Today's podcast was recorded the day of the 2020 election. In it, I talk about pushing back against this notion of teacher neutrality. This is a solo show. Just me, no guests pushing back against this entrenched concept of neutrality that I think we need to unpack to do right by our students, right by ourselves, and right by our society. I hope you enjoy this episode.
Hi, I'm Lindsay Lyons and I love helping school communities envision bold possibilities, take brave action to make those dreams a reality and sustain an inclusive anti-racist culture, where all students thrive. I'm a former teacher leader, turned instructional coach, educational consultant and leadership scholar. If you're a leader in the education world, whether you're a principal, superintendent, instructional coach, or a classroom teacher, excited about school-wide change, like I was, you are a leader. And if you enjoy nerding out about the latest educational books and podcasts, if you're committed to a lifelong journey of learning and growth, being the best version of yourself, you're going to love the Time for Teachership podcast. Let's dive in
Today, I want to talk about teacher neutrality or the concept of teacher neutrality. I want to push back on it. I'm recording this episode on Tuesday, November 3rd. So the day of the US 2020 presidential election. And I'm thinking back to 2016, when my colleagues and I effectively suspended our regular course content for the year in helping our students process the results of the election and the feelings that they had around, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. And thinking about preparing to teach my college class tomorrow, and also not knowing if we will have a definitive answer as to who the president will be for the next four years. At that point, I'm thinking about all of the other teachers in that same position, wondering what exactly they're going to say and how to approach the conversation about the election results in the coming day, the coming week, the coming months, as we continue being in our classroom spaces together and fostering a culture of anti-racism and productive generative dialogue that digs into issues of oppression.
And so I guess my dream here is that as we digest the news about the election, whenever it does come, that we don't try to adhere to this notion of neutrality that I see as truly a false notion of neutrality. So some folx may say, Whoa, Lindsay, that is way too radical or way off base here. I just want to share why I don't believe in this idea of teacher neutrality and why as a teacher, I took risks that at times I thought might get me fired, because I felt like it was the right thing to do. And when we teach, you know, this, this idea of civil disobedience and we glorify it breaking the unjust laws, right? We're talking about laws there. If teacher neutrality is just a norm, or kind of an unspoken norm that we believe exists, it's not necessarily a law.
And if it is in our contracts, again, I go back to that notion of glorified, civil disobedience, and we teach it. We talk about activists who are powerful and made a difference. And I suppose the question I have is: Are we willing to be the people that we glorify in teaching history classes and teaching this content to our students? Are we willing to push back against a regulation in our contracts, or if not an unspoken norm or agreement that we should remain neutral. And that's what a good teacher does. So here's why I think this idea of neutrality is not something that I want to adhere to nor do I hope that you know, others do. The first reason is because it's just not accurate, this concept of neutrality. If it means how we've always done things, how we've always taught history, how we have always centered whiteness and cis-genderedness and maleness, if neutrality is that, it's not neutral. That's just not neutral.
Supporting the status quo is not neutral. When we know that supporting the status quo means that students who are Black, Brown, or Indigenous or transgender or students with dis/abilities when they don't get the same results as white cis-gendered rich students get. So if it's not accurate, if this concept of neutrality truly isn't neutral, I think we have to push back against this idea that speaking against injustice and teaching about politicians or the election or particular rules or Supreme Court decisions, pushing back against some of them as unjust, right? I think that is what we need to do to advance justice in our country and in our classrooms. The second problem I have with the concept of neutrality is this idea of neutrality being just neutrality in the way we conceive of it. If it means what I just said, it's not just the way we've always done things.I love Archbishop Desmond Tutu's famous quote, "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."
I think this is so poignant when we're thinking about the fact that we are serving all students in education. That is our purpose. That is our mission. When it comes down to it, if asked to choose to remain "neutral," supporting the status quo, the way things have always been...
To speak out and speak for justice at perhaps a great risk to ourselves in our careers at perhaps a risk of having really uncomfortable conversations with parents who don't agree with your stance on the false notion of teacher neutrality with bosses, perhaps colleagues or family members who disapprove of your decision, that's truly what justice means, right? To reject the status quo. It is not just. So, staying neutral or "apolitical" is also an advantage. If you say that you are neutral or apolitical you're effectively sharing that your humanity and your human rights are not at risk here. And so you have the privilege or the advantage to remain neutral in a particular political conversation or situation. If your rights are not as risk as an individual, then you can opt out of a conversation with little risk to yourself. You can avoid that discomfort, which is a manifestation of white supremacy, right?
As a tool of white supremacy, to avoid the discomfort, to not take risks, to not jeopardize the status quo that has served you. The reality is, most teachers, about 80% of teachers in the United States are white. Most students at this point in the United States are not white. And so there's this additional dynamic of who are we serving and who are we? What are we willing to risk to serve our students properly? Now you might be wondering well, this idea, in theory, of pushing back against neutrality, I'm with you. I agree, but how does this actually happen? How does this play out so that I walk the line between not getting fired or not putting my career in jeopardy and my livelihood on the table, and am also pursuing justice?
