Talking about teaching and politics with Taylor Belcher

I’m not sure how to format this thing, but it seems jarring to just drop you into a long conversation without context. But what context do you need? Taylor (@teachbarefoot) is someone who I chat with often online. As the conversation below makes clear, he’s incredibly thoughtful. I reached out to Taylor after a conversation we had on Twitter about whether teaching should be political or not. As part of that conversation he wrote “While I understand many of you see politics as a part of education, I do not. And I’m not particularly interested in the opinion that my pedagogy isn’t sufficiently political.” Read on, though, and you’ll see that there are interesting layers to his position.

By the way, this was a lot of fun and I love this format. If you’d like to chat with me about something there’s a good chance we can turn it into a post like this. Pitch me ideas! 

Maybe let’s start by talking a bit about our teaching situations. I teach at a fancy-shmancy private school in New York, and the vast majority of my students would self-identify as progressive or liberal. I’d say that my students are, on the whole, very politically engaged. My students are mostly white, mostly well-off.

Myself, my default lens for seeing the world is a liberal one, but with a lot of doubt and some deviation. On any given issue I might deviate, but I have bleeding-heart values. So I’m not exactly in tension with my students’ political views, but I’m probably less-progressive than most of them.

How about you?

I teach at a public school in South Carolina. It’s a big school (over 2,200 students) in a huge district (6 high schools, 4ish middle schools, and double digit elementary schools). The school itself has students across the whole economic spectrum from the really well off down to “Mr. Belcher I don’t have internet at home”. I have the “lower track” math classes, students who scored below a certain threshold on some test in 8th grade. They take Algebra I in two parts. The school itself is about 65%ish African American and the rest is split rougly evenly between Caucasian and Hispanic with a some Asian students, but my classes are either entirely African American or almost entirely.

I am not sure where my political views and those of my students line up, mostly because I haven’t asked them and I don’t usually share mine. But also I don’t know how much students are exposed to my brand of politics before college. I was card-carrying Libertarian for a while, and lately I have felt more sympathy for anarchist views and I don’t really know if students know about those views and I don’t usually tell them. Last year during the election students would ask me if I was voting for Trump and I gave an emphatic no, but I also told them I wasn’t voting for Hillary either. They were confused. “Who are you voting for then?”

Most of the political conversations that I have had from students have come from them being worried or confused about what is going on in our country. When they have asked me about events or expressed concern I have given them time and space in class to share their thoughts, and I may make a comment, but I mostly let the students talk to each other. (I had an English teacher in middle school who let us talk through the Iraq war when it started. She didn’t share her views but just let us talk. I have tried to emulate that.) I did express firm support for my students. It was important to me that they feel safe in my class and that they know I was for them and their well-being.

The closest I have come to sharing my political views was when the state had a mandatory constitution day. We were required by state law to incorporate the constitution into the lesson. I tried to have the students talk about whether the Bill of Rights granted rights to people or merely enshrined protections for rights that already existed.

What sorts of things make your students worried or confused?

A lot of the anti-Hispanic things that Trump said during the election worried my Hispanic students, but they responded to it in different ways. Some of them expressed concern for whether they would be allowed to stay. Others would make their usernames Trump2016 in Kahoot. I think the latter behavior was a defense mechanism or some way to take back control or comfort, but I don’t know for sure.

Shootings by police worry my students as well. I have let them talk about that and tried to navigate the weirdness that is leading a group of non-white students in a discussion on race. I find it is much easier than talking to people on twitter about race.

I also forgot to mention that my school is the school where the police officer flipped a student out of her desk and it made national news. I was not working at this school at the time but the administration still asks us not to comment on it.

Wow.

So there are a lot of people in education who say that teachers need to bring politics into their classrooms, and I think they’d really applaud what you’re describing. You let your kids talk about the political things that are worrying them, you don’t shy away when they ask you about who you’re voting for, you know what worries your kids.

What would you say are your limits? For example, would you ever teach a lesson that analyzes data about police misconduct?

Yes I probably would if I was teaching a stats course, but I would want them to draw their own conclusions from the data.

I had students who were complaining about the dress code at school. “Mr Belcher why do we have a dress code. They are being racist about enforcing the codes.”

I told them if they believed that was the case, then they should request demographics data on dress-code write-ups from the administration and I would help them crunch the data. They never followed up on it.

I’ve also tried to get some of my students to stop smoking weed by showing them incarceration rates by race for marijuana. (That didn’t work. One student got suspended and another is in juvenile detention. Both for drugs.)

When/if I bring politics in the classroom I want students to discuss / share / defend ideas rather than arrive at a certain conclusion. I don’t want to indoctrinate my students politically anymore than I want to indoctrinate them religiously. I don’t believe it is appropriate for me to do that as their teacher and not their parent. As my friend, @chrisexpthenews would say, I don’t want to act in loco parentis.

What are your limits / what have you talked about with your students in the classroom?

One thing that I think gets lost too much in these discussions is that kids don’t really care what we think about politics. Or, at least, I’ve never gotten the sense that I could really influence my kids too much by telling them what I think. If political indoctrination was easy, there would be a lot more of it.

I think my limits are about the kids and making them feel bad, hurt, or like there’s a pile-on. Once, when doing a lesson about systems of equations and the minimum wage, one kid started talking about how there’s a trade-off between minimum wages and unemployment. A bunch of other kids started piling on this kid. These kids were a group that usually had no trouble disagreeing respectfully, but politics was different, and this kid started feeling lousy and he withdrew.

