Teachers Reflect On Classroom Conversations During Trump's Term

Feb 5, 2021

For history teachers, Donald’s Trump presidency meant not only teaching history but living through it — responding to extraordinary events in real time and helping students understand their significance.

Chris Dier, a history teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, described his last four years in the classroom as both “incredibly interesting” and “chaotic.”

“I never thought I'd be teaching an impeachment, much less two,” Dier said.

Covering an insurrection at the nation’s capitol was also unexpected, but Dier made the most of it and used it as an opportunity to discuss similar events in Louisiana’s history.

“The attack on the Capitol wasn’t the first time white supremacists tried to overturn an election,” Dier said in a TikTok video he made for his students.

The video introduces students to the Battle of Liberty Place. In 1874, 5,000 members of the White League, a terrorist organization primarily made up of ex-Confederates, overthrew Louisiana’s reconstructionist government.

At the time, the state’s capitol was in New Orleans, where a monument to the group’s members stood until it was removed in 2017.

Dier is a proponent of “meeting students where they are,” and while he does his best to make lessons engaging, he’s also learned that being a good teacher means giving students the opportunity to learn from one another.

When Donald Trump was first elected, Dier was teaching at a high school in Chalmette, Louisiana. He said some of his students were happy and excited that day, while others were fighting back tears.

“For the first time, I think the students saw how politics can hurt people and how it can make them feel raw emotions,” Dier said. “That's something that I don't know if students really saw up close and personal.”

Dier said the student-led discussion he had that day was the most productive he’s ever had.

“When they saw someone that they were sitting next to, that they did group work with every day feel pain, I think it gave students a lot of pause as to at least question why that might be the case,” Dier said.

Donald Hess, a world history and African American studies teacher at McDonogh 35 Senior High School, had a similar experience.

During the early part of the Trump presidency, he was working at a New Orleans middle school. Some of his students were recent immigrants from Latin America and a few had parents who were detained or deported by the Trump administration.

Hess said their experiences helped open other students' eyes.

“They got to see that just because the leader of our country is telling you that these are bad people and that they are stealing from you in some way, shape or form, that's not necessarily the case,” Hess said.

Over the last four years, Hess said he prioritized addressing both misinformation and bias. He said he spent maybe “too much time” making sure his students, armed with then-President Trump’s talking points, were stating actual facts.

“They may think [the president’s administration] is a reliable source and typically it used to be, but in the last four years, it wasn't really the best place to get your information,” Hess said.

Hess pushed his students to read from different news sources and consider the way they presented stories differently. He also had them consider their own bias.

Both Hess and Dier describe their current students as highly engaged. As members of Generation Z, they don’t shy away from talking about politics.

They’re particularly good at connecting the present to the past, especially when it comes to the lasting power of white supremacy. For some students, the realization is depressing.

“I try to tell my kids to look for the optimistic views of life and how things may be playing out,” Hess said. “One of the things I taught them was that usually the animal cries the loudest right before it dies.”

Hess points to the country’s recent wave of racial reckoning. Over the last few months, there’s been greater accountability. People are losing their jobs for racist behavior and pro-Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol are facing consequences for their actions.

While the Trump administration is over, both teachers are committed to giving their students space to continue talking about current events.

For Dier, this meant setting time aside on Jan. 20 to talk about the inauguration of Joe Biden as the country’s 46th president. His 11th-grade AP U.S. history class met virtually over Zoom.

Most of the students kept their cameras off, but that didn’t mean they weren’t participating. Some unmuted their microphones and volunteered to speak. Others dropped their thoughts in the classroom’s chat. New Orleans Public Radio is omitting their names here to protect their privacy.

One student said she appreciated Biden’s calls for unity, but worried it wouldn’t be enough:

“After seeing a country so divided, you now promise to unite it. It’s kind of hard to believe.”

The class was subdued as other students expressed a similar sense of hesitancy.

“My fear as a person with pre-existing conditions is that the Republicans are going to come back strong in the midterms and come back strong four years later in the presidential election and erase all the progress that was made under Obama,” another student said.

Toward the end of the discussion, a lone student tried to focus on the positive:

“I am kind of hopeful that we have so many people in our generation who are becoming more aware of these issues.”