A UCLA survey of 1,535 teachers across the nation reveals startling — yet unsurprising — information about the social and emotional well-being of our nation’s children: they are fearful, anxious, and overly stressed in this, the ‘Age of Trump.’
The teachers, who were not self-selected participants but rather from schools across the nation with demographics best representative of the majority of school climates, reported that many students worry about their safety and that of their families, while others feel more reassured — encouraged, even — than in years past to express racist and disparaging viewpoints openly. The result is a generation of children experiencing heightened levels of angst in their increasingly combative school atmospheres.
NPR reports the survey, conducted after Trump’s election and accompanied by information obtained in 35 follow-up phone calls, yielded the following results:
- 79 percent of teachers reported that students have expressed concerns for their well-being or the well-being of their families because of what is in the news. Most commonly mentioned was immigration, but the list also included the much-publicized travel ban, restrictions on LGBTQ rights, threats to the Affordable Care Act and threats to the environment.
- 51 percent of teachers reported more students experiencing “high levels of stress and anxiety.”
- 44 percent of teachers reported that students’ concerns were affecting learning. In interviews, they spoke about students who seemed stressed, distracted and who were contributing less to class discussion for fear of drawing attention to themselves.
- 41 percent of teachers reported that students were more likely than in previous years to introduce unfounded claims in class discussions, such as from Facebook or talk radio.
- 27 percent of teachers reported an increase in students making derogatory remarks about other groups during class discussions. This included sexist as well as racist and anti-Muslim comments.
- 20 percent of teachers reported heightened polarization on campus and incivility in their classrooms.
As a teacher myself, I am not surprised at the results.
In my own classroom, students have confessed some pretty frightening realities to me. Some have admitted to spending much of their time worrying about their family’s safety and whether or not they will be deported, even though they are in the country legally. Others have expressed feeling the sting of discrimination more prominently. Almost all — regardless of skin color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or gender identity — come to class discussions either reticent to share their ideas for fear of backlash and judgment or nervous about what may come from some of their classmates.
Our toxic society, which has dragged us all as adults down in one way or another, has leaked into our classrooms, and it absolutely is having a detrimental impact on our youth.
Teaching students the art of civil discourse is harder now that it has ever been in my 14-year career. How can I expect students to buy into the importance of responsible and respectful communication when our own President engages in daily Twitter bullying?
Or how about instilling in them the gravity of plagiarism and the significance of having academic integrity when our own First Lady (or more aptly, her speech writers) gets away with plagiarism without consequence?
And let’s not forget the critical nature of teaching source evaluation and information credibility. When the very leader of the nation cries “Fake news!” at anything and everything he doesn’t like, this makes reinforcing research and critical thinking skills difficult.
And it’s not just teaching about the art of discussion, academic integrity, or source evaluation that has taken a hit. Nearly everything that once seemed innocuous now seems political and polarizing. Try teaching Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience or Miller’s The Crucible or Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun without worrying a parent might accuse you of indoctrinating their child, for example. Teaching the hard stuff — the important stuff — has now become almost dangerous. And that’s an immense problem, particularly when we’ve never needed to teach this stuff more than we do today.
Teachers with strong administrative and collegial support systems are able to tackle these weighty subjects — and the social and emotional discord in their schools — more easily. But teachers without? Teachers whose students might be the ones who need these lessons and that emotional support the most? These teachers either cannot or will not embark on such endeavors for fear of losing their jobs or of becoming targets of their own modern-day witch hunts.
And the people who suffer most are our children.
They can’t escape it. Not on social media. Not on the news. And not in their own communities or classrooms. And from my vantage point, it only seems to be getting worse, which spells disaster for this generation of youth who will soon inherit this nation and all its baggage, none of which we, the adults now, are making it any easier for them to carry or unpack.
For my part, I will, with the support of my administration and colleagues, continue to confront the “tough stuff” with my students and my own children, even when it scares me just as much as it scares them (and trust me, it does at times). And I only hope teachers and parents in other schools and communities across the nation can find the footing and resources necessary to do the same.
Because something’s got to give. And if our children truly are our future, we’ve got a lot of work to do.