Across this country, there are kids who are getting excited to head back to school. But, also, someone, somewhere is spending these last days before school starts worrying about the things to come.
Someone, somewhere, is worried about walking into a classroom and feeling like they do not quite belong.
Someone, somewhere, is worried about having to share a picture of her family, when her family does not look like everyone else’s because she has two moms.
Someone, somewhere, is worried about being asked to make a choice between a boys’ bathroom pass and a girls’ bathroom pass, when the choice he wants to make does not match what his teachers and peers might assume.
Someone, somewhere, is worried about asking her teacher to call her by a different name and a different set of pronouns than the ones that have been indicated on her student information sheet.
Someone, somewhere, is worried that if she asks her teachers to use a different set of pronouns when talking about her, then those teachers will contact home and her parents will react with anger and she will no longer be safe.
Someone, somewhere, is worried about the moment when he has to put on a uniform that is assigned to the girls, when everything inside of him feels wrong about it.
Someone, somewhere, is worried about having to fill out yet another form that does not fit his family because it has one line designated for “father” and another line designated for “mother”.
Someone, somewhere, is worried about what she is going to do when the first event geared towards fathers and their children comes around and she does not have a father to go with.
Someone, somewhere, is worried that he will go another year without a single teacher saying the word that feels like who he is unless it is to tell another a child not to use that word as an insult.
And someone, somewhere, is worried that once again, she will hear that who she is, her own identity, is controversial, or not appropriate for this age of children, or requires a permission slip before it can be read about and discussed.
There are children walking through our classroom doors who carry these worries, and so many others, along with the weight of their school supplies and backpacks. And we cannot instantly remove all of these worries. We cannot change the cruelty of the world. But there is so much that we can do to let them know that here, in these spaces, they are safe. They are welcomed. They are valued. They are enough. They are loved for exactly who they are.
So as you finish setting up your classrooms. As you painstakingly work to get everything looking just right. Here are a few things that you can do to help these children know that this is a space made with them in mind:
Make sure that the books that have representations of different families are visible from the first moment that children walk in the door. I promise you, kids, and their families, will notice when there are families that look like theirs already on display, so that their family will not seem like an “other” or something vastly different.
Get rid of the boys’ bathroom pass and girls’ bathroom pass and simply create two bathroom passes. If possible, let kids know of any single stall, gender-neutral bathroom options that they have access to. Try to avoid making rules like only one boy and only one girl are allowed out of the room at a time. Try trusting the kids and if there are specific students who prove that they should not be out of the room at the same time, make that a conversation with those specific students.
Do not use separate colors to write girls’ names and boys’ names in. Instead use just one color, or randomly alternate the colors that you are using.
Do not split the class by gender. If you need to have an easy way to split the class in two, use evens and odds (if they have class numbers) or assign half the class to be one category and half the class to be another (half will be “winter” and half will be “summer” and use those designations when needed).
Try to avoid saying things like, “Only two boys and two girls at each table,” or, “Since a boy just had a turn, please pick a girl next,” or, “All the girls can go first and then the boys.”
When sending home forms to be filled out, check the language that is used. Ask yourself, “Who might feel left out because of this form?” “Who will this form exclude?” “Who will this wording not work for?” And then make changes so that the language is as inclusive as possible. Instead of leaving one space for “mother” and one space for “father”, try leaving an open space and asking families to list, “Family members or caregivers” and then asking them to specify each person’s relationship to the student.
When planning school events, do not limit them to mothers and sons or fathers and daughters. Do not gear activities only for fathers or only for mothers. Instead, create family experiences or students and those who care for them. Always ask yourself, “Will anyone not feel like this event is for them because of the way that it is listed?”
In the first weeks, read books that have characters who are gay or transgender or lesbian. Read books with different families. You don’t have to make the read aloud about being a member of the LGBT community, but it will let students know that these are humans who are welcome in this space, these are humans who are seen and valued here.
Hang a safe space sticker somewhere in your classroom or in your school. Again, I promise you that families and students who need them will notice them (I always do and I always feel instantly more relaxed).
If you are having students fill out information sheets about themselves, include a space for them to list their preferred pronouns. If students have questions about what this means, you can answer them easily enough by saying something along the lines of, “Pronouns are words that people use, instead of people’s names, if they are saying something about that person. Examples of pronouns are he, she, him, her, his, hers, they and them. Sometimes, people guess correctly about which pronouns they should use when talking about a person, but sometimes they don’t know the correct pronouns and it can make a person feel bad. Each person should be able to select the pronouns that feel right for them and that is why I am asking you right from the start.”
Allow students to introduce themselves before you call their names from a list. Let students know that they should introduce themselves using the names that they want to be called in this classroom. Don’t worry too much about kids taking advantage of this. Sure, someone will try something silly, but it will be pretty obvious and it probably won’t last very long either. Those moments of silliness are worth it, if it allows another child, who feels stuck with the name that they were given, the opportunity to easily let a teacher know that the name that is listed, is not the name that feels right to who they really are.
These things. They can be so small. But they can also make a great difference. For children who walk through every day feeling as if the entire world is made in a way that does not honor who they are, these changes can make it feel as if they have finally walked into a space where they are safe and included and accepted. And while these changes will not fix the world or solve all of the problems these children will face, it can make them feel as if they have reached a place where a few things might be just a little bit easier. And a little bit easier is sometimes all we need in order to be able to be our best selves and do our best learning and growing.