‘I Was a Teacher, I Abandoned Being “Woke” For My Students’ Sake’

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From 2005 to 2009, I was a New York City Teaching Fellow on a mission to close the achievement gap for students who endured what George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” because they were Black and Latino.

Far from the deadbeats I expected to encounter at the Washington Heights high school where I taught English, my colleagues were dedicated, passionate and hard-working. They were also unabashedly leftist. The teachers’ lounge was an echo chamber of adoration for Michael Moore documentaries, diatribes about America’s hunger for war—accompanied by the refrain “Bush lied, people died” repeated ad nauseum—and promises to move to Canada. I suspected that this ideology seeped into the classroom.

A couple of my colleagues showed their students documentaries like Why We Fight, which I believe portrays America as a prison industrial complex with no redeeming qualities. Others repeatedly said that their students couldn’t pass Advanced Placement exams even when they’d taken AP classes.

In the Herculean effort to prepare students for college, work and life, I believe there is no room for the unchallenged belief that our country is irreparably broken and the system is rigged against people of color. Especially in the school where I taught, where the student population was mostly Hispanic and African-American.

Florina Rodov with Her Students
Florina Rodov with some of her students at their graduation. Rodov worked as an English teacher in a New York school between 2005 and 2009.
Florina Rodov

Therefore, I told my students that they were architects of their own destiny, hard work and good choices matter, and America is the only country in the world where you can grow up without electricity or hot water and become Oprah Winfrey.

While there were many “culturally responsive” books in my independent reading library that students read in their own time, as a class we focused on the classics. So-called “anti-racists” may be surprised to learn that Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, set in the fictional rural town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire in the early 1900s, was especially popular with my urban sophomores.

Two of my students played George and Emily when we read the play aloud, then students wrote heartfelt stories set in towns of their choosing that incorporated the play’s universal themes of family, love, sacrifice and mortality, which we published in an anthology.

Florina Rodov in her classroom
Florina Rodov in her classroom. Rodov writes that other teachers disapproved of some of her methods.
Florina Rodov

My sophomores’ brilliance convinced me to start preparing them to take the New York State English Regents exam early. They began studying in January for the exam that’s typically given to juniors in June. Instead of succumbing to the popular notion that standardized tests are racist because Black and Latino kids don’t do well on them, they embraced the challenge of mastering how to write analytical essays.

When they took the test in June, 2008, 90 percent of them passed in an English department whose pass rate was 60 percent. I’ll never forget the pride on their faces when I told them that their scores were comparable to scores in much wealthier and whiter schools.

In class, we talked about the specific steps they could take to become successful, such as attending Columbia University’s Double Discovery Program or Minds Matter, which help low-income, first-generation students get into college.

Through casual conversations that we had a few minutes before class, most of my kids also developed their own version of the “success sequence.” It looked something like this: Graduate from high school and college, find a career you like that pays well, and don’t have kids until you’re married and/or can support them without handouts.

A couple of my colleagues side-eyed me for my anti-wokeness. They thought that when I said things like “don’t have kids until you can support them without handouts” I was being judgmental about my students’ families’ lifestyles, as some were on public assistance. Some of my colleagues thought that I lacked empathy, but I think I was just encouraging common-sense behavior.

I didn’t talk to my students about politics explicitly until the 2008 presidential election when “hope and change” posters adorned our school’s walls, and the teachers’ lounge resounded with breathless chatter about the charismatic young senator from Illinois who would hopefully become the first Black president.

In preparation for a pre-election assembly, I had my students research both Barack Obama and John McCain‘s positions on issues, as well as their strengths and weaknesses as candidates, making sure to read the Wall Street Journal, American Spectator and National Review—not just the New York Times. They then wrote persuasive essays on the candidate of their choice.

Florina Rodov with her pupil
Florina Rodov with one of her students.
Florina Rodov

I picked Amalia’s piece about McCain’s decades of public service and numerous military awards to represent our class at assembly. But shortly before the curtain went up, I heard that some kids from another class were planning to “jump” her after school if she read her essay aloud. I instantly cancelled her presentation, which upset her, but I wasn’t going to sacrifice a child for even the inalienable right of free speech.

I believe culture wars have hijacked the classroom. On the left, schools are training “anti-racists” by creating “affinity groups” for students and parents of certain ethnicities, while also teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT) and concepts such as white privilege. On the right, some politicians are limiting discussions of race in the classroom, trying to rewrite curriculum standards to align with a “patriotic” mindset and banning books. The left accuses the right of fascism while the right accuses the left of indoctrination.

To me, both extremes crush learning, free expression and critical thinking. In my opinion, students should learn about CRT and “antiracism,” but as ideas, not truths, and these ideas should be balanced with other perspectives. For example, if students read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, they should also read John McWhorter’s Woke Racism and Shelby Steele’s White Guilt. If they read The 1619 Project, they should read historians’ criticisms of it as well. Students should learn about America’s sins as well as its exceptionalism.

While I’m proud of instilling ambition, agency and grit in my students, I wish I’d been a little more measured in my approach. When I left the school and my students graduated, we became friends. One of them opened up to me about the fact that I’d been so set in my mission and confident in my beliefs that she was hesitant to disagree with me. She believed that I should have recommended more kids for opportunity programs that helped them get into college, not just the kids who had A’s, as some students are late bloomers. She said she didn’t tell me this at the time as she was afraid I would no longer like her. That hurt to hear.

I have since left the teaching profession, in order to focus on my writing career. But I believe I would find today’s conditions untenable because of the extreme positions on the left and right.

Some say that politics doesn’t belong in the classroom and maybe they’re right, but it might be impossible to keep it out completely because teaching is a values-driven profession. I believe we can, however, heed Margaret Mead’s advice, and teach children “how to think, not what to think.”

Florina Rodov is a former public and charter school teacher whose work has been published at CNN, The Atlantic, Shondaland and others. She’s working on two books. Follow her on Twitter @florinarodov.

All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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