Development & Education

For a high school government teacher, the US political mess is educational gold

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Michael Gwaltney is 11th grade teacher at Oregon Episcipol School in Portland. He spends his days trying to explain how our government can be at such an impasse.

Credit:

Courtesy of Michael Gwaltney

If anyone has benefited from the US government shutdown and the debt ceiling crisis, it's Mike Gwaltney.

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Gwaltney teaches 11th grade government and history at Oregon Episcipol School in Portland. It's one thing to teach how a bill becomes law and why the US has 3 branches of government, he says. But it's much more lively to talk about how we should run our democracy: "One of the kids said to me the other day, don't we have 230 years practice at this?"

For Gwaltney, the teachable moment in the recent crisis is about how people cooperate, "So I ask the students to think about, 'where do you see yourself really committed to a particular position and do you have experience trying to compromise?'"

In a school where about a fifth of the students come with an eastern and southern Asia immigrant background, Gwaltney says it's a particularly interesting discussion. Many students didn't grow up in a democracy and they are critical of the hard stance many politicians took on the budget deal.

Gwaltney says, "They think this is the world's big democracy. We seem to be very effective in many ways. Why can't we do something as simple as deciding how to pay our bills?"

The recent political impasse may have shown the dysfunctional side of American democracy, but, hey, for Gwaltney's class at least, it's a learning experience.