Sometimes telling kids that “It Gets Better” just isn’t enough… 5 easy things we can do to make our classrooms safer and more welcoming spaces

There was another suicide in our community today. A fifteen year old boy took his own life. A few days prior, he had come out as gay to a few of his friends. I don’t pretend to understand the reasons this young man had for feeling as if the best option he had was to end his life, but I have to imagine that issues of him being gay were wrapped up in the decision.

A few days after an incredibly powerful #LGBTeach chat, I am harshly reminded of how far we all still have to go. I am reminded that with all of the progress that we are making, we are still loosing children.  I am reminded that, as educators, we have the power to make things better, but we must choose to act. We must choose to use our power.

Several years ago, the “It Gets Better” campaign was started to help young LGBT kids who were feeling hopeless.  It started as a reaction to a rash of suicides of LGBT kids. It is an incredible campaign. It shows kids that though there are struggles that they are going through, there is also hope and that if they can just remember that it gets better, then today’s troubles won’t seem so permanent.

I love the campaign, and yet, sometimes it makes me mad enough to scream that the best we have to offer our children is to tell them that it will get better.  The best we can say is that, yes, right now it is awful, but we promise you it is going to get better.  The most we can do is acknowledge that right now you will be made fun of, you will see people hold signs up that tell you that you are going to hell, you will be not see yourselves reflected in the books that you are reading and you will have people tell you that something is wrong with you, but don’t worry because one day you will realize those people were wrong and that you will have a life that you love with people who love you. It’s a nice start, but…

It. Just. Isn’t. Enough.

I think we can do better.  I think we can make things better. I think that we, especially as teachers, have the power to make things better for children today, so that we don’t have to simply tell them that things will get better.  We can make things better for them right now.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, or any of them really. But I do know the things that I wish would have happened for me in school.  I do know what I hope my daughter’s teachers will do for her one day. And here is a short list of five specific things that I truly believe we can all do to help children who are gay or have gay family members.

1) Read books that have positive LGBT characters in them.  The books don’t need to be preaching about acceptance, in fact sometimes it is better if they don’t, they just need to show people who are gay or come from families with gay people. Here is an incredible list of books that can be used: www.goodreads.com/list/show/44453.Gay_Inclusive_Books_for_Elementary_Age_Kids. Here is another incredible resource: www.welcomingschools.org/pages/using-lgbt-inclusive-childrens-books-amp-looking-at-gender-through-books

2) Use language that is inclusive. When talking about families, try not to assume that everyone has a mother and a father. When assigning projects that involve family, try not to box kids into having only one type of family. When handing out forms, leave space for diverse families. It sends a strong message when kids see that their parents have to cross out words in order to make forms work for their families.

3) Share positive stories of LGBT individuals from history. I often wonder what our world would be like for LGBT youth if they heard about Harvey Milk in the same way they heard about Martin Luther King Jr. Or if they read about Edie Windsor in the same way that they read about Cesar Chavez. I believe it would make a difference in the way that LGBT youth saw themselves.

4) Intervene.  Too often we let moments go by that send the message to LGBT kids that their feelings aren’t important enough to protect.  When we allow a student to say, “That’s so gay!” without stopping to explain why that might be harmful, we are showing kids who might be gay themselves that they live in a world where who they are is still used as an insult.  The hardest part is that often we have no idea who might be gay, which students might be trying to decide if their world is safe enough to come out in, and if they happen to see these moments go by without a teacher intervening, that sends a pretty awful message.  The children who say, “That’s so gay!” don’t deserve to get in trouble, but we do owe it to them to explain why those words can be so hurtful.  We owe it to them to help them understand what those words mean and the power they have and the harm they can do. That is our job.

5) Don’t be afraid to talk about LGBT issues. I have often heard teachers tell me that they don’t think that LGBT issues should be discussed in the classroom.  When children DO bring these issues up, they are told that it isn’t something they can talk about at school.  I think about what this does to a child who is struggling with his or her own sexuality.  They hear that who they are isn’t appropriate to discuss at school.  This puts their identity in the same category as violence, drugs, alcohol and a myriad of other harmful and dangerous topics. That is a really scary thing to tell a child.  If we tell kids that we cannot discuss LGBT issues in school, we are reinforcing the message that there is something wrong with being gay or that there is something inappropriate about being gay. I can only hope that my daughter never has to hear that message.

I don’t think that these five actions will solve the problems that exist for LGBT youth. I don’t think that if all teachers did these things, the suicides would suddenly stop. I don’t think that these actions are the answers to making this world safer for LGBT kids.

But I think they are something.

I think these are things that we all should be doing, but we aren’t.  Too many of us know that these are the right things to do, but we are scared to do them.  We allow our fears to stop us from doing the work that we know, in our hearts, could help children to feel safer.  I truly believe it is our responsibility to do more than tell our kids to hold on because it will get better.  We can make it better.  Right now.  We just have to choose to act.

There is Nothing Inappropriate About Who I Am

This week I was engaged in a conversation about books with gay characters. Was there a grade that it was too young to ask students to read these books? Was it okay to assign a book to a child, essentially forcing them to read a book, if it had a gay character? Let me be clear, I was not talking to someone who thought there was any kind of problem with giving these books to kids. She was simply relaying to me a conversation that she had.

But it stuck with me.

For days.

