Skip to main content

Teacher in a Strange Land: Woke/Not Woke

A few years back, in 2016, I read a blog post from a national teachers’ union leader, a white woman, proclaiming that she was now woke. I’ve met this woman a few times and have no doubt that she is sincere and well-meaning and totally on the right side of social justice issues, but the blog, about her aha moment, struck me as tone-deaf.

Most of the time, white educators who care about justice are working on opening their minds, at being better humans. Maybe the best white people can do is increase their understanding and awareness of all the injustices that are built into living in the home of the brave. Closer to woke, maybe, but always gazing at justice and equity from a layer of privilege. Doing their best until they can do better, etc. It’s not for us to decide, yup, we’re woke now.

When I read that blog, however, I never anticipated a US Governor would proclaim that his state is where “Woke goes to die.”  As a campaign strategy, no less—a campaign based on freeing people of privilege from any guilt about exercising their biases, discriminatory actions, and outright bigotry against everything from Gay Days at Disney World to telling high school students ugly truths about Black history.

And now, Florida lawmakers are moving full-speed ahead to push minors off social media. They’ve empowered schools to ban cell phones, remove books and limit history lessons, with more restrictions on the way.  Students interviewed in the linked article are incensed—they understand that it’s their learning that’s being limited, not their social lives. They don’t feel protected—they feel cheated.

How did we go from striving for more equity and inclusion as a nation–to proudly announcing that the last thing we want our children to feel is responsibility for the well-being of others? What was the turning point?

Spoiler alert: It’s no coincidence that the Governor who wanted to excise woke-ism thought that strategy would resonate with a particular group of American voters. Having stirred that Group4Liberty up, Desantis is now reaping the consequences, politically, in Florida. Bad ed policy will always catch up to you, with increasing teacher shortages and hollowed-out libraries. And so many headaches and complaints.

When you’re stirring the pot, to get political mileage out of parent anger, you’re doing a grave disservice to the foot soldiers who are teaching in your state, the ones who are trying to put together functioning classrooms full of diverse kids–and then teach them something worth learning.

And, as Peter Greene points out, succinctly: It’s a great thing to have an administrator who will have your back, who will stand between you and the latest flap (and for administrators, it’s a great thing to have a teacher who will take the steps needed to make defending them easier). But it’s a luxury that many teachers don’t have.

Stripping critical topics and materials out of the curriculum because they may be interpreted as ‘woke,’ makes that curriculum sterile and empty. Trying to keep students from accessing their own answers on the internet is futile. And attempting to control teacher behaviors via professional development is downright creepy.

Teachers who are experiencing all of these anti-woke procedures can feel isolated and angry, understanding that the very reason they chose to become teachers—building the next generation—has been abandoned by school leaders with feet of clay.

There are a lot of ways to interpret ‘woke’—but it’s a factor in every school building in America: Who accepts whom? Who is comfortable and able to learn? Who is expected to do well—and who is given short shrift? How do we get along, and respect each other’s differences?There are systems of oppression, however subtle, in every school, public and private.

Woke is defined by the DeSantis administration as “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them,” according to DeSantis’ general counsel, as reported by The Washington Post.

Denying that there is systemic injustice, instead substituting the systemic practice of avoiding unpleasant truths, ducking issues that cause conflict and barring critical thinking by students, is the worst possible basis for making education policy.  Instead, ed policy is now based on chasing test scores, cutting economic corners, and presenting a mendacious view of the world to our future leaders.

If anybody needs to pursue wokeness, it’s school leaders and education policymakers. Because—guess what—there ARE systemic injustices in American society. And one of the purposes of American public schools has traditionally been forming a more perfect union through education. Carol Burris:

In the beginning, the purpose was to create a literate American citizenry to be able to participate in democracy. Our founders realized that if they were going to give citizens the ability to actually shape government through elections, they had to have some knowledge base on which to make decisions.

Returning to the critical question here—how and why did wokeness become something to sneer at, to stamp out of school discussions and materials?

I keep thinking about the video shot at a middle school in Royal Oak, MI right after the 2016 election, with students chanting “Build that wall!” Or the lawsuit filed in 2022 against another Michigan middle school for suppressing the first amendment rights of students, by forcing them to take off their “Let’s Go Brandon” hoodies.

Add in a pandemic, which tilted many perspectives—equity, safety, privilege—and it’s easy to see how the past eight years have caused a political abyss to form. Teachers who forthrightly proclaim they are woke, in 2024, risk being fired.

It’s time for action. Step one: voting.


This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Nancy Flanagan

Nancy Flanagan is a retired teacher, with 31 years as a K-12 Music specialist in the Hartland, Michigan schools. She was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 199...