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Thank you, teachers, for getting into good trouble, necessary trouble

The president is scared of teachers who think for themselves and gravitate toward new research-based curricular topics that shed light on historically marginalized voices, perspectives, and events.

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Jeff Henning-Smith
Even on a good day, teaching is hard work; the lasting impact on students is immeasurable, though. Teachers’ efforts should be widely lauded and acknowledged as essential to the past, present, and future of the United States.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality. The newest and loudest critique has been flung by none other than our country’s president, who recently offered his thoughts on the way history is taught in schools. President Donald Trump would like you to believe that he is not only the greatest president of all time, but he is also a budding historian, expert curriculum writer, child-welfare advocate, and protector of the way things used to be. Spoiler alert: He is not. Trump is not a fan of critical thinking. He is not a fan of calm, rationale discussions. He is a fear peddler, and while he would like to sell you on the idea that we should fear teachers, it is Trump who is actually scared of teachers and their students. He is scared of teachers who think for themselves and gravitate toward new research-based curricular topics that shed light on historically marginalized voices, perspectives, and events.

As a former elementary and middle-school teacher and current elementary education lecturer at the University of Minnesota, who coordinates elementary social studies instruction, I have seen how incredible teachers can be, day in and day out. Most teachers are naturally inquisitive people, who are never satisfied with simply teaching what has always been taught. Trump, however, would like you to believe that teachers are political actors, utilizing deceitful and dogmatic beliefs to indoctrinate your child. According to Trump, “the left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies.”

This is our country’s history

One of these lies Trump would like you to believe is that curriculum like the 1619 Project is propaganda akin to Black Lives Matter. The truth is, Black lives do matter, and not because other lives don’t matter — of course they do. Black lives matter is a message of protest and affirmation because for more than 400 years, our country, its leaders and its laws have made it clear that they do not matter. They did not matter when they were forced into slavery, hung by a rope, killed by the KKK, beaten by dogs, denied the right to vote, red lined out of a home, and had their last breath taken away by a police officer. You tell me how these are “deceptions, falsehoods, and lies.” This is our country’s history, all of it, and we cannot continue to deny students the right to learn it all by calling this type of teaching indoctrination. 

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I have been fortunate to work with teachers from all around this country. I have taught in public schools, private schools, and charter schools. I have taught in large cities, suburbs, and in rural communities. I have taught in schools where the majority of students were African American, Somali, white, and Hispanic, and in schools with a diverse mix of students. I have taught with colleagues who were new to the profession, as well as colleagues who had been teaching for decades. In all of my experiences with teachers, I have never encountered a single colleague who wanted to indoctrinate their students. In reality, teachers are focused on helping students to think critically for themselves.

What Trump fails to realize is that at our core, teachers believe students are innate learners, with the capacity to learn new and complex information that is both challenging and contradictory. In railing against the New York Times’ 1619 project, which delves into our country’s racist past and present, Trump misses the point entirely. This research-based, award-winning set of essays, turned curriculum, is not a “Marxist doctrine,” but an evolution into how Americans need to reckon with our collective past. While Trump wishes to believe “America’s founding set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that abolished slavery [and] secured civil rights,” he is wrong. If we continue to teach students that the story of America is a story of progress and prosperity for all, we will continue to silence the truth, and perpetuate the horrific injustices that have plagued this country since the founding.

Opportunities for classroom culture building

In my current work, I have the fortune of working alongside aspiring teachers, as they work toward their Elementary Education Teacher License. As part of this work, I teach their social studies methods course. I believe it is important that elementary teachers be familiar with content and concepts and be able assess instructional resources in order to use the most worthwhile ones to support their students’ progress toward major social studies topics. It is equally, if not more important, that elementary teachers also provide opportunities for their students to experience differences; be exposed to challenging, perspective-opening ideas; learn to see the value in all people; and gain the freedom to make their own choices.  In teaching social studies methods, I try to demonstrate and provide opportunities for classroom culture building, where relationships are fostered, individuals are celebrated, and at times, where things get heated and emotions run high. 

Educators have a responsibility to create opportunities for all students to learn, feel challenged, grow, and be successful in whatever future they choose. This work does not take place in a vacuum, devoid of context, and separated from reality. If Trump is sincere in his desire for American schoolchildren to be given a “patriotic education” then he needs to understand real patriotism does not come from blind loyalties, ignorant beliefs, and selfish actions. Real patriotism comes from knowing you do not live in a perfect country where prosperity has been fair and equal from the beginning, but that instead, patriotism comes from the celebration of differences, the desire to support your neighbor, and from our collective capacity to learn from our past.  The greatness of our country does not come from our ability to boast the loudest, but from our ability to acknowledge our faults and to be better, to do better, and to live better. 

Jeff Henning-Smith, Ph.D., is a lecturer in elementary social studies education at the University of Minnesota.


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