Friday, June 6, 2008

Don't Take it Personally...

As the end of the school year approaches, it becomes easier and easier to take what students say as a personal attack. To successfully do my job and be a responsible adult, I must understand that the words and actions of my students have more to do with themselves than with anybody else - but with less than three weeks left, I can feel myself losing patience and perspective. On my more selfish and self-victimizing days, it can feel like stepping into my classroom inherently means I consent to constant ridicule and criticism. This line of thought is absolutely ridiculous, I realize - if there is anyone wielding an inordinate and oppressive amount of power in my classroom, it is me.

Instead of placing "blame" on students for whom cruelty to others is simply a necessary part of their adolescence and nothing to do with me specifically, I consider the crux of the problem my lack of community around LGBT issues. While several teachers at my school are out to their peers as gay or lesbian, none of my colleagues or friends who teach at other schools are, to my knowledge, explicitly out to their students. Many educators I know can and do discuss abstract instances of homophobia – when one student calls another a "faggot," for example. But I do not personally know any other teachers who have watched one of their students point at them and say "I can't stand her class because I don't like gay people" (in a conference among this students' parents and all of his teachers, my colleagues). I also do not know of any other teachers who have received a message from one of their students reading "shut the fuck up you fucken pussy licker faget," as I did a few months ago from one of my sixth grade students.

The way my "authority" is undermined through these displays of homophobia causes me much more anxiety than I often admit. While my sixth graders may be twelve years old, their parents and many of the people in their spheres are not. From what I have seen and heard about, it is considered a matter of fact that parents often share or even encourage their student's homophobic sentiments. When a queer or trans teacher is criticized, it is impossible to know who – if anybody – will step up to defend us. Merely having used the word "queer" to identify myself to students could be grounds for increased scrutiny or suspicion.

When my aforementioned student stated in a parent-teacher conference that he didn't like my class because I am queer, I did not respond. To do so would imply that I need to defend myself or my identity – which I refuse to do. I did appreciate it when one of the other teachers at the meeting firmly established that the student needs to get over his issues with gay people if he expects to continue in public schools, where he will learn about "all different kinds of people." However, it was difficult to determine how the student's parents were reacting to this message. His father sat there and appeared to scowl.

Just two weeks ago, the mother of a student who is failing my class came to the school to speak to the Assistant Principal. She blamed her daughter's grades and disruptiveness on "a personality difference" between her and me. Her daughter has done no classwork and no homework for months, and she distracts other students during class on a daily basis. This student is currently failing multiple classes, and I have spoken with her other teachers and discovered that they take similar issue to her work and behavior. But for some reason, this student's mother did not use "personality difference" excuses with regards to any of the other teachers. When I brought this student to the Principal’s Office during my lunch period recently, it seemed as though the principal gave her more credit than she gave me.

Some would call me paranoid for feeling this way. However, considering the current climate in public education – which pushes administrators to do anything to minimize complaints and criticisms leveled against their schools – I worry that it would be easier to turn against an openly queer and gender variant teacher than to stand by me.

This brings up the question: Who bears the burdens to “be careful” in public schools? It seems that queer and trans teachers are weighed down more heavily by the burden of “carefulness” than some others. When I had my students read an article about the homophobic murder of Lawrence King, I was admonished by several colleagues to ‘be careful” bringing up such “mature” topics with middle school students. Another teacher at my school, though - a white, straight, normatively gendered man - apparently didn't feel any obligation to "be careful" last week when many teachers overheard him shouting to an eighth grade boy "What happened, did you lose your vagina?"

When I inform my colleagues that I am out as queer to my students, I often get “wow, how is that?” and “how does your administration feel about that?” Many people express incredulity that administrators and parents could have possibly not voiced some kind of problem. I almost sense a vague "tsk tsk" in some people's voices, as though I should know what to expect in being out, and particularly in allowing queerness and sexual orientation to arise as fodder for discussion, in my classroom. If I lose my job for allowing students to learn about such "mature" topics as the etymology of the word "faggot" or what "homophobia" means, then in the minds of some people I will have deserved it.

If it were not a large risk to one’s job security, I know for a fact that many more educators would come out and be open about their identities. If it did not entail putting your neck on the line in some way, more educators would push students to think critically about homophobia, transphobia, and social justice. As it stands, the emphasis of the public education system and the national government are to blame teachers for as much as possible, which puts pressure on teachers to cram every minute of every lesson with content that No Child Left Behind has deemed "valuable." I feel I constantly have to be careful, and that all it takes is one wrong step - and I don’t think I’m crazy for thinking that.

1 comment:

  1. i don't think you're crazy, either.

    as usual, reading things you have written fills me with a mix of hope and apprehension. as a future teacher who identifies as queer and gender-variant and is out as such at my university, i look to you and think "wow, look what Loren's doing; i hope i can be that strong." just the same i think to myself, "will the same thing happen to me?" probably. but knowing there is another person out there who understands, and who's survived, public education as a queer and gender-variant teacher... i figure i'll be okay, somehow, even if it's difficult.

    i wonder about the implications of bringing "personality difference" as an excuse for a student's poor performance in relation to other identities, and how an administrator would go about addressing that.

    it also worries me that discussing Lawrence King's murder is "too mature"... when he was right around the age your students probably are. obviously, the incident itself was not out of the scope of actually happening in your students' lives, which for me, is all the more reason to discuss it in a sensitive, critical context.

    as a pre-service educator, i of course don't really have any advice to offer. but i just think you should know that you are probably an inspiration to more people (like myself) than you realize, and that we're with you, even if we don't have much actual power 'where it counts' (not administrators).