Hold that thought.
The two boys make their way outside room C213 in the east wing of Centennial Hall.
Sixth grade humanities instructor Rebecca Jenkins’ morning class ends, and it’s time for the next period.
The two boys carry on their conversation — complaining about homework — as any sixth grader would do.
But as they take that right turn out of the classroom, their conversation takes a hard left turn.
And they’re not talking about homework anymore.
“See, I told you she was a liberal.”
With hot topics ranging from the upcoming presidential election to the race riots in Baltimore provoking intense discussions throughout the country, many conversations about race, religion, politics and more have been brought to the forefront of high school classrooms.
And about a month ago, a Virginia high school teacher was suspended from school for using an offensive word when trying to explain its connotation in an apparently inappropriate context.
So, what’s a teacher supposed to say when school discussions reach these sensitive topics?
There is always the danger of a student’s misconception of a word or phrase, especially when taken out of context.
How can teachers connect their curriculum with worldly issues without giving their opinion on those events?
Will they be branded as a liberal if they mention Hillary Clinton?
As a conservative if they seem to favor limited government?
For the boy in Jenkins’ class a few years ago, a similar misconception was encountered when he misunderstood the true meaning of a liberal.
His definition? Someone who helps others.
The literal definition, straight out of the dictionary: open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values.
Therefore, Jenkins wanted to show him another perspective.
“I didn’t want it to be a confrontation,” she said. “I wanted it to become an exploration of the way we think about people based on the things that they say and if we really have enough facts to make a judgement, or if a misconception is developing because of something that was said. That’s why I asked him about it.”
With sensitive topics covered daily on campus, teachers find that they must create a balance in the amount of educational yet potentially uncomfortable material they present.
“I actually think we are willing to push appropriate boundaries when the educational value is clear,” Associate Headmaster John Ashton said. “I think we are willing certainly to bring complex issues to you guys, and frame those in a very appropriate and educational way.”
But at school and throughout the country, a question remains: how much, if at all, should teachers inject their own opinions into these conversations?
Many teachers have slightly varying perspectives on how their opinions will affect their students.
“I think a teacher should try to reserve his or her opinion initially so as not to squash or limit the really important discussion of different opinions,” English Department Chair Michael Morris said.
Likewise, Victor F. White Master Teaching Chair David Brown waits until sensitive discussions draw to a close before injecting his personal opinions, and he has a specific purpose in mind when he does so.
“One of the reasons for that is that I think that students at this age are looking for answers,” Brown said. “If we leave too many questions out there, they are going to find it somewhere, and I think that I have a responsibility to at times provide some direction for students that are desperate for some answers.”
Senior Ashton Hashemipour, who is president of the Political Forum Club, agrees that at some point in these discussions, he would like to hear a teacher’s opinion.
“I think it’s important for teachers to expose us to a lot of different beliefs, including their own,” he said. “This relates to politics, to religion, to a lot of different things. But it’s important that we get a large world view regarding different issues.”
Often, however, these opinions may contradict those of a student’s and can potentially offend them, even if presented in an educational context.
“Though I work very hard not to offend students, there are definite viewpoints I want to offend,” Brown said. “There are definite positions out there that need a hardline. I try to deal with those not in a way that exposes the specific student, but that instead focuses on the viewpoint. That fits in intolerance for a certain group of people, a race, a creed, or on gender issues, the views that some might have towards women or gays or those sorts of things.”
Brown feels as long as the context of what he is presenting is educational and appropriate, inappropriate words should not be construed as offensive.
“To me there are no offensive words, but there are offensive messages or context,” he said. “I would be more hesitant to have my students read a book whose author is clearly advocating a standard that I am trying to steer them away from. So, for me, it’s always context or message rather than a word. For me, there are not dirty words. That’s what I tell my students: there are only dirty contexts.”
However, when words are taken out of context, students with polarizing views can often take offense to certain comments that did not have bad intentions.
“I think it’s good for us all to remember that polarization of perspectives can be quite problematic because it removes the vast middle ground of circumstance and compromise,” Morris said. “Society, especially in a political realm, tends toward such polarization. So I think the teacher and the student might do well to try to find a common ground or a set of possible connections between their different belief systems.”
Interim Head of Upper School Scott Gonzalez says finding this balance and common ground when presenting sensitive materials is crucial to avoid shutting out students’ opinions and thus hindering their potential to learn.
“Separating the personal from the professional is absolutely essential because if you can’t do that as an educator, then you’re going to lose quite a bit of your class to begin with,” Gonzalez said.
However, students as well as teachers can play a role in creating an environment that is safe to discuss nearly any topic, as long as it is within an educational context.
“I think that we have the responsibility to explore many different avenues of interpretation and experience in modern America,” Gonzalez said. “We have to because, if not, then we’re not an institution that promotes thinking or questioning, and I would find that really disappointing, and I would find that limiting and I would find that not being true to what education is all about.”