And I will say that there are no easy answers here. That absolutely is a risk. And I just invite us to have that conversation first and foremost with one another about what that means. And if we can talk about it as colleagues, as adults, even with students, about what neutrality means in a broader sense, not necessarily as in the teacher sense—as a responsibility of teachers—but just generally, if we can have those conversations and produce generative dialogue about what this means for our conversations as a school community and as a larger community as well, I think we're getting there, right? We're making progress if we can do that. Well, I also want to say different teachers and different people have different degrees of risk. So for folx who can say, I am apolitical, or I am staying neutral on this because it doesn't risk your individual rights. Those folks have less risk typically in cases like this. And therefore it is more important that those folx step up to the plate here and take on some of that risk that other folx who have not been advantaged by our systems have been having to keep on their shoulders and have had to shoulder those risks far and above anyone else. And so it's time those of us who are at less of a risk in that scenario to step up and take on that risk and to voice our resistance to this concept of neutrality, which does not serve our students.
Logistically speaking in the classroom, this looks like conversational agreements, that center justice, that center dignity and ensure that a person or a group's humanity is not up for debate. This is a central tenet of having these conversations. We cannot ensure a space in which students are going to want to return to conversations like this in a space in which students feel loved and supported in a sense of belonging, if we don't agree that a basic guideline that is foundational to productive conversations about oppression is that we cannot disagree with who a person is. We cannot say that their identity is invalid or their experiences are invalid.
So we can honor the dignity and the experiences of people and disagree about where we're going to make a better world for everyone, but not about the dignity of the person themselves. In addition to setting human guidelines—guidelines for the conversation that center human dignity and make sure that we are not going to violate that—academic guidelines can also be established. So as an educational institution where your purpose is to support students, to have a better academic understanding of things like research and data, and fact versus fiction, academic guidelines can be established for the conversation because where conversations can get derailed is if we say everyone's opinion is valid without the consideration of factual information and where that information is coming from. So source quality, quality of research design, things like that. You can absolutely look at a research design and interrogate its sample, representativeness, all of that stuff. That's actually a great way to apply some key ideas about research and think about the applications of things you might be studying in the real world. Absolutely do a source analysis, do all of those things, but we cannot ignore data and statistics. We cannot ignore facts. That is part of our responsibility as an educational institution in this conversation.
So again, you can disagree with how to solve problems. I think that's what politics really should be all about. How do we create a better world for everyone? How we get there might look different and we can disagree about that, but we can't disagree with people's humanity and the necessity for people to have their full set of human rights. And we can also not disagree with the fact that problems exist when data points to the fact that those problems exist. And so the next step in terms of getting started with this work, of course, this is going to look different for every community, depending on what grade level you teach, where you teach, the population you serve in terms of student demographics, geographic nature of your school, teacher readiness and teacher demographics as well.
But as a leader, if you are a school leader, a principal, superintendent, assistant principal, you can bring this issue up with your staff. Many staff members have been thinking about it. They may be thinking differently about it. They may be thinking similarly to you, different from others, but they have been thinking about it in one way or another, this election and just current events in general affect everything we do. They affect us as individuals, as people, as teachers, they impact our pedagogy and our considerations when we determine what and how we are going to teach.
What you can do as a leader is prepare how you want to talk about it with your staff and offer some shared language, to provide opportunities for teachers to talk about how they're going to talk about issues in their class. So provide some language around discussion agreements or values to uphold in class conversations. What are the guidelines? What are the shared parameters that our school can come up with to say, we are not going to violate another person's dignity. What does that language look like for your school, for your grade level? And maybe co-construct that with your staff. Another thing to consider is conversations with families. So consider that shared language that you want to have with staff so that if a family member comes in and addresses what they see as this issue of violating teacher neutrality, you can provide a buffer between the teacher and the parent.
So you're kind of the first stop. So that family members aren't directly calling teachers, and you can provide that information and share that this is a school-wide initiative. This is our set of guidelines that we collectively came up with to have conversations about important issues. You can also support teachers and provide professional development opportunities, coaching support in the form of observations of these classes, not to judge or grade teacher performance, but to take in what's happening and collectively brainstorm where teachers can go from there or how to address problems that may arise. Now as a teacher, you can determine your guidelines for your class. Of course, you can bring it up to the larger school. You can ask your boss about creating opportunities for a larger staff wide conversation, but you can also, if you feel isolated in this journey, if you're the only one that seems to be doing this, you can determine the guidelines and the language that you will use in your own individual class to talk to students, to talk to family members who may come and talk to you about what you're teaching students and what you're talking about in your class.
