Presidential debates not a good teaching moment | COMMENTARY

In the spring of 1963, Mrs. Cleopatra Goree, a high school English teacher in Birmingham, Alabama, stood in the front of her classroom near the chalkboard ready to write. As she did, she looked out into the room full of Black students, who sat with a nervous teenage energy, wondering if they would have to defy a teacher they loved.

They had been asked to join the Children’s Crusade, a march put together by James Bevel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to bring attention to the racist policies of the city and an attempt to fill the jails with young people who were tired of seeing the injustices many of their hard-working Black parents faced. Faced with the crossroad of choosing to continue her lesson as normal and keep her job or doing what she believed to be morally right, Mrs. Goree made a political statement. She sat her chalk down on her desk and walked over to the door, holding it open for her children to leave. Instead of admonishing her students for taking a stand to do what they thought was right, even in some cases against the wishes of their worried parents, she gave them a pathway to righteousness. She allowed their voices to be heard.


I’ve always wondered what I would have done in a moment like that. Faced with choosing between doing what I know is right and the possibility of sacrificing my career and my family’s stability, would I have the courage to encourage my students? For years, teacher training programs have taught teachers to be apolitical; to stay neutral so as to not offend one side or another. And on some level, I get it. One of the things that makes this country so great is that we can have a multitude of perspectives. We can disagree about tax cuts, about clean energy approaches, about the minimum wage.

But there are some things that are simply beyond discussion. When the value of human life is at stake; when the rights of American citizens are threatened to be stripped away; when people’s literal lives are on the line, there is no place for neutrality. By not taking a side, you are taking a side and saying that some lives, and rights don’t matter to me. That is political. There is no way around it.


The most recent debate between the two current presidential nominees has placed teachers in the position of Mrs. Goree. Many teachers across the country use the debates as a teaching tool, an opportunity to expose future voters to the issues at hand. They often require students to watch and keep track of the topics and use them as a springboard for discussion in class the next day. Traditionally, these debates have been a window into the future of our democracy, an opportunity for students to grapple with real issues and play “what if.” They often serve as the beginning these students' political consciousness.

But these are not normal times. What occurred at the most recent debate was not a teaching moment. It reflected the worst of what we are. And so, as I stand in front of my virtual chalkboard, trying to decide if I should try to wade through the monstrosity of childlike tantrums to lay bare the issues in order to have my students discuss them as I would in a normal election year, I have decided that like Mrs. Goree, I cannot do that in good conscience. And as much as it pains me, I know that the best choice, the political choice and the moral choice is to simply not engage in the chaos. I will not ask my students to watch these debates because they are not actual debates. There is no point-counterpoint. It is simply mayhem. A reflection of the worst that we can be.

There is nothing left to be decided in this election. We must choose between an exceptionally-flawed, but mostly well-meaning, career politician whose only real goal is to bring some sense of normalcy and stability back to the country, or one of the most vile human beings to ever hold political power in this country. The choices are not ideal, but there is only one option for any reasonable person. We must not feed into the chaos.

As Mrs. Goree did in Birmingham in 1963, we must take a stand and do what is right for our students, and that begins with voting the right way. Then on Nov. 4, when the dust begins to settle, we must strap on our most comfortable pair of shoes and get down to the real work of making our communities better from the ground level up. And yes, that is political. And we should all be OK with that, just as Mrs. Goree was.

Sedrick Smith ( is director of admissions and new teacher leader at Baltimore City College. He is also an adjunct professor at Loyola University Maryland and University of Maryland Baltimore County.