I don’t regret doing the lesson, but I hate to think what that kid would have thought if I had sided with his opponents, or if the lesson had taken a clearer pro-minimum wage take. (As it happens, I think controversies about minimum wage are genuine, and you look at some of the things that happened in Seattle when they raised wages and economists seem split on whether it’s a disaster or not.)

There was another time when there was a big protest happening outside a courthouse right by our school. It was a protest against police misconduct, and so many kids wanted to go that the school decided to let kids miss class to go to the protest. Kids came back in the middle of my class period — there was no way we were going to learn any math that day, and kids were having an increasingly heated argument with one kid from the class.

I decided to make it a conversation, and I tried to really control who was talking, whether you were attacking someone, etc. Again, it was a pile-on, with one kid who saw herself as anti-Anti-police (I thought she was quite wrong) getting whacked around by the other kids in the class.

I’m not sure about whether I made the right move that day, letting kids talk about the protest. The school had already given them the chance to engage politically during the school day. Their politics had been honored, and all I think I accomplished was make a righter-wing kid feel ostracized by her peers.

We live in super-liberal Brooklyn, and the kids aren’t on the losing side of the demographic lottery, for the most part. School is already a place that feels like it honors who they are, mostly, I think, both politically and in other ways.

I guess my big limit is that I don’t want kids who disagree with the dominant view in the room to feel badly. I care about those kids too, you know? They’re just kids

I completely agree with wanting to protect the kids. Adults can’t handle political discussion a lot of the time either and I think you can feel humiliation and social exclusion more intensely as a teenager.

And I agree with the kids probably not caring either. When I was a student in high school I didn’t particularly know or care what my teacher’s politics were. I wasn’t exposed to regular political views of my teacher until college and even then that was rare.

***

I was thinking about what you said about how teachers who want to bring politics into classrooms would applaud what I was describing.

I don’t know if they would or not, but I really think that if a teacher chose not to do the things that I described, they aren’t doing anything wrong. I feel that way sometimes when edu-twitter talks about teacher responsibility when it comes to white privilege too. I may or may not already be doing things that are “approved” when it comes to my role in race relations in our country but I am not interested in whether they think I am doing enough or the right thing or not.

It frustrates me when I see teachers on twitter tell colleagues to leave the profession because those colleagues don’t check off all the boxes on some list.

Thanks for bringing this up — let’s spend a second talking about this.

So it makes sense to me that you’d want to say that a teacher who doesn’t do these things isn’t doing anything wrong, in the same way you’d probably be OK with a teacher who structured their lessons in a different way than you do. Like, I’d be perfectly OK with a teacher who approached congruent triangles differently than I do, because in teaching there are a lot of different ways to go about things. This is a limitation of the “best practices” approach to teaching that people often criticize.

But just as there actually is some understanding or skill having to do with congruent triangles that we’re all mostly aiming for, there’s probably some non-negotiable having to do with classroom environment that you share. Meaning, OK, maybe you would be OK with other teachers not doing what you do, but that’s because it’s not really at the heart of things, you know?

Maybe you don’t — I’m being super unclear, I know — but is there some other value, or practice, or core whatever that you think is really the non-negotiable? Like, a level deeper than talking politics with your kids, or sharing data about arrest rates. Does that make any sense?

Yeah, that’s pretty much what I was getting at and I think it answers your second question too. I don’t have a political learning objective in my goals for my students. If there aren’t best practices and only different effective practices, then there may be effective practices for helping students become more politically educated, but that’s not one of my goals. If I taught a course where we never talked about anything except abstract nonsense and my students learned the abstract nonsense well, I would be happy.

This may be my pure math background / bent a little bit though. I am also not interested in whether my class prepares students for a job or “real-world applications”. I only want them to be able to do math and hopefully enjoy math. And I understand the argument that “everything is political and choosing not to include politics in class is a political choice”. I am fine with that charge. The political choice I am making is to just have fun doing abstract nonsense with children. I think there has to be a space for that. (And there should be a space for politics too. Just because everything is political doesn’t mean we have to politicize everything, if that makes sense at all. Like, “Yes, I understand. But let’s talk about that in another setting.”) And at the risk of repeating myself, I don’t mind (necessarily) if other teachers feel the need to explicitly politicize their math classroom. It’s their math classroom and since politics is a learning target for them, they are using their effective practices.

So I guess to me the deeper value when it comes to math class is just doing and enjoying math.

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4 thoughts on “Talking about teaching and politics with Taylor Belcher

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your conversation with me. I really appreciate getting to hear your thoughtful exchange. There seems to be so much divisive language in our world these days. It was refreshing to hear a conversation between two people who are genuinely trying to understand each other.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really cool interview/dialogue. I never know what to make of the abstract claim that “teaching is political” (as you’ve written, each of those three words can mean so many things!) and so I find this conversation’s focus on specifics (your particular experiences, attitudes, school environments) really fruitful and valuable.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah — thanks for pointing to the emphasis on particulars.

      That reminds me of another conversation on this blog, between me and Ben Blum-Smith about learning styles. The back-and-forth there was about distinguishing between particular stuff we know about teaching and “capstone” theories that organize all that stuff in a meaningful way.

      There are times when the underlying particulars are more important than the organizing theories. I’m not sure this is one of those times, but even if it isn’t, it’s important to remember how much of the underlying particulars are shared.

      Like

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