Faculty Pub Night with Huchting and Stephenson: What You Missed

Today’s post was written by library student assistant Lia Chen.

Our third Faculty Pub Night of the 2021-22 academic year featured the work of Rebecca Stephenson, professor in the LMU School of Education and the director of the doctoral program in Educational Leadership for Social Justice, and Karen Huchting, professor in the LMU School of Education and the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence. Their recent publication “Teaching in Troubling Times: The Effects of Political Climate in Classrooms” was inspired by their students, who are educators in K-12 schools and higher education. When they heard stories from concerned teachers about their students’ fear and uncertainty revolving around the outcomes of the 2016 presidential election, Stephenson and Huchting were determined to research the impact political climate can have on both students and teachers.

One particular moving story that inspired their research was when they heard of a child arriving at school with a bag packed due to the possibility that there would be no home or parents to return to. The rhetoric and hate speech in the media during this troubling time provoked a mass fear of immigration police. In fact, in a survey of over 2,000 K-12 teachers that the Southern Poverty Law Center conducted during the 2016 presidential election, “over two-thirds (67 percent) of educators reported that young people in their schools- most often immigrants, children of immigrants, Muslims, African Americans and other students of color- had expressed concern about what might happen to them or their families after the election… they are scared, stressed and in need of reassurance and support from teachers” (source). With this background information of the stress students faced due to political uncertainty, Stephenson and Huchting began their research on student behaviors and its connections to political climate.

Focusing on Catholic schools across the United States, the research focused on the teachers’ roles in supporting students during shifts in political climate. Through the use of surveys and interviews, Stephenson and Huchting discovered teachers’ beliefs and students’ behaviors surrounding the 2016 presidential election. The survey method was based on a four-point scale, which was used to generate results with either a positive or negative opinion. Two major findings regarding teacher beliefs was that 91% of teachers viewed the political climate as negative; additionally, 73% of teachers believed the political climate affected students in the classroom. Stephenson and Huchting did emphasize the importance of context and that their findings were based on their particular sample demographic, which was a majority of white, female teachers. While the teachers’ beliefs revealed in this research are for a survey demographic of mainly white, female teachers, Stephenson and Huchting did mention that they could replicate their study with a different demographic sample to compare the findings.

Negative and positive student behaviors were also surveyed. 51.06% of participants believed worry and anxiety within students were higher than before January 2017; however, 15.22% of participants also believed that there was an increase in empathy among students. Gathering the data that a portion of teachers surveyed saw more empathy in the student community is a powerful finding because it shows that the importance of empathy is still being taught and emphasized with the older students, not just young ones. Additionally, the power of empathy is indescribable especially when a community is collectively going through a troubling time.

With the statistical findings from the survey and personal comments and reflections from the interviews, the major takeaway from Stephenson and Huchting’s research is that because teachers help to mitigate stressors in schools, they need additional resources to best support their students. Since a political environment can be a cause of trauma, implementing trauma-informed teaching as well as healing-informed teaching can be a possible way forward in the education field.

As a future educator myself, I believe these teaching approaches can build trust, relationships, and thus community in a classroom and school environment, which is vital to the success of students. Beyond the 2016 election, there are many causes to trauma that students and teachers can face such as racial injustice, political strife, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Although the triggers may change, trauma will always be a component to people’s lives, which is why it is so important for educators to teach with a trauma-informed approach.

Thank you, Lia, for sharing your reflections with us! For more information about upcoming Faculty Pub Nights, please visit the library’s events page.