Teachers, Schools, and Civil Discourse

The following post is by NCTE member  Jonna Perrillo and originally ran in the El Paso Times.

jonnaperrilloLike many American parents, I was grateful to send my children to school on November 9. They attend schools where they feel happy and at home, and I hoped that their teachers would recognize and respond to children who felt confused by the end of a confounding election season. I was not disappointed.

In the face of this challenging day, some American teachers chose to do nothing, teaching as usual. But others, including my children’s, did a great deal, from reviewing the US governmental system of checks and balances to discussing tolerance to organizing events for families to attend together. In many places, educators had to address a sense of crisis and despair.

We should applaud the work of teachers and schools like this, those who can see that acknowledging and discussing politics does not equate to either advocacy or excoriation.

American schools have always been good at teaching some kinds of citizenship skills. We require students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, we teach them about how government works, we ask them to vote for class president as an exercise in campaigns and elections.

Since the introduction of multiculturalism in the 1920s, schools have also been teaching tolerance. This is a vaster project, but at the very least, most humanities teachers know to teach a more diverse set of readings and ideas than they once did.

Citizenship and tolerance are related to but different from civility. Civil discourse requires a person to express ideas in ways that are respectful and informed, expressive and reasonable at once. It includes but exceeds being polite. It is about responding rather than reacting, understanding more than arguing, listening as much as talking, and believing in the process even when one is unpersuaded by another’s ideas.

It is, in other words, a skill, not just a product of character, and one that improves immeasurably when we teach it rather than just expect that it will happen between good people.

Teachers understandably feel pressured to avoid politics in polarizing times, when it feels as though any revelation of how we think is equal to petitioning for one side or the other. Yet polarization is not new, and it has helped to create many teachers who lack the confidence and will to facilitate discussions about any of the kinds of issues that were central to this election.

Teacher educators like myself too often fail to prepare teachers for holding civic discussions, especially about moments that feel unpredictable. We are good at teaching teachers to simulate important acts of citizenship, like voting between one candidate or another. But we fail to teach them how or why to lead discussions about the day after. Or how to talk about ideas around which students may fundamentally disagree. Or how to use the classroom and curriculum to respond to the political fears students absorb. Instead, we treat all of this as extracurricular work. We need to do better.

Now, as much as at any time in our history, teachers across the nation, Democrat, Republican, and Independent, will need to serve as beacons and instructors of civic consciousness and behavior. As citizens who seek greater civility than we have seen, we need to support teachers in the cause, letting them know we value it and the larger goal at hand. And we need to thank those who are doing this difficult work well, however they do it. Our children’s classrooms may just become the best models of how to participate in respectful, productive, and civil discussion.


Jonna Perrillo is associate professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and the Battle for School Equity.

3 thoughts on “Teachers, Schools, and Civil Discourse

  1. Hello Joanna, my name is Matt and I am currently a student teacher at the University of Alaska Southeast. I just wanted to let you know that I love the piece that you wrote. It speaks volumes to who educators are and can become. On November 9th, I was unsure of how to lead my class. I had kids crying, kids celebrating, even one kid telling everyone goodbye because he thought he would be leaving the country soon. After watching my students for a minute, I knew that we had to sit and talk about what happened. We talked about the election, how people felt about the election, and how checks and balances work. This to me, was one of those days where teaching students about grammar wasn’t the most important thing. I fear that often times people forget to teach students how to be respectful members of society. I feel lucky because the students themselves took the conversation to being respectful to everyone, and standing up for what is right. Those 5 class periods made me realize that sometimes teaching students how to be respectful members of society will benefit them more as they continue to grow up, than a grammar lesson. This post really spoke to me, and I wanted to say thank you.

    1. Thanks, Matt, for taking the time to tell me about this. It sounds like you did your students a real service. I bet they are grateful and will remember the class!

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