“It’s a subtle thing, freedom. It takes effort; it takes attention and focus to not act something like an automaton … Anyone whose automatic brain mechanisms habitually run in overdrive has diminished capacity for free decision making, especially if the parts of the brain that facilitate conscious choice are impaired or underdeveloped.”
― Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction
Donald Trump’s campaign impacted American education by threatening many types of students and teachers. His xenophobic and racially divisive promises sent waves of fear into classrooms across America. Latino students now fear deportation and/or revocation of their college prospects. African American, LGBTQ, and Muslim students have witnessed a national uptick in hateful incidents against them as well as potential policies restricting their freedoms. Female students must now grapple with the reality of a president who brags about sexually exploiting women and advocates for their loss of reproductive health rights. These external threats to freedom are compounded when children internalize them into threats to their sense of inner freedom, resulting in the capacity reduction described above by Gabor-Mate.
As a result of this election, teachers in already demanding conditions must now navigate increased stress levels in both students and their school environments. Mandated to uphold the promise of public education and to foster democratic citizens, they face a litany of challenges. For example, in Oakland, California, many teachers have insufficient preparation (especially for these conditions), are overworked, face increasing costs of living without corresponding raises, and now, under Trump, might have their jobs outsourced to private entities receiving education vouchers.
To educate for democracy in the face of fear, teachers will require strategies for dealing with these external threats to and internal stress of their students. These conditions are not new in districts serving marginalized and vulnerable populations, but Trump’s election has elevated the already urgent need for strategies and support. Specifically, teachers need to know about: the impact of stress on students’ brains, effective practices for fostering identity safety in classrooms, and the rights of students and their families.
Understanding stress begins with Gabor-Mate’s definition of traumatic stress as “internal alterations—visible or not—that occur when the organism perceives a threat to its existence or well-being.” These alternations trigger the mind’s natural alarm system, shutting off the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain where new information is processed and integrated). Stressed and traumatized students cannot be “ready to learn” because their brains are locked into “flight, fight, or freeze” responses. Therefore, teachers must learn strategies to help students navigate the negative mental, emotional, and physical stresses and threats of Trump’s election as the first step towards students learning in the classroom.
To achieve safety in their classrooms, teachers can draw on bodies of work that emphasize identity safety, culturally responsive teaching, and trauma informed practice. Identity safety resources support the creation of classrooms that see each student’s social identities as “assets rather than barriers to success.” Teachers can also recognize, as the field of epigenetics does, that in addition to their life experiences, children also carry the intergenerational impacts of their families’ genetic, addiction, and health histories. They can learn about how stress operates and how trauma informed practices can mitigate its effects. Teachers can also employ restorative practices instead of zero-tolerance discipline policies to model democratic justice.
Finally, teachers can become informed about the very real threats students face. They can educate themselves about the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) and the implications of Trump’s plan to revoke it. They can stay informed about policy changes at local and national levels and work to inform students, colleagues, and the community. And at a basic human level, teachers can learn about the origins, cultures, and histories of their students. Using culturally-responsive teaching resources will help teachers respond to student needs for safety in classrooms and schools.
Engaging these strategies requires a tremendous amount of effort, both internally by teachers to learn and embody these practices and externally by school leaders and education stakeholders to support the ever-increasing needs of students in the face of mounting systemic challenges. School communities can work to support teachers with information, the time to learn and practice, and tangible acts of care. In the coming years, schools will be needed as spaces of freedom—both internal and external freedom—where children can grow, despite the odds, into the best versions of themselves. However, this requires a commitment to and significant investment in schools and the teachers responsible for creating these safe spaces for learning.
Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ own and may not reflect the views of their respective institutions.