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The Indispensable Role of Social Studies

by Wesley E. Hedgepeth and Lawrence M. Paska

As we herald the start of a new year, we reflect on the well-being of our democracy. What is the well-being of our democracy? Our reflection on this question is rooted in knowing that the role of social studies teachers is more crucial than ever. Social studies teachers shape an informed, critical, and active citizenry. To ensure a robust and thriving democracy, we must advocate for the trust, support, and empowerment of our nation’s social studies teachers and their indispensable role in American education.

Many Americans are currently engaged in the same reflection; while our collective beliefs appear to be more widely divided than ever, we largely work from basic perceptions (and passions) of what should be best for the future of our country. It feels fair to say that all of us—regardless of identity—want what is best for our children. In the school setting, our children’s success is rooted in the health and vitality of our teachers who guide them every day. To set our children (and in turn our democracy) up for the best possible success, we carefully chose three areas—trust, support, empowerment—to champion social studies teachers.

Trust in social studies teachers is paramount. Social studies teachers play a fundamental role in fostering critical thinking, encouraging informed civil discourse, and nurturing an understanding of civic responsibilities. By trusting them, we acknowledge their expertise in navigating complex social and political concepts and their ability to present these concepts in ways that are impartial, engaging, and thought provoking. Trust means allowing social studies teachers to explore diverse perspectives and controversial topics, which are essential for a comprehensive understanding of individuals, communities, systems, and their interactions across time and place. Trust also means providing them with the space and flexibility to structure classroom learning in developmentally appropriate ways and to include social studies learning in every grade and every day, from early childhood through graduation.

Support for social studies teachers is support for the foundation of our democracy. This support should be tangible—fair wages, reasonable class sizes, and access to current resources and technology. It should also be intellectual support—encouraging ongoing professional development that enhances both their content knowledge and pedagogical prowess and providing platforms for sharing best practices. Social studies teachers need to be equipped with the tools to help students navigate our increasingly complex media landscape and to differentiate between reliable information and misinformation. This ability to differentiate is vital when fake news and polarizing ideologies threaten the very essence of democratic discourse.

Empowerment of social studies teachers is critical to invigorate our democratic institutions. Social studies teachers should be empowered—and given ample time—to develop curricula that allow students to examine vast human experiences through the generation of questions, collection and analysis of evidence from credible sources, consideration of multiple perspectives, and the application of social studies knowledge and disciplinary skills. The expertise needed to manage an effective classroom transcends the school house; teachers are highly skilled professionals, often with multiple advanced degrees. Empowering teachers also means involving them in policy-making processes that shape education. When social studies teachers are active participants in shaping educational policies, they can better align their teaching with the needs and realities of our society. 

Furthermore, empowerment is a bridge between trust and support. Our students see our teachers as role models in society, not just because they spend so much of their day with them. By empowering teachers visibly in front of our students and communities, we subsequently build our trust in them and show our support for them. When our children see the adults in their lives visibly trusting, supporting, and talking positively about their teachers, they are likely to thrive in school, especially as it is the one place they spend a majority of their day. When we empower teachers in this way, we give them a boost to empower our students and set them up for success. Our children see this behavior. (They also see the opposite: When we berate teachers, remove their support, and communicate mistrust in their practice, our children lose confidence in their own education.) Teachers must be empowered to model the active civic engagement we seek to nurture within our students, including learning to take care of the people and places in their communities, engaging with elected officials, participating in political campaigns, and perhaps eventually running for elected office.

The impact of social studies teachers on a civil society cannot be overstated. Our social studies teachers introduce young minds to the concepts of justice, equity, and civic responsibility. Through their guidance, students learn to value diverse perspectives, to engage in respectful and informed discourse, and to understand their role and responsibility in a democratic society. Social studies teachers are instrumental in creating an informed citizenry who are curious and empathetic, capable of critical thinking and making decisions that affect the common good. By fostering classroom environments where questioning and problem-solving are valued, social studies teachers contribute to the development of our future leaders who are ready to address even the most complex challenges of our world. 

Social studies teachers are the unsung heroes of democracy. They do more than teach; they inspire, challenge, and empower our future. Trusting, supporting, and empowering them is not just an investment in education; it’s an investment in the health of our democracy. If we continue down the path of distrust and disinvestment in our teachers, we risk undermining the very foundations of freedom and justice for all, a peril too grave to ignore. Our children are watching how we treat the adults we ask to take care of them and guide their learning every day. If we care about our children, we must care about our teachers. Let this be a time where we fully commit to these teachers, understanding that in their hands lies the future of our vibrant and thriving democracy.