The “Woke” Teacher’s Dilemma

School in the year 2000 as imagined by a French artist in 1901.

“These are innocent children, after all. They have done nothing wrong. They have committed no crime. They are too young to have offended us in any way at all. One searches for some way to understand why a society as rich and, frequently, as generous as ours would leave these children in their penury and squalor for so long- and with so little public indignation.”[1].

In his  book “Savage Inequalities,” famed education writer Jonathan Kozol used the words above to reflect on the absurdity of America’s inequality in education. That quote is specifically about children in East St. Louis, Illinois in 1991, but they may as well be talking about modern day Detroit, Washington, D.C., rural Ohio, or a myriad of other American communities. As I have worked in education for over half a decade now, there is something cruelly familiar in Kozol’s observation.

Children from underserved backgrounds are some of the kindest, funniest, most interesting students a teacher will ever work with. Despite odds being stacked against them, there is often a spirit of hope in children that does not seem to match the horrific conditions that may physically surround them in and out of school.

As a teacher, I have relished in academic successes, inside jokes, and laughter with these students, even as the challenges seem insurmountable at times.

However, the more I learn about the systemic conditions that have created and continue to sustain rampant poverty and racism in America, the more it seems absurd to expect my students to bring their best everyday with NO EXCUSES and then solely blame them if they do not always succeed. Books such as “American Apartheid” by Douglas Massey, “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein, “New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, and “Origins of the Urban Crisis” by Tom Sugrue told me about how Blacks and Whites were deliberately separated from one another in America in the post-Civil War era, with a set of laws and public institutions that intentionally made it more difficult for Black people and poor White people to succeed in America. Regardless of any recent progress achieved, the bitter truth is that 21% of all children in America grow up in poverty today. We know that the effects of poverty on children are absolutely crippling.

And then I get out of my own head and actually talk to my students about their lives. I am routinely flattened by the traumas that students put up with. Some of the most common things I have heard are about abusive or inattentive parents. In the state of Michigan (where I teach), roughly 18% of third grade students have been subject to at least one formal investigation for child maltreatment. At schools with more underserved students, this statistic is far higher. Then there are the many traumas that occur from students having parents in prison, having parents who are addicted to drugs, having friends or family killed by guns or by suicide, and students going through mental health crises. This is not even to touch on immigrant students who fear ICE taking away their families or the general fear felt by having a president who does not respect women, diversity, young people, or immigrants (or teachers!).

Furthermore, it often feels like the odds are stacked against us teachers. In the last 15 years, if adjusted for inflation, teachers in Michigan have had our pay cut by 12.1%. As American corporations received record profits  in 2017, teachers in 35 states have seen their (inflation-adjusted) salaries drop over the last 15 years.  High-stakes testing, decreasing power of unions, and edtech fixations have only increased teacher work burdens. Is it any wonder that America has a teacher shortage crisis  and an annual teacher attrition rate of 8% (double than that of countries like Finland and Singapore)?

By becoming a teacher in America, I made financial sacrifices for myself and essentially ensured a life in the lower-middle-class. The reality for young teachers today is spending their early careers paying off exorbitant college loans, budgeting for rising home and rent prices, and paying hundreds of out-of-pocket dollars to buy school supplies- all just to play a game that feels rigged from the start by out-of-touch politicians and corporate reformers who have never stepped foot in a classroom.

Of course, as a teacher, I must put aside the problems of the world each day in order to bring out the best in young people and create an effective learning environment in my reality, no matter what that reality gives me.

But as the words of Jonathan Kozol invite us to ask, why should that reality for teachers and students in Detroit and America be so bleak?

Yet, as a teacher, I cannot help but be inspired by the outliers, the success stories, the majority of students who make my life whole with their kindness, humor, and hard work. I work tirelessly to improve the outcomes of my students, no matter what their backgrounds and circumstances are. In the classroom, I am no cynic- I inspire and I encourage students to achieve as best I know how. Still, as a “woke” teacher, I will always have the dilemma of how to reconcile the cruel world with my warm classroom.

What I have settled on is:

1) Listen to the stories of my students and always have empathy for them.

2)  Show students where they can have control in their lives that can lead to positive changes and successes.

3) Resist oppressive teaching practices that perpetuate the school-to-prison-pipeline.

4) Actively participate in the political change that I seek; ally with other teachers to fight for what we deserve (see Oklahoma and West Virginia).

5) Model self-care for my students; intentionally take time for myself and be kind to myself despite having a job that requires so much. 

Kozol finishes his book by remarking that “(American children) are all quite wonderful and innocent when they are small. We soil them needlessly.” [2]

Sadly, his words ring true nearly 30 years later. In order to create meaningful change, we in education must look boldly in new inward and outward directions.

[1] Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. Crown Publishers, Inc., 1991. Pp. 40.

[2] Ibid, pp 233.


2 thoughts on “The “Woke” Teacher’s Dilemma

  1. What’s worse is that Kozol’s first book, “Death at an Early Age” was set in Boston in the 1960’s and awarded the National Book Award in 1967. “Savage Inequalities” is essentially a reprise 30 years later.


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