Why Didn't Civics Education Prevent a President Trump?

Watching the election returns roll in November 8th, I was in shock along with most other Americans. How could Americans have chosen such a buffoon, a man who knows nothing about governance, lies 71% of the time, and insists only he can fix things? Over and over, he displayed his ignorance of how our government works. He insisted that Hillary Clinton could have single-handedly prevented him from avoiding taxes by fixing the laws. He insisted that he would jail his opponent. He was going to build a border wall and make another sovereign nation pay. He praised the most brutal dictators and promised to undermine our international agreements.

Part of the fault lies with educators, I am sorry to say. As a former social studies teacher, I realized that the quality of our instruction was not what it needed to be. Social studies classes often lacked the richness and vitality of other disciplines, focusing on memorization, trivia and battles to the exclusion of key concepts. Honestly, some of my colleagues could not have articulated the key concepts their students needed to learn.

And as an administrator, I know the fault lies with us.

Social studies teachers are a dime a dozen. The American Association for Employment in Education keeps data on surpluses and shortages of teachers in each field. There is a greater surplus of social studies teachers than any others -- including elementary teachers. Some of you are wondering if that means principals have such a pool to choose from that they would be hiring the best of the best. I'm about to disappoint you.

Because teachers in this area are so prolific, principals (especially at smaller high schools) needing to fill so many extra-curricular positions every year feel safe tying these openings to coaching responsibilities. It's not at all unusual to see social studies posted with a basketball or football coaching requirement. Thirty years ago, that topic was the focus of my masters thesis. And it hasn't changed. So with a hundred applicants, ten of them might be exceptionally well qualified. But perhaps none of those can fill the coaching need, so none are even interviewed.

This might be a good place to mention how I was chosen. My husband and I were interviewed jointly for two social studies positions. He was an accomplished track and field coach and hired to teach and coach three seasons of sports. I could also teach Spanish. At our interview, there was an in-depth discussion of coaching and team talents. I was there but not asked a single question until near the end, when the Athletic Director turned to me and asked, "What do you think about hats?"

I like to think I was a pretty good teacher. But that certainly wasn't a factor in how I got my first social studies teaching job.

In all of my years in public schools -- both as an administrator and a teacher, but also as a student and parent -- I was aware of just two social studies teachers who were hired without coaching expectations. One of those was me, but I only got the position because I could also teach Spanish and therefore "fit the niche". The other was an outstanding teacher I hired in spite of the need to fill coaching spots.

That leaves every other social studies teacher -- those I had in high school, that my kids had, and that I worked with -- hired to coach, not especially to teach.

The consequences of teachers moonlighting as coaches I've discussed elsewhere in this blog: Sports: The Taboo Topic in High School Reform and Should Teachers Coach Too? One is the very public nature of coaching versus the private nature of teaching. With two demanding jobs, something has to give and it's usually the teaching. Cutting corners and reducing workload are typical coping strategies for coaching teachers. So instruction suffers. And we get a President Trump.

But there's another feature of coaches that skews social studies instruction. Coaches tend to be more politically conservative than other teachers, something I found in my thesis research over and over again. And I certainly saw this directly. I was often the only liberal in the social studies department, even asked to speak in another teacher's government class as the token liberal viewpoint.

We need a revitalized civics education. There are outstanding resources and national social studies teaching organizations that know just how to accomplish this. But it begins with hiring. We need to divorce social studies positions from coaching and give them the importance they merit.


  1. Yes!!! Speaking as an adult, and as a former high school student (many years ago), some of the most useless teachers I ever had in my public education were also coaches. And I never made the connection that they were social studies teachers. Yes. All of them. The football coach, the baseball coach, the volleyball coach, teaching uninspired, boring, rote, by-the-book social studies. I don't recall learning anything. I was an honor student and these were the "cake" required classes that I couldn't get out of. We didn't have an honors option in my high school for social studies (only for English and math).


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