Pennsylvania lawmakers are demanding the state’s education commissioner resign over his department’s guidance on recognizing students’ gender diversity. A group of 20 Republican state representatives opposes the education agency’s definition of binary gender as a “faulty concept that there are only two genders: male and female.”
The department also encourages educators to ask students which pronouns they prefer and shares resources for teaching about gender identity, including a toolkit for organizing a “gender-neutral day.” But the legislators say they want the web page removed because it espouses a “secular worldview” that is not permitted in schools.
It’s yet another example of the politicization of education that erupted with anti-masking campaigns during the pandemic. This contentiousness, which has expanded to race and LGBTQ issues, is increasing schoolhouse stress—particularly among principals and teachers.
Nearly half of principals and 40% of teachers reported that “the intrusion of political issues and opinions into their professions” is a significant source of stress, according to a poll conducted in January by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research firm and think tank. More than half of the teachers and principals surveyed oppose legal restrictions on discussing race, racism and other contentious topics in classrooms.
One in four teachers also said that they have been directed to limit classroom conversations about political and social issues. However, 20% of teachers supported setting limits on these types of discussions.
A majority of principals—and more than a third of teachers—reported being harassed over COVID-19 safety measures or teaching about race and discrimination. Consequently, these educators are experiencing more likely to cite politicization as a reason for considering leaving their jobs as this sense of well-being evaporates.
4 ways to shield staff from politics in schools
Helping educators cope with the increasing stress of political controversies boils down to administrators providing as much support as possible and communicating openly with families. RAND’s researchers recommend that K-12 leaders:
- Better engage families in decision-making by building systems to promote understanding between educators and parents.
- Develop content-specific guidance to clarify the purpose of classroom conversations about race and racism.
- Provide training and resources that help principals and teachers communicate effectively when managing conflict about contentious topics.
- Ensure that preparation programs and in-service professional learning show educators how to handle politicized issues in their schools and classrooms.
Principals, in particular, are looking for more training in culturally responsive leadership and developing culturally responsive teachers, the analysis found. Teachers, meanwhile, want leaders to clarify that the purpose of discussing race and bias is to create safe and affirming learning environments for all students—especially those who been marginalized and under-represented.
Leaders can also highlight research that shows students perform better academically when they feel valued and have a sense of belonging, and that culturally responsive practices are linked to increased student engagement and self-efficacy.
Finally, principals and other leaders can improve their relationships with families by conducting home visits, organizing relationship-building exercises and creating opportunities for collaborative problem solving with parents. “Families who have strong relationships with their children’s teachers and schools might be less likely to engage them in a hostile or aggressive manner,” the researchers conclude.