Political tensions reveal student-teacher disconnect

History Department Chair Ms. Hannah Turlish speaks with a student, January 13, 2021 – Tyler Zimmer ’21

An event of this caliber rattled our Haverford walls with fiery debate, a glaring need for dialogue, and one Herculean misunderstanding. The Capitol building has only been breached one time, in 1814—this invasion was led by the British. The recent attempt to undermine a peaceful transition of power pays homage to an armored Roman barbarian attack, but those brutes were met with violence. Today’s maskless “barbarians” were confronted softly despite jeopardizing our democracy and the foundations on which it was built.   

     In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley tells us that spoon-fed, placating information paves a straight path to mindless dystopia. Take the algorithms of TikTok’s “for you” page and Instagram’s “suggested” posts for example. They feed content to consumers that they both recognize and agree with, allowing little room for growth. Just as history repeats itself, social media platforms and news channels did not pioneer this strategy. The Romans did. Their familial system of education, using relatives or hired slaves to reinforce the family’s nearsighted ethics, created a problematic single story.

     But Haverford students are not Romans, and teachers have not been called in to serve as an echo chamber. We are therefore in a fortunate position to move past this one-dimensional view. As a politically diverse community, we have the power to unify in the classroom rather than divide into our individualized feeds. This is only possible if both parties of a dialogue—teachers, and students—are willing and able to open their minds. Currently, they aren’t. 

     “I am often afraid to speak up in class in fear of losing respect from my teachers,” Sixth Former Michael Tallarida said. “In history class, my conservative peers and I are told that our opinions are wrong. We swiftly move to the next topic at hand.”

     Mr. Brendon Jobs—experienced history teacher and director of Haverford’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts —disagrees. 

     “I think that’s fiction. Teachers are more aware of this student concern than students realize,” Mr. Jobs said. “We talk about this often.” 

     Mr. Jobs explained that he facilitates class discussions in ways that center student voices, agency, and interaction. He utilizes the Harvard-certified Question Formulation Technique (QFT) method for holding an open dialogue, posing questions, and stimulating discussion. He said, “I only disrupt to fact check. If a student is factually wrong, I say to him, ‘This is just wrong, and here’s why it’s wrong,’ always offering evidence.”

     Recipient of the Main Line Today’s “Top Teacher 2020” honor, Mr. Jobs feels his experience precedes him. He more than refutes the belief that teachers lose respect for their students because of opposing stances; he finds it troubling. 

     “Students give up the opportunity to engage with the world around them because of this imagination that I’d dock their grade?” he questioned. “I’m upset about that, but I almost want to laugh at it. That’s not what teaching and learning are about.”

     Sixth Former George Lanchoney has the utmost respect for his teachers, but he finds it difficult to express himself honestly, even in a space where teachers try to remain politically neutral and nondiscriminatory.

     “Calling a teacher out for not being impartial could potentially ruin my relationship with them,” he explained. But Lanchoney sees a simple solution to this discrepancy for his conservative counterparts. “This chain needs to be broken. We need to speak up so teachers can have a better understanding of our side.”

     Mr. Jobs makes his best effort to remain neutral, letting discussions formulate through student opinions, but other teachers take different approaches.

     When asked if she expresses her opinions in class, Ms. Hannah Turlish—history department chair and active local leader—responded honestly: “Yes. I have dedicated my life to being a champion of marginalized people who are silenced by the United States’ power structure. As a woman, I have spent years of my life feeling as if I couldn’t speak up, or interrupted and discredited if I did, and those two things definitely still happen.”

     Turlish does not subtly layer her opinions into group discussion; she states her positions directly, never without purpose. She believes it is vital for marginalized students to have an advocate in the classroom  and voices her opinions in support of them. 

     One Sixth Former finds outspoken teacher opinions troublesome. “Teachers need to open their eyes to the other side. They ask us to hear them out, but they never do the same for us,” he said.

“If students don’t like what I am saying, then they don’t like challenges to the power structure.”

History Department Chair Ms. Hannah Turlish

     “If students don’t like what I am saying,” Turlish continued, “then they don’t like challenges to the power structure.”

     The same student contended, “It’s not that I don’t respect teachers and their opinions. It’s that they favor the liberal students immediately after I own my conservative beliefs.”

     This student isn’t alone. Sixth Former Maxim Kreider said, “I have found time and time again that teachers have omitted relevant information that discredits their side of the argument.” 

     “Liberal students are often favored in classes, especially when it comes to class discussions and engagement,” Tallarida said. 

