Is Teacher Neutrality on “Controversial” Topics Hazardous?


Teacher NeutralityAmong the challenges of teaching controversial topics —issues that stir personal and powerful discussion— are negotiating the teacher’s relationship to the topic, and how much to disclose about your relationship to the issue.

“When I’m teaching about, for example, the climate crisis, I don’t want students to think I’m neutral,” notes Bill Bigelow, who taught social studies for 30 years in Portland, Ore., and is now curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and codirector of the Zinn Education Project. Bigelow was interviewed for the article, “The Class Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest: Teaching ‘Controversial’ Topics in Social Studies,” which appears in ASCD’s February Education Update newsletter.

In an outtake from his interview, Bigelow describes the nuanced role of teachers leading lessons on politicized issues.

“I want them to know I care about it and am in the world trying to do things about it. I want to model social and environmental responsibility,” says Bigelow. “On the other hand,” he adds, “I never want my points of view to suck the air out of the classroom. I want kids to be able to interrogate all kinds of different points of view. That’s a balancing act.”

How do you model engaged citizenship without infringing on students’ opportunities to form their own understandings and take a stance on divisive issues? What do you disclose about your relationship to “controversial” topics?