You also may want to prepare for colleagues—if you are on this journey alone—who may tell you that it is your job to stay neutral or remain apolitical. So you might want to prepare exactly what you want to say to those colleagues, to have that language ready to go, to share some additional resources, which I'll be sharing with you at the end of this episode, so that they can kind of explore those questions and push back against that notion of teacher neutrality as it fits for them. And as always, we need to build up our collective and individual literacies around various identities and forms of injustice so that we can facilitate conversations with our students, but also with adults, with our colleagues, with our families, with our bosses, with our students' family members on issues of racism and white supremacy, on issues of nativism and sexism, on issues of ableism and homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, all the topics that may surface in conversations around the election specifically, or more broadly around any current events that happen throughout the year and not just in this moment in time.
In the show notes today, I'm going to link to a bunch of resources to support you in further exploring this concept of neutrality. So you can kind of get started. You can share some of these resources with your colleagues or with family members, and it might provide you a kind of shared language to figure out exactly what we are trying to do here in the field of education. What are we trying to do as teachers? Why did we get into this field and who are we trying to be as individuals? How are we bringing our whole selves into the class? If you're an activist outside, if you're going to Black Lives Matter protests, but you are showing up in class to remain neutral...that does something to you, right? That does something to you as an individual.
It prevents you from being able to show up and bring a lens of justice, a centering of justice, a core of justice into how you teach and what you teach. And as a clear caveat here, I am not at all saying that you need to tell students how to think and that students all need to agree with you. I think that is something that I continue to work on because I am very clear in my passion for feminism, for anti-racism, but I also don't see those passions as something that is political, because again, they center people's dignity. They say, I am fighting for justice for all students, for all people. If I was pushing a particular agenda for a policy or for some sort of, again, solution to how we attain justice for everyone, that's not something I need my students to agree with me on, but I need students to center the justice of all people in our conversations.
And if there is a trans student in the room, if there is a student who is gay in the room, if there is a student who is Black, Brown or Indigenous in the room, if there are a bunch of hetero, cis-gendered white kids in the room, I need them to know that they matter, their peers matter, and that everyone's dignity and humanity matters. So I see that as the clear difference between pushing my own beliefs and making sure that we center justice and humanity for all folx in our class. So the resources I will link today include a resource from Teaching While White, which is a podcast. The episode is called "No Neutral Zone" and features a wonderful interview with a teacher who shares his own personal identity—for a while. He found himself kind of covering up who he really was in the class. And then now being open about his identity with his students and how he teaches and sees the concept of neutrality. It's a fascinating listen.
Also, April Brown wrote a blog post called "Talking with Young Kids About Elections, Democracy, and Justice For All." There are a bunch of great resources in terms of texts that you could use to center conversations around elections, democracy, and justice for young kids. I think this is particularly powerful because a lot of times in conversations about social issues about racial injustice, about, sexism or consent or all these things that are really central to how we live as human beings and absolutely are important to talk about in, you know, the young grades sometimes feel like either they shouldn't be talked about, or they should, but they're not sure exactly how to go about that conversation because of course, it's going to look different from a conversation with a bunch of high school students when you're talking to a bunch of first graders or kindergartners. And so this is a powerful blog post to check out.
And finally, a resource from the Teaching Tolerance website. This is an article written by Corey Collins called "Teaching the 2020 Election: What Will You Do On Wednesday?" So specifically speaking about the election and thinking about that notion, which it references in the posts, I'm thinking about pushing back on that notion of teacher neutrality, and it actually links to another blog post—tons of blog posts, actually—within that article, from Teaching Tolerance, one of which does directly address a teacher kind of reckoning with that notion of neutrality and, and kind of walking the line, so to speak, between having students believe exactly what he believes and centering justice in conversations with students. And so I thought that was a powerful rate as well. I'll link to all of those resources in the show notes for today, so that you can check them out.
If you have any resources that you would like to share about how you are addressing the election or current events more generally in your classes this year, how you're fostering these conversations with colleagues in staff meetings, in department meetings in just kind of "water-cooler" conversation moments (if those moments exist via Zoom or in-person)., and how you're talking about them with students, if there are activities that you want to share or shared language that you want to let us know about, please Let me know.
You can find me on social media, or you can drop a link to one of your resources if you're willing to share, or just a comment about how that's going in your class and the approach that you've been taking and how you're thinking about this notion of teacher neutrality in the year 2020.
Thanks for listening, amazing educators. If you loved this episode, you can share it on social media and tag me at Lindsay Beth Lyons, or leave a review of the show. So leaders like you will be more likely to find it. To continue the conversation you can head over to our Time for Teachership Facebook group and join our community of educational visionaries. Until next time leaders, continue to think big, act brave, and be your best.
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Lindsay Lyons (she/her) is an educational justice coach who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice, design curricula grounded in student voice, and build capacity for shared leadership. Lindsay taught in NYC public schools, holds a PhD in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog and podcast, Time for Teachership.