     Several teachers agree that they never dismiss student opinions as wrong; they simply challenge them for the sake of growth and understanding. Mr. Jobs touched on why students need their opinions to be confronted.

     “Students who vote for Trump tend to be voting along family lines. So it’s not even potentially their own opinion,” Mr. Jobs said. “It’s not necessarily their vision of how they see the world.”

     Upper School Dean and English teacher Mr. Luqman Kolade agrees: “I think it’s expected. I’ve come to realize that a lot of times the kids are just saying what they’ve heard at home.”

“Right now we’re in a world where having your opinions questioned is coming across as an attack.”

Math teacher Mr. Matt Ator

     Family lines or not, students must have their opinions challenged. It allows them to learn argumentative skills while honing listening skills. 

     “Right now we’re in a world where having your opinions questioned is coming across as an attack,” math teacher Mr. Matt Ator said.

     Is there a disconnect between teachers and conservative students? Do both parties simply need to communicate more openly? Is it possible that there’s no bad blood at all?

     The short answer is that problematic exchanges follow a pattern. A common theme emerged revealing where tense interactions take place. 

     “I teach American lit,” Mr. Kolade said. “It’s hard to talk about American literature without talking about America. So those things are just going to come up regardless.” 

    Inherently, humanities classes encourage discussions about human problems while math classes don’t. 

     “No one’s going to argue anything racist or sexist when we’re talking about math problems,” Mr. Ator said. 

     Finance teacher Mr. Brian Long had a similar experience. “It doesn’t matter what I think or what you think when it comes to financing,” he said. “It’s about how the markets digest information. Then we can dive into why they moved the way they did.” 

     Since current events rarely trickle into math class’s curriculum, these teachers are afforded the luxury to dedicate class time to ungraded political discussion. The compromise—the solution, even—to bridging this divide can be found here, ironically in the classes that traditionally don’t cover political topics.

     Math teacher Mr. Nathan Bridge’s strategy for moderating political discussion seems too simple to be effective: write the student’s claim on the whiteboard. 

     “We need to make it known whether the student is stating an opinion or whether they are making a claim, something that they’d like to engage with an argument,” Mr. Bridge said. 

     Once he writes the student’s claim on the board, everything changes.

     “Eight or nine times out of ten, the student sees their words up on the board, and they immediately retract a little bit, qualify some things, or soften their language.”

     Mr. Bridge also sees this strategy as a method to find the root of beliefs and personal values behind them.  

     “These people we vote for only serve as a rough approximation for how we’d feel if there was rank-choice voting,” Bridge said. “Political opinions or claims oftentimes serve as a proxy for a deeper value, right? And it is very difficult to argue against someone’s values.”

Math teacher Mr. Nathan Bridge works in his room, January 13, 2021 – Tyler Zimmer ’21

     For example, if a conservative student makes the claim that Trump took us to our best economy, and we cannot shut our country down, Mr. Bridge would respond by saying, “It sounds like the economy is important to you, and you believe that in a democracy, everyone should have a right to a good-paying job. You’re actually arguing between health and jobs.” 

     If more teachers can integrate this strategy into their classrooms, both humanities, and STEM, and conservative students can find comfort in a transformational dialogue, then restoring this relationship is far from a lost cause. Teachers want their students to grow; students want to engage; they need each other to be intellectually challenged.

     Lanchoney recognizes the imminent threat of disregarding the current disconnect.

 “The feedback loop of disagreeing with someone, not talking to them, and affirming one’s views with a biased news source could truly end in a civil war,” Lanchoney said.

“If my peers enter a political discussion, they should be open to new ideas and having their views change.”

Maxim Kreider ’21

     Kreider said, “If my peers enter a political discussion, they should be open to new ideas and having their views change.”

     Mr. Ator took this thought one step further. “The students I know best are the ones that I talk to outside of class. I would say that those conversations beyond academics actually bring me closer to my students,” Mr. Ator said.

     “I’ve enjoyed the most and even wrote recommendations for kids who politically are the complete opposite of me but are willing to listen and engage,” Kolade added.

     Neither teachers nor students are blind to the repercussions of Brave New World-esque close-mindedness—they’re simply unaware of each other’s intentions. 

    Head of School Dr. John Nagl maintains his faith. 

     “I am deeply and profoundly optimistic about America and about our corner of this great nation here at Haverford.”

Author: Tyler Zimmer '21

Editor-in-Chief Tyler Zimmer '21 has written for each section of The Index since 2018. He previously served as Managing Editor and Arts Editor. In addition to journalism, Tyler plays baseball and golf, and he is often found working in the art studio.