Q: I’m a gay man who teaches 7th-grade social studies. I’m the only (openly) gay teacher in my building. As a result, I’ve become the go-to gay guy. Questions about homophobic graffiti or bullying or gender-neutral bathrooms all come my way. I’m happy to be a resource for parents whose kids are coming out or for colleagues with questions. I’m also fine with students who want to talk confidentially about their sexuality with someone safe. What I resent is the burden I feel to carry the whole school. It sends me — and our entire community — the message that only gay people are responsible for fixing or addressing these kinds of issues. Or that all gay people think the same. I think my coworkers are lazy. They won’t take the time to educate themselves about the issues confronting our LGBTQ students. They stay in their own bubble and pretend there are no problems, other than the occasional times they’ll scratch the surface by making lame jokes. I’m fine acting as a consultant, but I want my colleagues to get on board, too. Any suggestions?
A: You make a good point. Relying solely on you sends the wrong message. And you’re right that your colleagues are complacent. They find it easier to count on your wisdom than to build their own awareness and empathy. Their use of humor also suggests discomfort with the topic. You’ve done a service for your school, but what happens if you leave? You may have to step it up even more in the short term and advocate for change if you want to move the needle.
This means determining what’s getting in the way. It may come down to education. Can you suggest equity training? Does your school system or a local university offer classes? If there’s professional development in place already, perhaps it’s insufficient. Can you form a committee to brainstorm ideas and learn what other local schools are doing? Perhaps a group of teachers would be willing to take a cultural proficiency class and then instruct others in the building. Some schools hold study circles or form book clubs to talk about school climate and social justice. They may even invite parents, students, and other stakeholders. Why limit it to school staff? This is a community issue.
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If you have school counselors, they might be natural partners for this undertaking. Counselors are professionally trained in this area, so use them as a resource. In general, speak up and let people know you have concerns. If you can point to any problematic data regarding bullying or harassment, that might bolster your cause. As you’ve discovered, this is too big a burden for you to carry alone, and it’s isolating.
Besides, teachers need to develop a solid awareness of their own cultural identity and that of their students and staff to promote effective learning. This can be an uncomfortable learning process, one that requires foundational trust and empathy. Before jumping into the tough stuff, spend time on team-building activities. Also, set ground rules for discussion, including expectations surrounding respect and confidentiality. Teachers need to be able to suspend their own reality before they can accept someone else’s reality. They also have to understand their own biases. No matter how well-meaning people think they are, there’s always room to grow. I recently spoke with someone who’s an instructional specialist on a public school district’s equity team who argues that we all need to expose ourselves to different ways of thinking. As he says, this is work for everybody.
To best serve kids, you’ll eventually need to take a step back and encourage others to lean in. You’ll need institutional buy-in if you want to promote an inclusive and welcoming environment for everyone, including yourself. Nevertheless, I hope you’ll continue to mentor and guide the individual kids who seek you out for confidential help. They’re turning to you specifically because they know you care and understand.
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