"Current events do not belong in history class"

Nick Covington taught social studies at Ankeny High School from 2012 to 2022 and became the full-time Creative Director of the Human Restoration Project when his teaching contract ended on June 1. You can follow Nick on Twitter @CovingtonEDU. This article was originally published on May 15 on Medium.

On Feb 25, 2022, I resigned as a social studies teacher at Ankeny High School, a position I have held since 2012, effective at the end of the school year. I will not be returning to the classroom this fall.

I have not told all of this story in one place, but I want readers to understand the full context of my decision to leave in its relation to our nation’s destructive and divisive cultural forever war.

It started in January 2021. In response to covering the events of January 6 with my students, I was called in to a meeting with my administration. An anonymous phone call had accused me of saying “All Trump supporters are Nazis” and encouraging students to follow my social media, where I was accused of saying the same thing. Neither of which was ever true. But that is where my troubles began.

Crowd of Trump supporters marching on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021
Crowd of Trump supporters marching on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 (Source: WikiMedia Commons)
Google Classroom post explaining purpose of watching Charlottesville: Race and Terror

Later that spring, as part of my AP European History unit on the impact of nationalism, in addition to learning about Brexit and issues in modern nationalism facing countries like France and Poland, students learned about the events of Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right March” that took place in 2017. We also watched “Charlottesville: Race and Terror” to understand the motivations of white nationalists and the response of the local community.

I gave students a heads-up on my Google Classroom page and front-loaded the video with necessary context (White supremacists are the greatest domestic terror threat). Throughout the video I would pause to provide context and help process what students were watching.

The lesson ended as it had every year I have taught it since 2018, and I went into the weekend believing it went well. In the three days between class ending on Friday and beginning on Monday, I received no negative feedback from students or parents.

When I arrived in the building the following Monday, I was immediately called into a meeting with my principal, who told me that parents came to the building on Friday to say that my lesson “targeted” their children and made them feel uncomfortable and unsafe. It was then that my building principal told me, “Current events do not belong in history class.” A statement I wrestle with to this day.

I left the meeting shaken but desiring understanding. So in the classes I taught later that day, I used an anonymous poll in class to gauge student reactions and process any potential discomfort that may have arisen. Students were very responsive and the discussion was productive. I have included a sample of their responses below.

For this, I was yet again drawn into a meeting with my principal where a parent said their child again felt “targeted and unsafe” as a result of the conversation. I was also told that parents had gone to the school board and superintendent to try and get my license sanctioned and that I was forbidden from mentioning the word “Charlottesville” in class or referencing any of the content from the video.

Our nationalism unit was cut short, and I was told I could not use any curricular material with students unless it was pre-approved by my principal until we could arrange a meeting with HR on this issue.

Student survey responses to question, "How did you feel about the video Friday? Charlottesville: Race and Terror". Many students report feeling frustrated and upset but wanting to understand the motivations driving white supremacist violence

What followed were several meetings between myself, my union rep, HR, and building administration. While I was assured that this was not politically motivated, what came out in these meetings was that parents were concerned that the Charlottesville video “seemed to portray President Trump in an unfavorable light.”

They also mentioned that I post about “left wing” topics on Twitter including my “affiliation with the Human Restoration Project,” and that I was “spending an exorbitant amount of time” covering U.S. current events and electoral politics.

This, of course, was in the context of the 2020 presidential election that had occurred the previous November, with all of the contentiousness of its outcome and the events that terminated in the unprecedented January 6 attack on the Capitol. I was teaching my European History course to sophomores who would not have another opportunity to directly experience a presidential election, in Iowa, during their time in high school.

I have objectively and fairly taught every presidential cycle with every high school class since 2012, and yet again, I was instructed by my building principal that “current events,” in this case U.S. campaigns and elections, do not belong in a history class.

There was never any disciplinary action taken against me, yet I still had to take multiple days off to process the stress and anxiety leaking over into my classroom relationships with students, as well as my personal life outside of school. The actions of my building principal directly exacerbated the course these events took and their impact on my mental health, but they did not stop there.

Following AP exams in early May, I always give students the option to do a film study, usually a well-received and much-needed change of pace, alongside other project-based options to round out our year together. I presented the range of options, highlighting the focus question and watching a trailer for each film, and opened it up for students to vote on.

