By Hannah Walsh
Sometimes you win.
Like many teachers, I got into education with high ideals. I wanted to make a difference, to positively influence the future through my work with students. And like many experienced teachers, I know those ideals can be hard to hold onto. With the stress of this demanding job and the overwhelming obstacles many of our students face, it can be hard to feel like you’re making any difference at all. Often, you’re just trying to get through the day.
But today I have good story about building community in my classroom and making an impact as a teacher. I had coffee today with a former student who is now a sophomore in college. She was in the first class I explicitly came out to as a gay woman. (There were rumors going around, so I called a class meeting and confirmed them.) We have been in touch via email, occasionally meeting for coffee. She is quite the young lady, straight A's last term, a regular volunteer at the soup kitchen, and a leader in the Oxfam group on campus.
Well, today she came out to me. In her words, she is “not limited in attraction to one gender.” Sitting in the small café with artsy walls and superfood smoothies, she told me that the class meeting l had with her 6th grade class had always stuck out in her mind as meaningful moment in her life.
I beamed with pride for myself, knowing I had made an impact. And I beamed with pride for her. She’s become someone who thoughtfully thinks about labels and words and their power. She’s become an activist. She tells me that her new identity as a member of the LGBTQ community compels her to raise her voice and stand against oppression.
We talked more about her new courses and activities on campus and about my young son. When we finished, I gave her a ride to the bus station and drove home through the drizzle. My wife asked how I felt, knowing that I may have had such an effect on her life, and I said I felt like I won.
Recently I attended a lecture by Dr. Duncan-Andrade, an educator teaching high school in Oakland. One phrase from that talk sticks in my mind. As I recall, Dr. Duncan-Andrade said we must teach with “courage, conviction, and integrity.” Those are powerful words to teach by.
It takes courage to come out as a gay teacher. It takes integrity to be honest with yourself and your students. Since that first 6th grade class, I’ve been out at every school I’ve taught at. I recently came out to my current batch, 4th and 5th graders this time. I’ve tailored my message to the younger students, but the core is the same: My family, with its two moms, is just another family and is deserving of respect.
But I didn’t do it for myself. As they get older, some of my students will come out as gay, bisexual, or transgendered. Some of them will face bullying in school, disapproval (or worse) from their families. Maybe remembering their gay teacher in elementary school will bring them some courage and help them live their lives with integrity.
We must have the courage to take risks in addressing LGBTQ issues in our classrooms. We have to face disapproving administrators who don’t want to stir up parents. We have to face protective parents who feel their children are too young. We have to take this risk because our students will grow up. They come from families with two moms or two dads. They have siblings and cousins and friends who will come out. They will come out themselves.
We need to give them the memory of a safe classroom and a meaningful moment to help them become adults who live with courage, conviction, and integrity. Then we win as teachers.
Hannah Walsh is an elementary science teacher in Watsonville, CA. She lives in the redwoods with her wife, son, two dogs, and lots of woodland creatures.
Join the Not In Our School movement and create an inclusive environment at your school. See how teachers created a Gay Student Alliance at a middle school or tackled the tricky question, “What do you say to ‘That’s so gay’?’” in the classroom. You can also launch a Not In Our School campaign or club to get the entire campus involved.