Don Falls takes pride in his almost 40 years of teaching. Ask one of the thousands of students he’s had and they’ll tell how good of a history teacher he was, he said.
“I think they know who I am,” he said. “They know the kind of person I am.”
One of his former students and current colleagues, William Gilbert, was a senior at Manatee High School when he took Falls’ economics class. The 28-year-old journalism teacher at Manatee High said his former teacher, who kindled his desire to teach, always fostered an environment of free-flowing ideas.
“He would encourage kids come up with their opinions for themselves,” Gilbert said. “Most of his classes were class discussions, which I loved because it allowed for a space for free thought, free conversation and discussion without making us feel foolish or making us feel young.”
When Gilbert learned of Falls’ lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis, it didn’t surprise him. His former teacher cares about the students, not politics, he said.
Falls, 62, who teaches economics and U.S. History at Manatee High, is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against DeSantis over the Stop WOKE Act, which banned the teaching of critical race theory in Florida schools despite it not being in the state’s curriculum.
A graduate of New College of Florida and the University of South Florida, with his doctorate in curriculum and instruction, he is part of a coalition of plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and the litigation is one of several active challenges against the Stop WOKE Act.
The legislation infringes on his and all teachers’ First Amendment rights in the classroom, Falls said. But beyond that, he argues the law is dangerous for students and teachers alike.
The governor, however, has said previously that he doesn’t want Florida students to be made to feel guilty for their race, and the law would work to accomplish that.
“We are not going to categorize you based on your race,” DeSantis said when he signed the bill. “We are not gonna tell some kindergartener that they’re an oppressor based on their race and what may have happened 100 or 200 years ago. We’re not gonna tell other kids that they’re oppressed based on their race.”
Falls, who has taught at Palmetto High, Southeast High, State College of Florida and USF, said he’s never heard of any teacher making a student feel bad for their race. The idea that it’s happening in Florida schools is “ludicrous” and teachers in the state have an established code of ethics to prevent such problems as well, he said.
New civics training for Florida teachers produced by Hillsdale College is already following the Stop WOKE Act’s direction, as Falls said it tells teachers to downplay the impact of slavery on U.S. history. In the effort to fight indoctrination in schools, DeSantis has instead taken steps to indoctrinate Florida students himself, he said.
“How can you legitimately teach American history and try to explain away arguably the most important issue that defined much of our history?” Falls said.
At a press conference in Bradenton on Tuesday, DeSantis responded to the lawsuit saying the teaching of slavery, reconstruction and civil rights is required under Florida statute and is critical to learn. However, the governor said instruction needs to be “accurate.”
“You can’t teach history that’s being used to pursue an ideological agenda,” he said. “You can’t teach that the foundations of our country were somehow evil.”
Falls said the idea that teachers are indoctrinating students is “absurd”, and he hasn’t changed how he teaches in his classroom because of the new law. Direction from the district was simply the bill text with no other information or guidance, he said.
In his lessons, Falls said he always tries to get the “why” behind concepts through to his students.
“What I want kids to do is try to get inside of the facts themselves and ask themselves, why is this happening, as opposed to just throwing things at them and hoping some stuff sticks, which tends to be too often what happens in education,” Falls said.
Despite the fuzzy landscape for classroom instruction, he said, he will continue to do what he’s always done — educate Florida’s students.
Falls, a registered Democrat, hasn’t been shy about his involvement in the lawsuit, appearing on MSNBC to discuss it. He said he hasn’t received backlash or any significant negative comments about his involvement.
Being part of the lawsuit was something he said felt he needed to do to practice what he preaches to his students.
“You have an obligation in a democracy to stand up and have your voice heard,” Falls said. “So I can’t very well, year in and year out, tell young minds that they need to be part of our democratic process and then ignore it myself.”
As of mid-September, the case was in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. The court has denied a request for a preliminary injunction to block the bill’s implementation.
Follow Herald-Tribune Education Reporter Steven Walker on Twitter at @swalker_7. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Herald Tribune Reporter Zac Anderson contributed to this report.