It happens a few times every school year: a student sees me in the hall, and shouts, “Ms. Lauritzen! My mom showed me a clip of you on the news!” Other days, a student will casually mention seeing a recent article online, waiting to see if I’ll reveal my secret identity as a freelance writer.
I’m usually busy trying to do other things-grade a paper, teach a class, confiscate a cell-phone mid snap-chat, so I respond to any mention of my “outside life” by changing the subject, and redirecting the student’s attention back to whatever I’m trying to teach. I try to act natural, but mentally I’m freaking out, trying to remember if the last thing I wrote was potentially inflammatory.
Sometimes I get the impression that a student is speaking in code, referencing an article in order to alert me to the fact that I’m not the only feminist/democrat/weird Mormon in the room. My online presence becomes a modern way to say “shibboleth” and identify common ground. Regardless of their intent, I try to stay in teacher mode. My job as a public servant depends on my ability to separate my role as Ms. Lauritzen, history teacher and stealer of phones, from Stephanie Lauritzen, writer of minority opinions and one-time activist. (In the interest of honesty, I will confess that sometimes I let my students distract me with silly tangents and stories, but I try hard to stay on task, and somewhat on message.)
A few months ago, I wrote about teaching the new AP U.S. History curriculum, and why I disagree that the new curriculum represents a “hostile liberal take-over” of American history, a claim issued by many Republicans. A few people responded with outrage that I, as a teacher, do not maintain personal political neutrality. They worried that I would be unable to teach subjects portraying Democrats in a bad light. Others worried a student would inevitably read my piece and feel scared to express counter opinions to the views in my article.
Concerns about my online presence resonate with me. I frequently worry that writing publically will negatively impact my ability to create a safe and inclusive classroom for all of my students. I worry that my decision to publically disagree with the LDS Church might make my LDS students might feel I dislike them, or don’t value their contributions in class. I worry that conservative students might feel intimidated to share an opinion, or feel the need to constantly defend their position in order to be taken seriously. I don’t believe any student should feel afraid to speak up in class, nor do I believe my job is to coerce students into adopting my interpretations of history. I do believe that as a teacher and authority figure, I’m granted a position of power, so it is my responsibility to let students know their opinions and ideas are valued, even if they differ from my own.
I am not perfect at this, but there are a few things I work on each day in order to create the best possible environment for critical thinking, writing, and discussion. First, I remember this quote by educator Eric Rothschild, “The more I say in class, the less my students learn.” Teachers are prone to god-complexes and I’m not immune to the siren call of my own voice. Sometimes it is necessary to talk a lot: to lecture on historical context or to model successful analysis strategies. But I try to remind myself that my students can’t truly learn unless they have the opportunity to explore idea and concepts without my interference. Each day I give students time to study ideas on their own, discuss what they learned with a partner or in a group, and then talk together as a whole class. I mediate the conversations without trying to control the outcome, and I’m always impressed with how well my students tackle difficult subjects while respecting differences of opinion.
Secondly, students appreciate honesty, so when I do share an opinion-based idea I let students know explicitly that they are hearing one side of the story. I make sure to counter my opinion with the opposing viewpoint, so that my view is never the only interpretation presented in class. In discussing different historical perspectives, including American Exceptionalism and Revisionism, I let my students know about the recent controversy concerning the new AP U.S. curriculum. I shared my thoughts on the limits of Exceptionalism, but also told my students that all historical models are flawed and incomplete when studied in isolation, so we will study all of them and use what we learn in class to create new interpretations and ideas.
I think it is healthy and good for students to see that multiple viewpoints can exist in the same space, and that disagreements do not mean people can’t work or learn together effectively. As students graduate and enter the workforce they will encounter countless people who disagree with them on fundamental issues. It is unrealistic to train students to remain silent on issues they care about in order to work effectively with others, just as it is unrealistic for me to pretend I am a non-existent neutral party outside the classroom. If my students read something I write and disagree with me, I hope I've modeled sufficient tolerance and open-mindedness in the classroom to give them the skills necessary to navigate their thoughts productively and honestly. In the end, the only test I truly want my students to pass is one proposed by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Also, the ability to go 86 minutes without snap-chatting on one’s phone.