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Opinion: The ‘crisis in the classroom’ — how are we teaching politics to kids?

It’s back-to-school time. Students and teachers are already in classrooms across Utah and excitement is in the air. 

Yet anxiety is also in the air. Some are calling it a crisis in the classroom. COVID-19 exacerbated the perennial problems of long hours, low pay and increased teacher workloads. Together these have taken their toll on educators, leading to a serious teacher shortage nationwide, including Utah, where administrators are scrambling to fill classrooms as the first day approaches. There is also a shortage of full and part-time support personnel, including bus drivers, food service workers and substitute teachers.

As if this were not enough, our teachers experience additional anxiety caused by the rampant partisan polarization seeping into the classroom. Learning about politics, and therefore civics, is so politically charged that some teachers feel unable to engage in substantial ways. They worry about repercussions if they teach the content, skills and dispositions they believe are essential to civics education

Across the country, concerned citizens are lamenting the lack of constitutional knowledge and understanding of responsible citizenship. Yet, if teachers are not allowed to teach the basics of civics, this situation will not improve with the rising generation. What can be done? 

We can start by trusting the teachers.

They work hard to strengthen our democratic republic as they prioritize our nation’s Founding, the Constitution, and the 21st century skills citizens need today. Earlier this year, Utah Valley University’s Center for Constitutional Studies surveyed over 500 secondary social studies teachers and fourth and fifth grade teachers (the grades that cover Utah studies and U.S. history, respectively), asking questions about what, when and how they teach civics and what motivates and demotivates them for this part of their job. 

More than any other incentive for teaching civics, teachers said, “I have a responsibility to prepare future voters.” A secondary teacher wrote, “(My incentive is) mostly the responsibility I feel as a teacher — it’s why I teach.”

The teachers expressed commitment to teaching civics knowledge, skills and dispositions. Both elementary and secondary teachers most frequently identify the “facts of the U.S. Constitution,” “the Bill of Rights and other amendments,” “early constitutional ideas” and “modern constitutional ideas” as the civics topics that they teach. Utah teachers also reported a commitment to the skills and dispositions needed for thoughtful citizenship. They design lesson plans and activities that require students to engage civilly with others, distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources, and think critically as they engage thoughtfully with American history and deliberate on difficult topics.

The teachers stressed that they seek nonpartisan sources and aim to teach in an unbiased manner. They concur with a teacher who said, “We help kids learn and grow and work on relating to each other at a time when such skills have never been more essential.” 

Teachers are also committed to following the guidelines set by the State Board of Education. Approximately 75% affirmed that state standards or mandates influence the way they teach civics. One wrote: “If I want to teach something, I check to see if it is in harmony with state, district and school standards. If it is not, I don’t go there.”

Trusting the teachers does not mean we ignore what is being taught. Our interest will help our children engage when they are in the classroom. We can ask the teachers and ask our children about their civics lessons. Let’s find opportunities to talk about the news of the day and the big issues of our time. Ask your children if they discussed the upcoming elections in class. Talk around the dinner table, in the car and wherever you find yourselves with a few moments for conversation. If commitment to civic life has no place at the family dinner table, we are in serious trouble. 

The solution lies not only with K-12 teachers but with the commitment each of us has to civic education and civility. Let’s be supportive as Utah’s teachers promote civics education. They need our help and deserve our trust.  

And, if you are a praying family, please include the teachers in your prayers. 

Glori H. Smith, a civics education fellow at Utah Valley University’s Center for Constitutional Studies, has 30 years’ experience in the K-12 classroom.

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