republican or a Trump supporter didn’t seem to cross our minds.

She ended up sharing that she voted for Hillary after our class hilariously asked her why she didn’t vote for Bernie. The conversation was short, no longer than 20 minutes, and it never seemed to be brought up by her, or any of my other classmates, again. Even though the majority of the class disagreed with her choice, it didn’t affect her teaching or the way that she interacted with us. 

Even though the majority of the class disagreed with her choice, she never tried to convince us to agree with her.

“I think it’s important to pick up on what the kids want to do. It doesn’t really matter what class that’s in.” Ms. Sebestyen later added, “I think teachers are people, I think teachers should be able to — if asked — talk about what they believe in. I don’t think we should try and hide it. I don’t think that necessarily works.”

It’s up to the teachers whether or not they want to share their political beliefs with their students, but there is a difference between bringing it up with their students and letting your personal beliefs get in the way of the education of their students. Sebestyen recalled a time when a teacher did the latter.

“I know that when I first started some many, many years ago at Lane Tech, I remember one of my students told me that their teacher said that if they were to write a paper on Hillary Clinton then she couldn’t possibly get a grade higher than a C. That was because the teacher didn’t like Hillary Clinton.” 

Sebestyen added, “That was pretty unbelievable, seriously.” 

Students having disagreements with their peers about different stances on social issues is something that is expected, but a teacher who interferes with the quality of education is immature and immoral. It is unethical for teachers to make statements such as those and that type of behavior towards impressionable students should be taken seriously.

Then again, it is possible for students and teachers to hold mature and open-minded discussions about mature topics that require an open mind.

“I’m not embarrassed about who I am. I’m not embarrassed about being a Democrat or a liberal. I have absolutely no problem with you being a Republican or conservative.” Ms. Sebestyen said. “I’m not going to hide who I am, nor am I going to rant.”

Although not every teacher is going to be comfortable talking about politics, every student should feel comfortable asking their teachers about topics they have a curiosity for.