Public Policy Geek is how Sofi Frankowski characterizes herself when she was a Duke student. Determined to work for social justice as an environmental-advocacy attorney, she plowed through the public policy undergraduate major requirements--until the day then-professor Bob Braverman asked to have a word with her.
" He really challenged me on what I wanted to do and why," she says. "He thought I was doing a very Duke thing, which was to set a goal and go for it systematically. He was right. I couldn't even fathom what my other options were."
Braverman gave his student some career advice: Look inside and figure out what makes you happy, he said, and then create a career based on that.
Soon, Frankowski had a new plan. "It was literally an epiphany," she recalls. "I woke up at three in the morning and said, 'I think I'm supposed to be a teacher.'" No one was more surprised by the revelation than her mother, a teacher herself. "She cried when I told her. I had the anything-but-a-teacher attitude because I'd seen her give teaching so much of her energy and time."
So she set off on a series of teaching positions in four U.S. states and Japan. "I was testing myself. I thought if I really wanted to be a teacher, then I should be able to work with kids sixty or seventy hours a week and still want to do it." In 1995, she entered Stanford to earn a master's in education and her teaching credentials in social studies.
After Stanford, she taught U.S. history, government, and economics at Fremont High in Sunnyvale, California. "It was an incredibly diverse school where about sixty languages were spoken," she says. "There were Pacific Islander kids, Asian-American, Latino, white, multiracial, and black--diversity like most schools don't yet know." She observed race and gender relations there, squaring her observations with theory she had learned at Stanford and her teaching experience.
During her second year at Fremont, the principal asked her to create a leadership class with input from an assistant principal who wanted to improve the school's climate. The result was Leadership MOSAIC (Making Our School An Inclusive Community), an academic course founded on the notion that all students have the potential to become leaders when they're given the guidance, modeling, and opportunities to contribute to a shared community. The course was a hit with students, even though Frankowski's curriculum called for rigorous research and writing assignments, and intensive, even uncomfortable, discussions.
" It just blossomed," she says. "It was about letting kids have power in school, helping them learn to have dialogue with people who didn't look like them or initially even want to hear what they had to say. It [included] kids who were already recognized as leaders in the school both positively and negatively--there were gang kids in the class. Watching them make subtle changes and then watching those changes ripple out into the rest of the school--that was powerful." In 1998, the course was named one of the nation's "Promising Practices" by President Clinton's Initiative on Race.
When she moved back to the South in 1999 to be closer to her family, Frankowski took a position teaching U.S. history at Southeast Raleigh High School. There, as she had done at Fremont, she spent her first year observing student relations, then went to the principal with a proposal.
" I took my big portfolio about MOSAIC and the awards the class had won in California," she says. "Three minutes into my talk, the principal said, 'Absolutely, we need this. What can I do to support you?' "
Frankowski says she's thrilled to see MOSAIC transfer successfully into a different environment. "That tells me kids want to talk about this stuff. At school, we often tell them to put [diversity] issues on the back burner so they can study math and science and social studies separately from that experience. This class is about who they are--that is the curriculum. It's something I think they're clamoring for."
Meanwhile, her colleagues selected her Teacher of the Year at Southeast Raleigh and as the school's nominee for Wake County Teacher of the Year, a title she won in April. She received a prize package worth thousands, including an IBM Thinkpad computer, the use of a new Saturn car for a year, two American Airlines tickets, and a $1,000 check.
Frankowski went on to compete for North Carolina Teacher of the Year. But for her, the rewards of teaching are not the prizes, but knowing that she's doing what she set out to do when she arrived at Duke: effect social change.
" There isn't anything that helps me feel more like an agent of change than teaching," she says. "Teachers do it every day in little ways."