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What is the Role of Teachers in Today’s Tumultuous World?

To celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week (May 6-12), we’ve invited Immediate NCSS Past President Peggy Jackson to distill the wisdom of a career in education into a short essay. Peggy is one of five teachers to be inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame on June 22, 2018, in Emporia, Kansas. As the New Mexico State Teacher of the Year (2010), she has been a tireless advocate for social studies with elected leaders in New Mexico’s state legislature, as well as on Capitol Hill. A longtime education leader, she has served in various leadership roles at NCSS, the New Mexico State Council for the Social Studies (NMCSS), and other education groups at the local, state, and national levels. Peggy writes…

The role of a teacher in today’s world is to give students the opportunity to discuss the events in a format that allows them to express their opinion backed by facts. A Socratic Seminar is one format that gives students a chance to learn to disagree agreeably. It is sometimes very hard for a teacher to refrain, in the classroom, from giving his or her opinion on a controversial issue, but guiding students to develop their own thoughtful opinions is our essential task. A true seminar allows students to air their ideas. I liked to designate a specific time for this type of discussion, and I got students away from their desks, placing them in a circle. Simple rules prevailed: No talking when someone else is taking. Don’t interrupt another speaker. Come to class prepared. Preparation means having a 3x5-inch index card containing enough information to support one’s position. A student without a card could sit in the discussion circle, but the student could not speak—only observe. Preparation could also mean holding a brief, informal one-on-one mock debate with a classmate. Topics for study and discussion today might include: “Should the students at Parkland High School, where 19 of their classmates had died in a mass shooting, have walked out in protest advocating for gun control?” “Should attendance rules be suspended under unusual circumstances such as this?”

In a social studies classroom, students are used to examining facts of history or the workings of government. Getting them to discuss these subjects in a format designed for learning must prevail. A classroom should model thoughtful deliberation, not tumult and vindictiveness. For example, in one of my classes, students could move around after roll was taken. Talking quietly was permitted. Then, I would offer an item to focus on, such as a political cartoon, to serve as a conversation starter and to bring the class together. Placing an interesting article or poster on the wall could also be used to spur interest. Students were required to read the item, write notes, engage in a discussion, and then use the whole experience as a basis for composing a full essay on a controversial event, whether current or from the past. The essay was written in class. In short, the classroom environment had to be structured, but some noise and movement was expected. This process modeled the opposite of endless argumentation. The role of a teacher in today’s tumultuous world is to maintain a classroom where students are challenged to think critically, express their opinions clearly, and listen with respect to opinions different from their own.

In addition to teaching students, we can share what we’ve learned with other teachers, and strive to recognize and support the good efforts of our colleagues. There are two high points in my career in this regard. One would be in 2010, when my principal, Wayne Marshall, came and pulled me out of the classroom to tell me that I had been selected as the New Mexico Teacher of the Year. This came on a day when I really needed validation. I had an afternoon class that was noisy and not motivated. No matter what I did, they seemed uninterested. When the award was announced, this class responded unbelievably. There was clapping and shouts of “Way to go Ms. J!” It was the encouragement I needed.

Another high point was when NCSS President Steve Armstrong called me to say I had won the election for NCSS vice president. I had run on petition, as my name did not appear on the ballot. The experience reminded me that a door is never closed. These moments come back to me often, and I find myself wishing I could have a class of high school seniors again. I cried when I packed up my personal belongings in my classroom. I knew it was time for me to retire, but the sadness overwhelmed me. I have worked hard to stay involved as a voice for classroom social studies teachers, both in my state and nationally as President of NCSS.

As teachers, we should set an example of being fully engaged in civic life. I started early, protesting in college in the early 60’s during the civil rights movement. I shared that personal encounter with history every year as I taught about Martin Luther King Jr.’s advocacy of civil disobedience for a just cause. I was proud to stand on stage with Congressman and civil rights veteran John Lewis at the 96th NCSS Annual Conference in 2016. I believe we as teachers are not a breed to be silenced.

On any day, I’m happy to tell a new prospective NCSS member that the value of our organization the opportunity to grow as a professional as well as is strength in numbers. “Join NCSS!” is my mantra. In NCSS publications, in the blogs, in Connected discussions, and at state, regional, and national meetings, you will discover ideas, questions, and even controversies, that can be turned into a classroom lesson. NCSS provides a vehicle for professional experiences unlike any other. Social Education, Middle Level Learning, and Social studies and the Young Learner gives teachers how-to suggestions and lesson plans that are peer reviewed. Here, new teachers can find a gold mine of ideas—and new comrades with which to share them.

Finally, my encouragement to social studies teachers everywhere would be that what they do is worth it. Students hear our words and see the importance of our work in spite of the sometimes unruly behavior. The efficacy of voting and the power of participatory democracy must be integrated into lessons at every grade level and raised as a topic every year. Elementary students can vote on issues appropriate to their age and experience, and they should! With middle schoolers, studying a news article and sorting fact from opinion is an invaluable activity. In high school, be quick to take a simple question from a student and expand the ensuing class discussion to include current events. Have students indicate their opinion on a controversial issue by walking to a corner of the room and “standing” for a particular viewpoint under signs like “pro” and “con.” Then, as they learn more about an issue, sample opinions again by having students stand up once more, moving to the same or to a different “position” if desired. Change the details of the issue slightly (give a different example or perspective), and invite students again to indicate their position. Follow that with small group discussions, whole-class discussion, or a more formal debate. Being a social studies teacher is exciting! Be prepared by joining with your colleagues and enjoy it!


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