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Despite Political Differences, Two High School Teachers Find Common Ground

Brandon Johnson stands with a former student who's now a teacher for recently...

Credit: Courtesy Brandon Johnson

Above: Brandon Johnson stands with a former student who's now a teacher for recently arrived immigrant children in this undated photo.

For our series Start the Conversation, we’ve been bringing people together who sit on different sides of a political or cultural divide, to talk about the issues that are important to them.

They’re civil dialogues, not debates — and we hope they’re a way to try to bridge some of the divisions between us in this politically charged time.

Two teachers — Brandon Johnson and Ysidro Valenzuela — talk about the intersection of politics and education.

Brandon Johnson and Ysidro Valenzuela both took roundabout paths to their current jobs as high school teachers.

Johnson spent years working in the corporate world “chasing the dollar,” but found himself unhappy. He’d been a Boy Scout leader for 15 years and enjoyed working with kids, so he decided to move into teaching. He currently teaches social studies and Spanish at Skyline High School in Oakland.

Ysidro Valenzuela didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life when he was in college, and it took him 10 years to get his first four-year college degree. Now he teaches history and social justice classes at Fresno High School.

While they share a circuitous route to teaching, they differ when it comes to politics. Johnson is a former Marine who identifies as conservative and is part of a small minority in the Bay Area that voted for Donald Trump. Ysidro, on the other hand, is a “lifelong liberal” and member of the Democratic Party. He supported Bernie Sanders, though he lives in the more politically conservative Central Valley.

But when they came together to talk, they found themselves finding a lot of common ground, especially when it came to their students.

On their immigrant students:

Brandon Johnson: A large percentage of my students are first- and second-generation immigrants from all over the world, and they do heroic things with big goals and big dreams, and we send them off to major universities. When you think about especially the individual kids for me and many of my colleagues, it brings tears to your eyes. You know what they overcome, and they still stay. And I think that’s what makes me proud as an American.

Ysidro Valenzuela: I think it’s fantastic to compare the American Dream [to immigrant students] as you just did. I completely agree with you. That’s patriotism, right? It comes in many forms, and when I watch [immigrant students] overcome their own obstacles and do the best they possibly can, that’s just about as an American Dream as you can get.

On talking politics with their students:

Johnson: I kind of have an interesting position because in Oakland we try to have both sides of every issue. It’s kind of a district mandate that when you have a guest speaker, you need to have somebody [from the other side]. And because most teachers didn’t know any other conservatives, I became the token counter guy. I’m a conservative. I explain to them why I voted the way I did, and yes, I voted for Trump, not that I am a Trump fan.

Valenzuela: One of the things that students, especially the curious students, ask a lot is, “Well, what do you think, Mr. Valenzuela?” When it comes to politics, when students ask, I answer them. I’m a lifelong liberal. I have been a member of the Democratic Party for some time. I try to make sure we present both sides, but when they ask me a personal question, I certainly answer, especially when it comes to things like immigration.

On politics today:

Johnson: To be honest, I’m totally disappointed with both parties. It used to be the Democratic Party was about social justice and helping the poor and jobs and unions. Where has that gotten [the country]? Look at the systems it has established. And the Republican Party, it’s money for grabs. They’re both the same, and hence the outsiders. You liked Bernie, I like Trump. I think there needs to be a housecleaning.

Valenzuela: I think what makes me hopeful is that we’re seeing more civic activism. I know it seems like we’re in divisive times, but it’s also an opportunity to see the best of us, to see what makes us Americans.

Every day I have a student who comes in, and they ask a question about something going on in the headlines. “What does this mean? How do I find out more about that?” And then it leads to another question and then another question. And that’s education, right? You talk about a teachable moment. Every day these days is a teachable moment for students.

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