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Frustrated by interruptions from President Donald Trump at the first presidential debate, an exasperated former Vice President Joe Biden blurted, “Would you shut up, man?” Biden sounded like a bad substitute teacher who was being overrun by a belligerent child.
During that exchange, I turned to my 9-year-old son, who was sitting next to me, and asked him to leave the room. I’d hoped by watching the candidates discuss government, leadership and the most important issues facing our world, he would learn something positive. But it was no teaching moment. Instead, bad teaching was on full display.
Our elected officials may not see themselves as teaching professionals, but that is exactly what they are. They model behavior with their words, deeds and policies. When they promote laws and regulations based on science, whether it’s following public health recommendations about masks or pushing for legislation that would take climate change seriously and shrink our carbon footprint, children memorizing their periodic tables understand that what they’re learning matters. When our officials promote free and fair elections and demonstrate how power is passed on peacefully in a democracy, children witness the pages of their social studies textbooks come to life. And when they act out our country’s core values of equality and unity by ensuring every American is treated with fairness and justice, children learn not only that the constitution matters, but also that they are valued and have a place here.
We should elect a president who could actually lead a classroom.
Our president couldn’t manage any of this.
The debate moderator, Fox New anchor Chris Wallace, asked Trump if he is willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups — a question that any decent person should be able to answer. The president evaded the question, lumping organized hate groups with “Antifa and the left,” as if our country doesn’t have a long, sordid history with white supremacists using physical violence and policy to suppress anyone who doesn’t identify as white. Trump went on to say, “This isn’t a right-wing problem, it’s a left-wing problem.”
Trump’s equivocation around denouncing racism at the first presidential debate makes clear he could never be a teacher. Rather, Trump was an obnoxious child — unruly, deceitful, and ignorant of basic concepts like good and bad, and right and wrong. He was the kid who, when caught with his hands in the cookie jar, blames his sibling.
Watching him convinced me that we should elect a president who could actually lead a classroom.
Teachers have a responsibility to surface and counter immoral and unethical actions, not facilitate them. I often hear that teachers are not supposed to bring politics into the classroom. But racism isn’t a partisan talking point. Educators have a professional obligation to respond as quickly and clearly to racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia as they do to a fight on the school yard. Presidents must also respond bigotry.
But his persistence in facilitating racism isn’t the only reason Trump should not be allowed to teach anyone’s child, much less lead our nation. Trump denies basic facts and science. He has long been a climate change denier, blaming the unprecedented and out-of-control Western wild fires on messy forest floors. Trump refuses to recognize that the much bigger mess is the fossil fuels we keep pouring into the atmosphere; his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord works against what we teach preschoolers: Clean up after yourself and work with others.
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After the debate, we learned that Trump contracted Covid-19, and that he may have infected other people within his own circle, breaking another maxim of early education: Follow directions. In this case, he ignored the scientists around him who have insisted that mask-wearing saves lives, putting himself and dozens of other people in danger.
Trump is not an educator, because he clearly doesn’t care about education. Since schools started to close in March, Congress has had months to give states the resources they need to take necessary steps to reopen safely. But instead of encouraging lawmakers to overcome their differences for the sake of the children in his charge, Trump announced last week that he would wait until after the election to negotiate a spending bill. Although he has since backpedaled, he showed he is willing to hold children, parents and educators hostage.
Biden’s “shut up” response isn’t encouraging either. Telling a troublemaker to shut up displays a lack of classroom management — and maybe leadership — skills. I often hear people say that Biden needs to go down to Trump’s level, take off the gloves, and go tit for tat. Well, we witnessed what that produces — immature and pointless name-calling. It had all the intellectual vigor and thoughtful maturity of a reality show brawl. We all deserve more.
Politicians must understand that children are watching them. When they run for president they are taking on a massive classroom, with massive responsibilities. When you go to vote next month, think about the choice this way: Who do you want teaching your child?
This story about the first presidential debate was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.