Behind the Biases

Teachers share what it is like to teach without bias

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Leah Schroeder

Science teacher Paul Hage points to his Smartboard in the middle of a lecture. Hage feels that topics in the subject that he teaches, specifically in his biology classes, have become increasingly relevant in recent years during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think that science can be really relevant. Different people might have different opinions [about science],” Hage said.

American politics have rarely been as contentious as they are today; the mere mention of a political sway can sound alarms for many. However, for some individuals, the restrictions surrounding the discussion of political opinions are heavier. Teachers have always had to refrain from sharing their biases, but in a time of political turmoil, withholding their opinions can become more difficult. 

Science teacher Paul Hage feels that the longer he has been teaching, the easier it has become to remain unbiased.

“Teachers have opinions about what they’re talking about, [but] our opinions in a lot of cases aren’t really supposed to be out there,” Hage said. “It’s a natural human instinct to give your opinion. It’s human nature to want to tell people what you think. After years of teaching, you become used to [remaining unbiased] a little bit.”

Hage teaches Biology and Environmental science classes, both of which cover several topics that have become increasingly politicized in recent years, from mRNA to climate change.

“The point of the class is to teach science and leave it up to the students to figure out how they would deal with it,” Hage said. “I’m still trying not to voice opinions that might influence students. One difference this year is we do talk about viruses in Biology, and so I feel worried that I might voice an opinion that has become so charged, and it might offend someone.”

Regardless of the topics he may be teaching, Hage feels that, above all, having an unbiased teacher is important for a student’s development.

“It’s not really my job to exert [my opinion]. If I do have an influence on a student, I don’t want to be the person who shapes their narrative. In some cases, if I were to be particularly biased, it would cause a student to alter how they would normally think. There are a lot of students that are forming their identity. I have had teachers that have shown bias, and I’ve recognized it. So, I try my best not to influence them,” Hage said.

Social studies teacher Jeffery Chazen agrees that remaining unbiased has become more difficult in recent years. Chazen teaches both on-level and Advanced Placement (AP) Government and History of St. Louis and has had to remove several topics from his courses in the past 10 years due to the controversial political climate. 

“Things are a lot more contentious in our society . Some students and some parents are way more hypersensitive than others. I think Trump has put a giant magnifying glass on things,” Chazen said. “In a way, that’s good, because now more people are paying attention to politics. But if we have more extremist views, I think that can be kind of concerning.”

In his Government class, Chazen covers topics that have certain political beliefs tied to them. Some examples of these topics are liberal and conservative ideologies, religious topics, the right of free speech, criminal rights issues and branches of government.

“I have to bite my tongue a little harder sometimes than others. If I feel like I’m promoting one side more than the other, then I just try to make sure that I say, ‘let’s take a look at it from this view.’ It can be difficult at times, depending on what we’re talking about,” Chazen said. 

In order to remain unbiased while discussing political topics, Chazen says that he is careful about what he says and plans out lessons and discussions carefully.

“The good thing is that the more active your classes are as far as participating, you don’t have to say very much. All you have to do is kind of referee the sides. What I love about teaching is that there will be times where I don’t say one word, I’m just calling on students. They’re doing the back and forth, which is the ideal situation. It happens more often than people would think. I have to stir the pot a little bit, but a lot of times they do their own talking and sort of going back and forth. All I have to do is really referee this discussion,” Chazen said.

Chazen refuses to share his political beliefs with his class in order to allow them to form their own political identities, which he believes is the goal of the class. 

“I don’t want [students] to know what I feel, because I don’t want them to either help or hurt their progress in [developing their own political identities]. What I try to do is just push my students to see the other side, so that when they do make up their mind, they’ve had a fair look at everything and then have made their decision,” Chazen said. “I feel like I would hurt that process if I came out and said what I feel because then I feel like I’d be influencing them one way or another. I don’t think that’s my job. I don’t think a teacher should be telling a student how to think or what to think. I think that’s their choice.”

Social Studies teacher Kristen Collins faces similar challenges to both Hage and Chazen while teaching her on-level and AP World History classes, as well as her Challenges to Democracy course. Collins also has opinions about what she teaches, and even covers the topic of point of view in her World History courses. Collins encourages her students to avoid the word “bias” in their writings for the class because of the connotations that surround the word. 

“I have to be real careful about some of the stuff that I teach. I have to think about how I present the topics that I teach,” Collins said. “There’s always been people that have challenged what I’ve taught. [Topics] can be controversial, and it’s okay to have hard conversations.”

Collins has found remaining unbiased has proved more difficult with her Challenges to Democracy course. Collins is the only teacher who teaches this course in the district, meaning that she has the ability to choose the topics that she covers. Despite the fact that Collins is intentional to choose topics that are not too politicized, she says that she still covers many topics with political connotations. 

“I always tell my students that I’m going to be an equal opportunity criticizer of U.S. foreign policy when we failed. I don’t care who the president was. If it was a Democrat or Republican, we’re going to look at it in terms of what we did and why we did or did not respond,” Collins said.

Collins has taught for 25 years and feels that students should be taught to take part in civilized debates, rather than to avoid controversial issues. However, she feels that in recent years, this has become more difficult due to various political issues.

“I think that we need to teach young people how to have hard conversations [and] how to disagree with each other in a civil fashion, because that’s something that was common when I was a student. We would have very heated debates, but oftentimes, they were some of my best friends that I disagreed with. We didn’t hate each other. We had different perspectives,” Collins said. “As teachers, we fear having hard conversations with our kids. If we don’t model those hard conversations with our students, then how are young people going to learn how to have civil discourse with each other? It’s a double-edged sword, because if I do have those hard conversations that I put myself at risk that I’m going to have parents or students come after me, but then if I don’t, then we don’t learn how to do it.”

As both a mother of her 9-year-old daughter, and as a teacher, Collins tries to remain neutral when discussing politics. She hopes to encourage her child and her students to make their own conclusions and form their own political ideologies. 

“As a mother, my daughter asks me questions about things that are happening in the world. She asks questions, and I still try to explain to my child both perspectives so that she can come to her own conclusion,” Collins said. “I think it’s important for [students] to draw [their] own conclusions. I want my kids to not just look at things as black and white, but really examine why we do things the way that we do. Trying to look at things from multiple perspectives is really important. I’ve learned over the course of teaching for a really long time that for my kids, it is really important for me to be neutral. I think that’s a good thing to always be absorbing new information and to have the ability to allow your ideology to evolve. Our job needs to be to present the information to our kids and let them make the hard choices.”