Teachers of the Year warn against Donald Trump

From left to right, Niskayuna family Chris, Dick, Beth, Elaine and Richard Ognibene. Dick and Elaine are the parents of Beth, Chris and Richard; Chris is the social studies department head at Schenectady High School and Richard is a science teacher at Fairport High School near Rochester and the 2008 New York Teacher of the Year.From left to right, Niskayuna family Chris, Dick, Beth, Elaine and Richard Ognibene. Dick and Elaine are the parents of Beth, Chris and Richard; Chris is the social studies department head at Schenectady High School and Richard is a science teacher at Fairport High School near Rochester and the 2008 New York Teacher of the Year.

By Zachary Matson

— Niskayuna native and 2008 New York Teacher of the Year Richard Ognibene didn’t parse words in a letter he helped pen about this year’s presidential election – taking aim at one candidate in particular.

The letter – signed by 10 state teachers of the year from across the country – describes Donald Trump as a “danger to our society,” arguing his behavior and comments this election “goes against everything we teach the children in our care.”

“We are teachers. We are supposed to remain politically neutral. For valid reasons, we don’t want to offend our students, colleagues or community members,” Ognibene and the other teachers wrote in the public letter published this month. “But there are times when a moral imperative outweighs traditional social norms. There are times when silence is the voice of complicity. This year’s presidential election is one such time.”

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With his language about minority groups, his proposal to ban Muslims from the country and his 2005 comments about getting away with groping and kissing women, Trump has crossed a line that previous candidates have not crossed, said Ognibene, who teaches science at Fairport High School near Rochester.

The letter cites an 8-year-old girl who asked her teacher Justin Minkel if he was afraid of Trump. The Mexican-American girl told her teacher she was “very afraid of him.” A former student of Ognibene’s, an Indian-American woman, told him that her 9-year-old daughter asked her if they would “have to live on the other side of the wall” if Trump was elected president.

“I think we have to let our kids know that the behavior we are seeing is not normally what one sees in a presidential election,” he said in phone interview last week. “The promise of America and the promise of public schools is that we welcome everyone and accept diversity in all its beautiful forms, and I felt in this election at least one of the candidates has pushed away in that belief.”

His younger brother Chris Ognibene is the social studies department head at Schenectady High School. Chris Ognibene largely agrees with his brother’s assessment of the election, with the added corollary that social studies teachers are in the critical position of objectively moderating class political discussions.

“While I’m not critical of ideology or policy, I’m critical of demagoguery, racism, hate speech, inciting violence … that’s the line for me,” Chris Ognibene said. “Those are things that humans should not be doing to other humans.”

He said it’s important that social studies helps provide students with historical and political context in understanding today’s election. How do Trump’s views compare to other Republicans? How do other Republicans respond to some of Trump’s comments and proposals? After Trump accused an Indiana-born judge of bias because of his “Mexican heritage,” Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said that was “the textbook definition of a racist statement,” for example.

But teachers still must walk a fine line in the classroom, particularly social studies teachers.

“It is delicate, because you don’t want to force people away from one view,” Chris Ognibene said.

Anne Sharpe, a Schenectady High School social studies teacher, said there is plenty her students can talk about without needing to know where she stands politically.

“I always try to not express how I feel and serve as a moderator and facilitator,” said Sharpe, who teaches government classes this year. “There’s so much to talk about, so much going on, they don’t need to know my personal opinion. There’s just so much to discuss.”

And Richard Ognibene also drew a distinction between what a teacher says in his or her class and how they express views publicly.

“To be clear, this is not about teachers speaking to students about their particular preferences. This is about educators as a group voting in a way that benefits their kids and engages the community,” he said.

But the letter published in the Washington Post earlier this month leaves little room to wonder what those teachers think of Trump or who they intend to support next month.

“He has cloaked hatred and discrimination, the most un-American values, in a false patriotism,” they wrote of Trump. “His vision of America is not a unified country based on common values; rather it is a separate and unequal country based on race, gender, ethnicity and religion. We believe the threat posed by Mr. Trump is too glaring to ignore.”

Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, zmatson@dailygazette.net or@zacharydmatson on Twitter.