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When Controversial Issues Arise in Classrooms, Should Opinions Be Taught?

In Berkeley’s monotony of progressive-leaning outlooks, finding differing political beliefs can be challenging. Not only is this true in a social setting, but in an educational one as well.

In Berkeley’s monotony of progressive-leaning outlooks, finding differing political beliefs can be challenging. Not only is this true in a social setting, but in an educational one as well. During this political era, many teachers can’t help but bring up current events in class. When controversial issues come up, should teachers share their own opinions while educating their classes?

Berkeley International High School (BIHS) senior Minh Khai Spencer said, “I don’t really mind teachers teaching their opinions, but sometimes it can be frustrating when they make people feel bad for not agreeing with them, and I think that’s when they take it too far.” Spencer recognized that the situation could feel vastly different for various students. “I don’t mind it as much, just because a lot of the time I agree with my teachers, so it doesn’t feel as isolating. But I can see [that] if I didn’t agree with them, it would be really uncomfortable.”

Berkeley High School’s (BHS) Latin teacher, John Piazza, said students should not be led to believe that their teacher’s view is the right view, and that the distinction between truth and opinion is an important one. Even when presenting facts, it is easy for individual opinions to be woven into the context. 

“I don’t think it’s possible to teach something in a completely neutral or objective way, and pretending to do so is a bit disingenuous or even misleading. Even our choice of what information to emphasize, and how and when we teach it in our curriculum, is quite personal and subjective,” said Piazza.

While some teachers stray away from discussions like these in class, controversial subjects come up often for others. Spencer said, “Most of my teachers sort of just bring up topics, and you can kind of get a sense of what their thoughts are on the issue even before it’s been discussed in class.” 

Piazza addressed that there are many different perspectives in class regarding political events and prevalent issues, and as a Latin teacher, he must respect all of them. “Some students really want to get into difficult issues … Some students just want to be heard. Some students want to provoke others by taking a devil’s advocate position. And some students don’t want every class to be about a controversial issue or event. I try to remember that all of these perspectives exist in my class,” he said. 

While teachers have their own standards and norms when it comes to teaching opinions in class, there are formal conventions they are required to follow that aim to help them navigate addressing biases in a classroom environment. The Berkeley Unified School District Board Policy states, “The teacher may not use his/her position to forward his/her own historical, religious, political, economic, or social bias.” However, there are exceptions: “The teacher may express a personal opinion if he/she identifies it as such and does not express the opinion for purpose of persuading students to his/her point of view.” Additionally, the policy says, “The teacher shall not suppress any student’s view on the issue as long as its expression is not malicious or abusive to others.”

Zakiya Zazaboi teaches ethnic studies in Universal Ninth (U9) Grade. As a teacher of a more opinion-based class, Zazaboi maintains a classroom environment where students feel comfortable talking about influential issues, while also listening to differing opinions. She ensures that all students feel comfortable with every comment that is made, while still allowing the commenter to fully address their point and speak their mind. It’s about maintaining a delicate balance. 

When differing views among peers come up in class, that’s one thing. However, it’s another when a teacher inserts their opinion. Zazaboi said that by teaching an opinion to a class, students can feel uncomfortable arguing with a figure of authority. 

Zazaboi added that students can often adopt a herd mentality pattern, where they don’t feel comfortable disagreeing with teachers and students in class because they don’t want to be thought of as an outlier. “Students want to be loved and supported, and in an attempt to impress their teachers, they may just follow in line with others’ opinions, even if they don’t align with their own,” said Zazaboi.

By not teaching their opinions, teachers can acknowledge each side of a story and allow students to assess the situation more critically from an unbiased perspective, Zazaboi said. This gives students the opportunity to formulate their own opinions.

As a student, Spencer said, “I think my ideal environment regarding controversial issues would be if teachers explicitly said, before they share their opinion, that it’s okay if we disagree with them and it’s okay if we see things differently.” She concluded, “Just setting the tone for topics that are controversial is really important.”