Finally, I think I would go back to the history and tell the stories, because the historical instances of impeachment are fascinating. They’re vastly different, the circumstances surrounding each impeachment—but at the end of the day, if nothing else, focus on the procedure and focus on the vocabulary. Because they're hearing so many words right now: bribery, treason, impeachment. So few people knowing what impeachment really means. So focusing on the vocabulary allows students to grapple with this complex language of the social studies and of the law and then be better positioned to make sense of the headlines that they're reading.
GS: How can teachers communicate the goals of teaching impeachment to students and their parents?
EH: So I am a big advocate of communicating with parents about your desire to teach controversial issues as a social studies teacher, including impeachment. When I was a young social studies teacher in Florida, I was teaching controversial issues in a community that was very politically different from the community in which I was raised. So I communicated with the principal and the administration. I told them what I was going to do and why and how I planned to go about it. And then I communicated with the parents, and we talked about it at parent-teacher night. I sent home letters: “Hey, I just want you to know that we're going to be talking about this in class. Here are my goals. Here's why I think it's important to talk about these issues with your students. And here's what you can count on me to do and not to do." And I got such support just from that little bit of open communication—support from parents. We all agreed that this was important for their students and they trusted me because I told them I was doing it. I told them that I had no plans whatsoever to try to influence what their students thought. I just wanted to help them think.
GS: Could you provide advice to teachers who may hesitate to discuss impeachment because they are questioning the appropriateness of the content—for example, is it or is it not standards based?
EH: I would argue that impeachment is in the standards, whether in the benchmarks or in the clarifying notes on them. It might not be explicitly stated, but you're going to find it in the constitutional principles of American government. It's relevant to separation of powers. It's absolutely a part of checks and balances. Any civics or government teacher has to teach separation of powers, has to teach checks and balances, and has to teach rule of law, and impeachment is an excellent example to highlight to help students make sense of this otherwise abstract concept.
For more about teaching impeachment in the classroom, listen to this mini episode of our new podcast series, HMH Learning Moments: Shaping the Future. In it, you'll hear more from Dr. Humphries and Geraldine, as well as insights from Jayson Chang, a teacher in California, as he talks to Dr. David Dockterman about how the impeachment conversation went with his high school seniors.
This blog post, originally published in October 2019, has been updated for January 2021.