Every four years, U.S. voters go to the polls to elect a president. Politics fills our Facebook feeds, candidates and pundits dominate TV, conversations with friends and family focus on the latest election news.

For high school civics teachers, a presidential election – or any election – ought to be the perfect opportunity to connect what students learn in the classroom with “the real world.”

But Dr. Wayne Journell, whose research is focused on preparing high school social studies teachers, has discovered it’s often a missed opportunity.

Journell’s research reveals that teachers are afraid of teaching politics.

“They’re afraid the parents are going to complain,” the associate professor of education and former high school teacher explains. “They’re afraid the administration is going to complain. Because when teachers do it badly, it ends up on the news.”

And it’s not just fear. Many young teachers – like the teachers-to-be Journell instructs at UNCG – may not know enough. Many social studies teachers have studied history, not politics. And some haven’t paid much attention to current events.

In the last few years, Journell has studied differences in how politics is taught in schools. He’s also worked with teachers to figure out creative ways to get students more engaged in civics and government, such as using the TV series “The West Wing” to dramatize important concepts and prompt discussion.

His message to teachers? Don’t fear the elephant (or donkey) in the room. Teaching politics and using current events in your lessons can help engage kids more deeply in the material and make them better citizens.

However, teaching politics is about more than helping students watch the Electoral College map on election night. It’s also a chance for students to practice tolerant, civil discussion of political issues – something that seems to have all but disappeared from public life.

“Most don’t tune into Fox News or MSNBC to see tolerant civic discussions. You’re trying to win the argument,” Journell says. “Increasingly, you’re not even seeing it from the politicians themselves. So, at some point, if we value such discussions as a society, we’ve got to see a model of it somewhere. Schools are a great place, because – even in the most homogenous schools – you have more ideological diversity than most students have at their family dinner tables or their places of worship.”

Though many education scholars are split on whether teachers should disclose personal views on politics, Journell’s research links disclosure with improved classroom instruction.

“When teachers disclose their views, it actually makes the discussion more vibrant, because the students realize where their teacher stands and they can ask questions.”


This post was adapted from a UNCG Research Magazine story written by Mark Tosczak. To read the full story and more, click here. For more information about UNCG’s School of Education, visit soe.uncg.edu