3-Minute Civics: Bridging divisive concepts

December 3, 2021 5:50 am
A teacher writes on a white board

“Teachers have power in a classroom, but since our goal is to educate, not to dominate, we need to use that power wisely.” (Getty Images)

Early in my teaching career, I learned an important classroom management strategy called the “low card” approach. Basically, the idea is to do the least aggressive thing to get a student to stop a bad behavior. For example, if a student is being disruptive, rather than going to the harshest response, a.k.a. the “nuclear option,” by punishing the student, the low-card approach would be simply to move to a location more proximate to the student. The student will likely notice this, get the message, and stop the behavior.  

The low-card approach has almost always been successful (maybe partly because we have such great kids at John Stark – Go Generals!) but even if it wasn’t, it is still always where I would start. Teachers have power in a classroom, but since our goal is to educate, not to dominate, we need to use that power wisely. If a student feels wronged, upset, or just views our relationship as a power struggle, I believe it less likely that the student will be able to learn.  

The low-card approach came to mind recently when I saw an article about a University of Michigan music professor named Bright Sheng. The professor showed one of his classes part of the 1965 movie “Othello,” which features a white actor, Laurence Olivier, in black make-up. Students in the class were shocked and offended. The professor issued a couple of apologies, which arguably were not fully insightful, and they were not well received by the students or the university. The professor was removed from teaching the class.  

I want to be clear that I applaud the students for pointing out that the film was offensive, and I think it is fair if they felt that the apologies by the professor did not show full understanding or insight. Even so, I’m wondering if removing him from teaching the class (which I see here as the nuclear option) was the right move. It appears that this was an isolated incident, and the professor did not seem defiant or unwilling to listen or change. If the goal is to educate Professor Sheng, wouldn’t a low-card approach, such as more dialogue or some targeted professional development, be more likely to do that? (By the way, the University of Michigan did come around to this point of view. Weeks after I drafted this article, over 700 faculty members and some students signed a letter protesting Sheng’s treatment and the university reinstated him.)

Here’s another, more local (and as a teacher in this state, closer to home) example where I think the low-card approach would have been better.  

Over the summer, the New Hampshire Legislature created the “Right to Freedom from Discrimination in Public Workplaces and Education” Act, sometimes referred to as the “divisive concepts” law. The state Department of Education summed up the provisions of the act that apply to teachers in an FAQ document saying: “In short, do not teach that a person or group is inherently oppressive, superior, inferior, racist, or sexist. Teach and treat all equally and without discrimination.” This description is very much in keeping with what I have done in the classroom, and I believe that is true for most (if not all) New Hampshire teachers.

The devil, not surprisingly, is in the details. As is true with just about any law, this one has some areas that are subject to interpretation. If, for example, a student during a discussion in class uses the phrase “white privilege,” do I need to say something to make sure that no student has taken away the message that white people are inherently superior, or believe that they are? Under the language of this law, I believe it is unclear, but if the answer is yes, then what exactly must I do or say at that moment to ensure compliance with the law? Also, what if I didn’t hear it when the student said “white privilege” or I got distracted by a comment from another student and forgot to say something? Further, what if everything I did that year and the decades that I’ve been teaching before, was fully compliant with the law, with the exception of this one small moment?  

The statute provides that, “Violation … by an educator shall be considered a violation of the educator code of conduct that justifies disciplinary sanction by the state board of education.” Note that “violation” is singular and that the state board can take away a teacher’s license. So, for a single transgression of this act, a teacher’s career can be brought to an end.  

Coupling this level of threat with the uncertainty of the obligations under this law is, in my view, the nuclear option, and I believe it works no better here than it does when addressing behaviors in my classroom or when used at the University of Michigan. In fact, rather than improve how we talk about discrimination, I expect that some teachers are likely to avoid discussing it at all (and perhaps understandably so, especially if it is a new teacher or a teacher who is the main bread winner for his/her family). “Freedom from discrimination” should not mean not talking about discrimination, but I believe that is the likely result here.  

Whether coming from the political left or the right, I would suggest that we should all consider using the low-card approach more. Let’s have more faith in honest dialogue and educating people, rather than dominating people, when there is conflict or disagreement. The nuclear option might feel like a win in the heat of the moment, but it does not lead to more communication, learning or understanding. 

That is the goal, right?   

Three-Minute Civics is an occasional column that seeks to help the people of New Hampshire navigate the issues and debates taking place at every level of government.

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