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Social Studies teachers struggle to explain President Trump

Courtesy of Keith Kindred

I’ve been teaching social studies since 1992 and have seen my fair share of historically important events. Many happened while I was actually in the act of teaching.

I was teaching when the Oklahoma City bombing took place in 1995.

I was teaching when the Columbine High School shooting occurred in 1999.


I was teaching in New York, about 60 miles north of the city, when 9/11 happened. When the first building buckled and pancaked down into oblivion, I could hear the screams of students whose parents worked in the area of the Twin Towers.

I was in my Michigan classroom when a gunman killed 20 six year olds and 6 adults in the Sandy Hook massacre.  

Keep in mind, I’m with kids when we become aware of these tragedies, and there is no time to think about what to say or how to approach them with your students.

As a social studies teacher, it’s part of my job to help them process these events, and to reassure them, to make sure they feel safe. When I think back, I’m proud of how I met that challenge for all those events.

Sadly, I can’t say the same thing about Wednesday, January 6, 2021.

I taught six classes that day, remotely this year, of course. But as news reached us about what was happening in Washington, D.C., I was in disbelief.

Stunned, really. 

I simply could not believe what my eyes were seeing.

A riot... a rebellion ...an insurrection aimed at overturning a free and fair democratic election, albeit one constantly undermined by President Trump. When I saw the video footage of the president exhorting his followers to march on the Capitol not to be “weak”, I was shocked that even he would be so reckless.

I told my classes later in the day that I was not ready to discuss these events with them. I needed time to process what was happening. Time to get more information. Surely this couldn’t really be happening, is what I was secretly hoping.

Now that I have had time to reflect, I’m pretty embarrassed at this reaction. If anyone should have known something like this was possible, it’s us social studies teachers.

Donald Trump has been telling us who he is for years now, and we have had to deal with his norm shattering presidency more intensely than even journalists.

And we’ve had to struggle with how to discuss this president with children, with young people who are watching him and looking to us for validation, for condemnation, for some indication of how to feel about this man’s words and behavior. 

Keep in mind, these are children of social media; they are not unaccustomed to bullying behavior, sad to say. But in his coarser moments, their facial expressions seemed to say to me, is this okay for a president?

The vast majority of us believe it is our job to make students think, not to tell them what to think. Our job is to help prepare them to be critical thinkers who will back up their positions with evidence and reasoning.

Health care, abortion, taxes, the environment - they are all up for debate. Despite the right-wing nonsense about us brainwashing your children, we don’t care what stands they take, as long as they are respectful to differing opinions and back up their own with logic and credible information.

But when Trump mocked a disabled reporter, we condemned this cruelty and told them similar behavior at our schools was unacceptable and might even merit a suspension.

When Trump talked about certain countries being “shithole” countries and they are populated by people of color, we object. Social studies teachers fight racism and unapologetically seek to encourage tolerance.

When Trump suggested the majority of Mexican immigrants are hardened criminals, we provide data that shows their rates of violent crimes are actually lower than the general population. Social studies teachers believe that evidence matters, as do facts.

When Trump retweets a video from a well-known white supremacist group in Great Britain, or gives a shout out to the Proud Boys during a presidential debate, we discuss the power of the “bully pulpit” and how a president has a unique power to, not only spread ideas, but give them credibility.

One of the recurring themes we consider in my AP Government class is whether Trump is an anomaly, or will future presidents mimic his more extreme statements and behaviors? Has Trump forever changed the traditional decorum and steadiness we expect from the president of our country?

Time will tell, but this I know, because I saw it with my own eyes.

We saw a sitting president actively incite an attack on our Capitol building, a shrine of democracy revered around the world. 

We saw a sitting president bully the Secretary of State of Georgia and his own vice president in an attempt to overturn a free and fair election, one where all 50 states did audits and the courts have struck down over 60 challenges as being meritless.

Should he be impeached? Should the 25th Amendment be invoked? Should there be no consequences? How will history judge him?

We social studies teachers have our own opinions but, once again, most will keep them to ourselves. We will discuss these options with our students and lead civil debate in our classes.

But will we - should we - minimize or sugarcoat what the president did?

No. No, we shouldn’t. And no, we won’t.

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