Students were most excited about Chernobyl and chose it overwhelmingly, and I was equally enthusiastic in developing the lesson with them! You can see the menu of student options and survey results below:

Student menu of activity options including descriptions of film-study questions

Student survey results showing 62.3% of students selecting Chernobyl for their film study

Following the vote, I put together a communication to parents and required a parent permission slip for students to be able to view the Chernobyl mini-series, (which you can view here):

Email to parents outlining reason and purpose for viewing Chernobyl in European History course

This commonplace practice — which I have followed every year that I have been teaching film studies in an AP course — launched yet another round of parent complaints, meetings with my principal, and a slew of emails over the mature nature of the content and curricular justification for showing Chernobyl to an AP European History course, which culminated in a meeting at district office with my then-interim superintendent and curriculum director.

I spent most of the last month of school stressed, losing sleep, and again defending my curricular choices and my interactions with students against a bad-faith, politically-motivated game of telephone. I planned alternative activities for the four students who opted out — more than in every previous year combined — while the remainder watched Chernobyl.

Several students commented that it was their favorite activity of the year. And at the end of it all, I was told again that for all of the strain this put on me, nothing I had done violated any ethical standard or board policy and was absolved of any potential disciplinary action.

On May 20, 2021, in an overnight bill signing, at the same time that Governor Kim Reynolds prohibited schools from requiring masks, she also signed a law requiring the pledge of allegiance to be recited during the school day. A move I openly opposed.

The next month, she signed a law banning so-called “specific defined concepts” from school curriculum and diversity trainings. As it became clear that the parents targeting me weren’t seeing immediate results, the stakes increased as the largest right-wing blog in the Iowa media ecosystem.

The Iowa Standard website began to target me directly through the summer and fall of 2021, a campaign encouraged by the Iowa Young Republicans, as well as the leader of a local group of QAnon influenced conspiracist “Ankeny Mama Bears”. That campaign has continued to this day, as I keep speaking openly and publicly in support of LGBTQ+ students, an honest telling of history, and against the banning of books in our libraries and curricula:

Sample of headlines from right-wing media sites targeting Nick Covington

Included is a sample of the responses from the target audience for posts like these:

Social media post demanding firing of Nick Covington for allegedly teaching CRT
Comments on social media post demanding Nick Covington be fired. Comments include "Tell him he will have to give up his job to a black person, who is superior to him in all ways."

When that was not enough, in the fall of 2021, a “community member” started sending my building principal an annotated bibliography of my social media activity, particularly on Twitter and the use of the “Twitter Web App”, which would be indicative of using school resources, presumably because I would be sending tweets from my school laptop.

The exchange in the image below is in regards to two retweets of posts where the complainant cites “Twitter for iPhone App” and times of the day that would fall during contract time. The complainant is citing the dates, times, and sources of the original posts, as I do not have an iPhone, and Twitter does not record the dates, times, or sources of retweets. But this is the level of monitoring not only undertaken voluntarily by a “community member” and further exacerbated by my building principal:

Email from building principal communicating concerns from a community member about social media posts

A portion of my response, including one of the offending tweets, is cited here:

Reply to building principal email about concerns about social media

The political climate soured even further leading up to the school board election last November. Tensions grew in our community over masking, as our district was named in a lawsuit filed over the repeal of masking requirements contributing to the exclusion of students with special needs. Violent rhetoric blended conspiracies about vaccines and masking with “child grooming” and keeping “pornography” and “obscene materials” out of school libraries.

One meeting in September was marked by one QAnon activist shouting, “We know where you live! We’re going to stalk you! We’re coming to your house!” All three of the QAnon and “Mama Bear” backed candidates went on to win school board seats in Ankeny. The night before the election, I addressed the final meeting of the school board with a word of caution:

Tomorrow, Ankeny could continue to follow the example set by Southlake, Johnston County, Loudon County and countless other districts around the country, replacing real local issues and the positive, productive relationships that make our children more humane and empathetic with conspiracism, hatred, & fear of the other that are the ratings priorities of cable news pundits and talk show grifters — the engine of the grievance industrial complex — who don’t care about you or your kids, only for securing our educational agenda as fuel for their divisive cultural forever war.

I’ve been told, “The easiest way to make this stop is to shut up”. Well, that’s kind of the point isn’t it? That’s the language of the bully. Your teachers are being bullied. My fear, and the unstated fear of many teachers under contract with this very board, is that soon the bullying will not only escalate, but that it will be empowered and encouraged from the dais itself.

