Negotiating The Politics of Teaching History

Teaching is a challenging practice, partly due to all of the different political environments that educators have to navigate. Teachers must satisfy administration through test scores, their fellow teachers by preparing students for the next level of education, and themselves because of their own personal teaching philosophies. In this article I wanted to focus on the unique power dynamics that exist in teaching history. Teachers of history must negotiate with students, administration, other history teachers, parents of students, and the community at large because history directly relates to human action and interaction. Due to this relationship, students of history learn about triumphs, atrocities, and the peculiarity of human relationships. The task is difficult, but hopefully readers will find some insight from the following.

Negotiating With Students and Their Identities

The most important group to negotiate with are students. Today’s United States has the most diverse student population than any other time; however, the population of teachers has remained dominantly white, female, and middle class. Because of the difference in student and teacher populations there must be a discussion about how teachers cannot meet all of the cultural needs of the students.

The United States is the most diverse nation which brings certain challenges. Away to meet these challenges is to ask our students what they want to learn and why.

This is not to say that a white teacher cannot help students that are black, latino, asian, Native American, or any other race/ethnicity; but, teachers must admit to their students what perceptions that they have and how the students will most likely have different ideas based on their racial and ethnic identities. This is also true of differences in gender and sexual identities, nationalities, socioeconomic status, and other identifiers.

How long has it been since you have changed your opinion on something? Open yourself to dialogue and let others influence you.

Now that I have begun teaching preservice teachers, many of them have expressed their fear that they will not be able to meet all of the diverse needs of students. When I was an 8th grade U.S. History teacher, my colleagues would also share their worries about not being able to provide proper services. Luckily for history teachers, we can use the discussion of diversity as a direct connection to history and other social studies disciplines.

History deals with human interactions which is largely influenced by identity. When beginning a class, ask students, “What do you want to learn in history this year?” Or, “what about modern issues and problems do you want to connect to history?” Generally, asking these questions will not be enough and you will need to develop entire exercises around them in order to get students to participate.

The following articles may help you with getting your students to speak about their ideas. Each article has links to tools and resources.

Administration and Other History Teachers

Stephen Brookfield has taught college undergraduates over 25 years, and his book The Skillfull Teacher, which has received three editions, describes his ideas about good teaching. In his chapter about the politics of teaching, Brookfield wrote, “squabbles based on personality differences and exacerbated by ideology and history exert great influence over day-to-day life” (Brookfield, 253). To me, this describes perfectly the environment of teaching with colleagues and administration who have different viewpoints on how to teach history.

I believe my student’s work with National History allowed them to gain historical knowledge, learn about important themes and concepts, and gave them outlet to be creative with their thinking.

As you teach, you will discover some history teachers believe that history is beneficial for the sole sake of learning facts. They believe this information will improve students’ understanding of the United States and their place in it. Some teachers will focus on concepts, such as patriotism or racism, and make sure students understand how these concepts fit into all historical topics. And yet, other teachers will focus on skill development and ask students to think about their own creative thinking. Some of the best teachers will try to combine several theories together in order to produce well rounded students.

Whatever you do, try to work with the history teachers and administration who oversee you. There may be times that you feel strongly about a certain idea, but no one else sides with you. You may decide that martyrdom is the best option; you proceed with your idea and flaunt it where you can (Brookfield, 256). Personally, I felt like I did this with my incorporation of National History Day and skills based grading. No other teacher in my department seemed to like my work, some even directly challenged me at department meetings or in my face, so I decided that I would work alone. By doing this, I became standoffish and said little at department meetings. I lost credibility with my department, which benefited no one.

My practice was not a complete loss; I had tremendous support from my administration and other teachers outside of my department. I did work hard in finding those who could support me, something that Brookfield highly recommends. Also, I believed that my methods aligned with the school’s and district’s missions; I framed my reasoning for my projects in the same language at those mission statements (Brookfield, 254-255). So overall, work with your colleagues, even if they are resistant, and find as many allies as you can inside and outside of your school.

 

“If the rhetoric of “learner-centeredness,” “academic rigor,” “responsible citizenship in a diverse world,” or “responding to emerging needs” is adapted to describe your teaching, chances are that nobody will visit the kind of consistently micro-managing attention to your classroom that could easily stifle your creativity” (Brookfield, 256)

Parents and the Community

Parents and community members can have a positive or strained relationship with the school. As a teacher, you do not know the complex history that individuals and groups have with schools, therefore you may be met with extreme resistance to relatively simple teaching ideas. For example, perhaps you want students to debate with one another over a historical concept or contentious issue. Suddenly, a few parents email you saying that they refuse to let their child participate in the debate. What happened?

A teacher should want positive solutions to come from parent-teacher dialogue. This is only possible if a relationship has already been established.

Perhaps those parents had their children come back to them in tears one year because a teacher made them have a debate in class. Maybe those students were shy and the act of speaking in front of others was horrifying. Or the parents have strong political views and they do not want their child to be exposed to other ideas. Whether right or wrong, parents may challenge your teaching strategies, and the only way you can be prepared to have a beneficial dialogue with them is if you already have a good relationship.

It is fundamental that we build allies within the community in order to promote our teaching objectives. Students will benefit from these relationships because they will receive additional resources and opportunities.

This goes for community groups as well. My students completed a Mock Senate for their final project and somehow one of the students had their bill exposed to the public. An activist group in town emailed the administration, with a picture of the bill, condemning the student, the teacher (myself), and the school. Luckily, the group only emailed the principal and did not target the student, but there are plenty of cases around the United States of political groups attacking specific students online.

An example of powerful the community can be is when I hosted a “Social Studies Professionals Day.” Researchers from town helped students understand how historical thinking skills impacts their work.

Finally, spend time to build relationships with your parents and community members. This is something that most teachers do not do, especially at the secondary and college level. Parents want to see what their children are up to, and asking them to help with projects or events is a great way for them to be involved. 

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