What do students learn when teachers express their opinions in class?

There is no one conclusion regarding the merits or otherwise of teachers telling students where they stand on political or controversial issues. It is a debate we in Israel must have openly.

Sheri Oz

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IDF soldier-teacher in classroom
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It seems that Meir Baruchin, a civics teacher with 30 years classroom experience, was fired from his job in Rishon LeZion for expressing his political views in the high school classroom. He claims that he uses his political views to open up debate among the pupils and leads them to think critically, independently and to challenge their own assumptions. That sounds good. But let us look at this a bit more deeply.

First, let us move away from this particular radical leftist teacher and think about it more generally. If the teacher is a chemistry teacher, is there room for such debate? And if it arose in class, even if a pupil began the discussion, can we be sure that the pupil was not somehow triggered by something the teacher said nonchalantly one day in class. In today’s world, the something said could have been posted on one of the social media platforms. In any case, I think many would agree that this is not a topic the chemistry teacher is mandated to develop in the classroom.

In a language class I took a few years ago, the teacher used to give practice sentences that made clear her political position. I found that distracting and it negatively affected my ability to concentrate on learning the vocabulary. It was so unnecessary. Would I have been less distracted if I agreed with her politics? I do not know. But expression of political views cannot help but be a negative experience for some of the pupils – and even if only one pupil, that is one too many.

However, when the teacher’s subject is history or civics, political issues are certainly within the domain in which the educator has been trained. And some materials studied in literature class may fall into the same category if the piece under discussion raises issues concerning socio-political views. One has only to look at the Civics matriculation exam in Israel to discern political views in the forming of the questions.

The question, then, is: should the teacher express his or her own personal political views as part of the high school classroom discussion? 

If you do an Internet search with that very question, you will find that there have been multiple articles contending with the issue. Some are opinion pieces in the mass media such as this one and others are academic papers either surveying educators in research studies or debating the question in principle. There is no one conclusion regarding the merits or otherwise of teachers telling students where they stand. It is a debate we in Israel must have openly. But a line must not be crossed into pressing students not to join the army or trying to convince them that Israel, as a Jewish country, is inherently illegitimate as did a civics teacher in Tivon a few years ago.

The other question that immediately arises is whether or not teachers should publicly post their political opinions on the social media. Protection of freedom of expression seems to lean toward answering this in the positive. Yet it is not so simple. It seems this particular aspect has been less examined than whether or not
It is widely accepted that therapists do not accept their clients as social media “friends” and also refrain from using unprofessional language and publicly stating their political views in social media posts.
eachers should talk about their personal views within the classroom.

On the other hand, it has been a topic of lively discussion in my profession: psychotherapy. And it was (and still is) widely accepted that therapists do not accept their clients as social media “friends” and also refrain from using unprofessional language and publicly stating their political views in social media posts. This is an ethical issue for the profession. Now retired, I feel relief at the removal of the manacles that prevented me from openly being me in all my permutations. But I respected the restrictions when I had to keep the needs of my clients uppermost in mind.

Are teachers any different?

Are there pupils who feel somehow shackled or distracted from truly concentrating on the subject at hand by knowing their teachers’ political views? Perhaps someone should examine this question in a research study. Similarly, one should study the impact on classroom discussion of knowing the teacher’s political views when that teacher either holds a majority view or a minority view. These are important areas to debate.

Getting back to Meir Baruchin, he claims that he was not out to change pupils’ opinions, but to get them to re-examine their opinions by exposing them to reasoned, calm debate that explored minority views whether the topic was Arabs, right versus left wing views, homosexuality, haredim and more. Did he need to express his own views in order to accomplish this? Was he a role model for the pupils who held minority views as he did? How did that affect those who did not agree with him?

As a former sex educator who also did research on teaching sexuality education in the schools, I can confidently state that teaching sex ed did not change pupils’ values from those they were taught at home, at least not in the younger grades. Rather, they had a deeper understanding of their parents’ values whatever they were. Would this be true, as well, for political values and for high school pupils? I do not know. We do know that young people in the higher grades are often liberal, often much more liberal than their parents, as part of their socio-cultural development into adulthood. But I also did not state my own personal views in the classroom, tempted as I often was to do so.

I think where Baruchin got himself fired, was less for simply expressing his opinions in the classroom or in the social media, and more for his inability to enter into a reasoned discussion in the office of his school principal.

In an interview on Galatz Radio, Dr Sophie Ben Artzi, principal of the school that fired the teacher who posted on Facebook in favor of refusing to serve in the IDF, told Ishay Shnerb: “I asked him into my office and just said that I am not prepared for him to call IDF soldiers murderers. He said that he will call them whatever he wants and I responded with ‘meeting over’”.




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