The board repealed our mask mandate in December, against the recommendation of our superintendent, and, as they have moved from one culture war target to the next, have pulled at least one book from library shelves.

They continue to receive public comments about the threat of “grooming” and “child pornography,” as “groomer” has become the normalized language used by the right against their perceived political opponents.

An Ankeny school board meeting in February required additional police presence following a threat posted in a letter to the editor on The Iowa Standard’s website, the same site I noted earlier that recalled my public resistance to the Pledge of Allegiance as one of their “most read articles” of 2021. The man who authored that letter also threatened to “take me outside” when I confronted him at a school board meeting after he continually disrupted the meeting by calling student speakers “Satanists”.

When the legislative session began in January 2022, our own state legislators put all educators on notice. Senator Jake Chapman now-infamously cited a “sinister agenda” and called for imprisonment of teachers and librarians, saying,

The attack on our children is no longer hidden. Those who wish to normalize sexually deviant behavior against our children, including pedophilia and incest, are pushing this movement more than ever before

A call picked up by other legislative Republicans, who have made vicious political attacks on education and individual educators the central plank of their platform. State Senator Brad Zaun told a group of Johnston educators, “My warning to all the teachers and the administrators is you’re going to be in jail.”

The Republican majority has also proposed a so-called “transparency bill”, another legislative tactic popping up alongside book banning across the country, that in its various forms would require teachers to post all curriculum materials prior to the start of the school year, and could demand criminal penalties for teachers who “disseminate obscene materials” while also allowing parents to sue schools over the books kept on library shelves. Although this legislation did not pass during the 2022 session, Governor Reynolds has said she wants a similar bill to be paired with her school voucher plan next year.

And in February 2022, I went on the record with journalist Linh Ta to discuss the impact of the law on teaching issues related to race. Her piece appeared in Axios, “Teaching Black History Month Under Iowa’s New Law.” Within a week of the article’s release, I was again called into a meeting with HR.

I was made to take an unpaid day of leave and received a letter in my file because I had apparently not followed the proper protocol in my communications with the media. It seems teachers are the only people who are not allowed to go on the record and talk about what is actually happening in classrooms.

This is not an exhaustive list of the complex motivations that have caused me, for now, to leave teaching in Iowa. Some factors — stagnant pay, growing workload, poor management, etc — are too universal an experience to go into much detail.

However, the conditions for teaching in Iowa, and in the community of Ankeny in particular, have become politically toxic and unsustainable for conscientious teachers who aren’t afraid to have difficult conversations in the classroom, speak openly in the face of intimidation, and stand up publicly for marginalized students.

For the first time since 2018, I declined to show my students “Charlottesville: Race and Terror.” Keeping the “terror” at arms length and opting instead for a more sanitized look at white nationalism that conceals the true impact of white supremacy taken to its eliminationist conclusions and hiding language from the necessary context that upholds racism.

Nationally, the culture war has become a dangerous theater for suppressing marginalized groups, enforcing minoritarian political ideologies, and creating comfortable spaces for conspiracism and white supremacy to grow unchallenged. On May 14, 2022, an 18-year old with access to guns and steeped in white supremacist conspiracy theories — like those that fueled the white rage on display in Charlottesville in 2017 and at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 — targeted a grocery store in a Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York and murdered at least 10 people.

As laws targeting so-called “divisive topics” intimidate and threaten teachers for having formal conversations and curriculum on these topics, we have to ask ourselves, if we aren’t talking to kids about the impact of these deadly ideas, who is?

Top photo of Nick Covington published with permission.

About the Author(s)

Nick Covington

  • Current events is history, too

    The best way to teach history is to clearly show how it relates to the news of today. The main motive for students to study history is to make more sense of what is happening around them.

    I can see Ankeny lost a sophisticated teacher here. Any school should be so lucky as to have teachers like him.

    His departure is a victory for the fascist right wing of today’s Republican Party. They will seek more victories as they are being helped by people like Chapman and Reynolds. The goal here is to destroy public schools and replace them with either homeschools or religious schools funded by taxpayers. Leveling charges of grooming or of teaching divisive content are just the tactics of this phase of the campaign. New tactics can emerge at any time. Beware, Iowa!