Darlena Cunha is a contributor to TIME
I’m a blue parent in a red state. I ignored the warning signs and believed the polls. Buoyed by my social media bubble, I was so sure Hillary Clinton would be our president that I didn’t work hard enough to make it happen. I saw the Donald Trump signs going up around my neighborhood, and I simply drove on.
But my little blue world is much littler than I’d ever imagined. It doesn’t extend even as far as my kids’ public elementary school — a place you would think safe from politicization and indoctrination, but alas.
When Trump made his first address, my young daughter watched it on TV in school. “My teacher kept talking about how great Trump will be and saying, ‘Yes!’ when he talked, mama,” she told me in the car on our way home from school. “I didn’t say much, but I only let one tear out. Don’t worry, mama. I didn’t cry big. No one saw.”
My heart broke.
During such an historic transition, I hardly expected the teachers to remain silent. Blue or red, beliefs aside, my third-grade girls have the wherewithal and the desire to know about what is going on around them, and the schools would be doing a disservice to ignore it. Education cannot exist in a vacuum.
But education cannot be flooded with partisanship, either. At eight years old, my twin daughters don’t have the capacity to parse opinion from fact, a skill that is more than ever necessary. They believe what their elders say, they take it at face value. So what should parents do when partisan politics enter the classroom?
“The majority of the country voted for Donald Trump, and the Democrats are sore losers and need to stop, my teacher said,” my daughter piped up as I drove them home from school. “She says he’s going to do all good things for the country and that Hillary was a liar and bad.”
The words stopped me cold. I knew her teacher was a Trump supporter. The day after the election, my daughter came home talking about how happy her teacher was, how America would be saved, how the good guys won.
I’m okay with that. I’m okay with teachers being people and having opinions and feelings. I want my kids to view the normal rise and fall of emotion that comes with political upheaval, both happy or sad.
What gave me pause was the continued propaganda aimed at young kids, without intention, but still there. The teacher told my kid’s classroom that Clinton hurt little kids. She fell for the child sex-ring story, and gave a watered-down version to third-graders. During playdates, even now in the heat of almost-summer, my children continue to correct their classmates about whether or not Hillary Clinton has been in jail. Three times.
It’s not just liberals who are worried about in-school politics. Conservatives have been fighting it for years, as well.
Holly Moore, an acquaintance of mine, is a parent of a five-year-old in Denver, Colorado. She’s a Trump supporter in Clinton territory. While her daughter is only in kindergarten, Moore believes the more liberal personal politics of teachers at school might seep into the education they’re giving.
“I don’t think that teachers should use their platform for politics, although I think they do do that,” she said. “If it’s appropriate for the curriculum, that’s fine, but educational institutions in general are primarily liberal, and I think kids are being educated in that ideology as a whole.”
How can parents assess what is current event curriculum and what is ideological underpinning being foisted on children who don’t understand the nuances of our political system? And what should parents do if they’re faced with what could be the latter?
Emotions are high right now; people on both sides of the aisle are on edge. We can’t lead with our guts. Teachers are underpaid and hard-working, and that is true despite where they personally fall on the political spectrum. If a teacher does cross a line in your opinion, it behooves everyone to keep it professional.
At first, I didn’t want to meet with the teacher directly because I was afraid of retribution affecting my daughter in the classroom. If I bumped up against her political beliefs by standing up for mine, would my child suffer the consequences? On the other side, would she become a cause? Would the teacher want to save my daughter from a flaming liberal upbringing?
Neither. It’s up to the parents not to fall into a partisan hole. We must remember that teachers are human beings doing a very difficult job for not nearly enough pay, and that they care about our children as human beings as well.
I was tempted to go above the teacher, straight to the principal or even the school board, but I didn’t. I knew that it was my own cowardice talking. Eight-year-olds are notoriously unreliable reporters, and as one of the adults in the room, it was my job to actually act like it. Bringing one side of a story to someone’s superiors without giving her a chance to talk it out is not only underhanded, but could have dire consequences for the teacher.
“You can’t ignore what’s happening in politics, but the reaction needs to depend on what is being said,” Moore said. “I’d make a direct inquiry to the teacher first. If it needed to go beyond that get an administrator involved.”
In our case, the teacher defended her decisions, but spoke directly and kindly to my daughter during our meeting. She didn’t vote for Trump, she said, but left her ballot blank. She supported him because he was the President and that’s what our country is about, she said. Still, I can see how my daughter became confused and upset. I can also see what a mess I would have made of it had I not gone to the teacher first.
Facing these issues head-on is going to be important in the coming months, but whether you are liberal or conservative, remember there is another person on the end of your actions. To cover bases, parents should call a meeting with the teacher first, and bring recording devices or take notes. That way you have verification that the meeting happened and what was discussed. Or have witnesses at the meeting, be they friends, family members or others who work at the school. If worst comes to worst, you can always move your child from the classroom into a different one.
Political ideologies aside, we have to remember to treat others with the respect they deserve. We can take care of our children’s political educations at home how we see fit, but it’s not fair to put someone’s job on the line unless you’re sure they’re doing something really wrong, that you can’t counteract at home.