See more of the story

Travis Rother sometimes gives his Chanhassen High School students a glimpse of his left-of-center political views, especially if a comment might help trigger an important discussion.

But he and other teachers said it makes a big difference whether it's a ninth-grade English class or a tightly knit senior Advanced Placement seminar.

"There are those rare instances where things come up and it feels right in the four walls of your classroom and the environment you've crafted," he said. "I'm extremely comfortable that [my students] are not going to decide 'I'm a Democrat because Mr. Rother's a Democrat.'"

It's a delicate balancing act for teachers: how to encourage lively discussions with a captive, impressionable audience without pushing their own personal views on the students.

The issue is front and center as the nation girds for a fractious presidential campaign season and, closer to home, as the Anoka-Hennepin school board looks at adopting a policy that would bar teachers from pushing their opinions when controversial issues come up in class.

Rother's principal, Tim Dorway, calls on a past as a student journalism adviser to draw the distinction between sharing opinions and foisting them on students.

"I see the line as telling someone what they need to do or how they should do it, versus how you feel about something," he said. The key is not telling students what to think, but giving them more to think about, he said.

The state Board of Teaching's Code of Ethics for Minnesota Teachers doesn't explicitly address the issue, but it does bar using professional relationships for personal gain, or deliberately suppressing or distorting subject matter.

And several teachers and administrators said that resisting the urge to tell students what to think is already a dearly held professional ethic.

Controversial issues policy

The Anoka-Hennepin district's current neutrality policy on issues of sexual orientation, which is at the center of a lawsuit against the district, is being reconsidered in favor of a new policy that does not mention sexual orientation. Rather, it says educational professionals "shall not advocate personal beliefs or opinions regarding controversial topics in the course of their professional duties."

Although Anoka-Hennepin is the only local district to have a sexual orientation curriculum policy, others -- including Minneapolis, Forest Lake, Wayzata, Centennial and Rosemount -- have policies similar to the one proposed, addressing controversial topics in classes.

In some cases, though, teachers say that sharing their own views can help students put lessons into a historical or personal perspective.

In his U.S. history and government classes, there are many issues Eden Prairie High School teacher Steve Cwodzinski doesn't try to present in a balanced way: The Holocaust, for example, or the civil rights and women's movements.

"I think part of my job is to make people more accepting and understanding of the global world we live in," he said. "If that's my job and that's what they hired me to do, how can I be presenting both sides of the issue on controversial issues?"

Other issues are thornier -- abortion, the death penalty, school prayer, all seem to have legitimate arguments on both sides, he said.

He also has students seat themselves in a political spectrum: liberals on the left, conservatives on the right. Cwodzinski said his seating arrangement has garnered about one complaint a year, that he knows of. He still does it, though.

"It's forcing kids to take a position," he said. "How could that possibly be wrong?"

Students forge own paths

At Glencoe-Silver Lake High School, as Tom Schoper works to shape his ninth-grade civics students into future civic leaders across the political spectrum. He doesn't hide his political affiliations; a simple Google search of either his name or "MN GOP teacher" brings up articles about his work to establish an education caucus in the Minnesota Republican Party.

But Schoper said he is clear that students are to forge their own paths. He's required seniors to attend a presidential caucus -- any party -- for public service hours. He's had 50 students go through the Minnesota high school page program at the state Legislature. He invites every gubernatorial candidate to visit his class. During the last cycle, 10 out of 15 candidates did so, including Mark Dayton.

"You don't get elected governor without sitting in my classroom," Schoper joked. Students "know which side of the fence I'm on, but my side of the fence also is to give them the opportunity to express their viewpoints. ... I hear their views and it's up to them to put them into action."

Many teachers say that some space needs to be left in any policy for trust in teachers' professional judgment.

Still, teachers' union president Tom Dooher of Education Minnesota said that especially in an environment when teachers are under fire for their pay and their politics, putting an ethical value into writing sends a message to the public.

The rule conveys that "we are making sure your students ... are going to be safe, and will have a learning environment that fosters their own academic skills," Dooher said, adding that he can't remember the union ever representing a teacher who was disciplined for imposing his or her ideals on students.

Chanhassen's Dorway described circumstances when it's especially rash to push a topic; he always issues reminders to use extra discretion during election season. But year-round, he said, he believes in the First Amendment. The board sets district policy, he said. "That's a broad prerogative. I am always sensitive to limiting responsible and educated debate because I believe that debate and discussion is what made our country what it is today."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409