Here is the thing. The school that I work at…it is wonderful. The teachers are open minded and the parents are beyond accepting. They are loving. They are wonderful. The have thrown me both a wedding shower and a baby shower and they have all been filled with so much love. I have been coming out to my students for several years now and, to my knowledge, there has never been one complaint. My wife, Carla, is a frequent visitor to my school. My students have met her. My daughter, Millie, is a celebrated member of our classroom community. My school is wonderful. I am filled with gratitude every single day for the open arms that I have found in my school community.

And with all of that being true, we still worry about asking children to read books with gay characters. Few teachers read picture books to their students that have gay characters in them. Few teachers feel comfortable discussing any issue related to gay rights or family diversity because they don’t want to offend or they worry the kids won’t understand or they worry the kids are too young.

But what I cannot understand is this…What does that me for me and my family? Should I not introduce my family to children below a certain age because they might not understand a family with two moms? Should I not talk about my life with children below a certain age because those young children might then turn to their parents to help them understand a family that is different than their own? Should I not have pictures of my family on my desk because a child might ask his or her teacher why I am married to a girl? Should I continue to hide from children who might have questions because it might make the adults around them uncomfortable?

And if the answer to these questions is no (which I fully recognize for some people is not the case, but those are not the people that I am wondering about) then why should I hide books from children under a certain age because there might be a character in those books who is gay?

One of things that I delight in teaching my students is that books allow us to learn about people whose lives are unthinkably different than our own. This, in turn, allows us to develop empathy for a person who is different than us, which, in turn, will allow us to treat people with more kindness because we are coming from a place of better understanding. It is this idea that makes reading something that can not just make us better students, but better human beings.

But, if we hide the books from our children that have characters who are gay in them, then we are denying our children the opportunity to develop empathy and understanding of people who are gay. We can continue to pretend that gay people don’t exist, but it is not going to do our children any good when they eventually meet someone who is gay or are in a classroom with a child who has gay parents.

For Millie’s sake, I hope that her future classmates are in classrooms where books with gay characters are read and shared and discussed. And if questions come up, I hope that there are adults who realize it is their job to answer those questions. For Millie’s sake, I hope that she never, ever has to feel like a book is being deemed inappropriate for no other reason than because there is a family like hers in it.

There is no age that is too young to meet my family. There is no age that is too young to meet a character, in a book, who is gay or who has gay family members. Even the youngest of children can understand that families look different and that while he might be used to seeing families with one mom and one dad, there are some families that have two moms or two dads. There is nothing inappropriate about that. There is nothing inappropriate about who my family is. There is nothing inappropriate about who I am.

This is who we are.

This is who we are.

A Personal Post, A Call to Connect

I have started this blog post six different times. Each time, I stopped and erased everything I had written, worried that what I was writing would not accomplish all that I wanted it to accomplish.  This time, I am just going to keep writing and hope that the kind hearts of anyone reading will be enough to help begin something big.

Four weeks ago, I braved a world that I did not understand and joined Twitter as an educator.  I was instantly amazed, inspired, rejuvenated and captivated by what I found there.  There is this thriving world of teachers who want to learn and share and connect.  It is a place where people gather virtually in order to better themselves so that we can do better for our students.  It. Is. Incredible.

I felt as if a whole new world opened up to me.  Teaching can be a really lonely profession.  It can feel very isolating if we let it.  Too often, we get caught up in the day to day chaos to step outside our classrooms and really connect with the people we work with.  Too often, we fear being vulnerable, so we stay hidden inside our rooms, in the comfort of what we know.  We don’t mean to, but we isolate ourselves from the very people who can make us stronger and better. I know, because I have let it happen to me.  Twitter is starting to change that for me.  I have been able to connect. I have been inspired. I have found others who have already made me a better teacher, a better reflector, a better person.

Now, if teaching can be isolating and lonely for any teacher, it can be even lonelier and more isolating for gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered teachers.  I know this because I am a lesbian teacher and I have felt the effects of how isolating it can be.  Knowing the unique challenges that come along with being an LGBT educator AND knowing the power that Twitter holds to connect and support people, I have been playing around with an idea.  I don’t know exactly what it might look like, I don’t have any idea if I will be able to make it work, I don’t even know that I will be able to find others to join me, but I am going to try.

As far as life my life as an LGBT educator, I am very lucky. When I married my wife two years ago, I came out to my students, colleagues and community. For the most part, I was accepted and celebrated in the most beautiful way.  And no one has been as accepting as my students.  It is a powerful thing to witness.  But, before that, I was not out. I kept a large part of my life hidden. I feared any moment when I would have to choose between lying to my students or outing myself by simply answering a question.  I felt my heart skip a beat every time a student asked me if I had a boyfriend or if I lived by myself or even what I did over the weekend.  Because kids DO ask.  Especially kids in classrooms where teachers and students respect each other as human beings and where things don’t run with just one person standing in front of the room asking the questions.  So kids asked. A lot. And I tried to find creative ways around the truth, but really I was just lying.  I was keeping a part of myself from my students and I hated it.  The single most important thing that I hope to teach my students is to accept themselves EXACTLY as they are and to be proud of the people that they are.  How could I teach this if I, myself, was not being honest about who I was? So when I got engaged, I knew it was time to make a choice.  Either I would come out or I would lie. I would have to remove my engagement ring when I went to work. And that was not something that I was willing to do.  So I came out.  And like I said, I was pleasantly surprised by the warm reactions.

So things are getting better.  They are.  They are so much better now than they were even when I started teaching eleven years ago.  Things are getting so much better that sometimes it is easy for us to fool ourselves into thinking that there are no more issues for gay educators.  But, do a quick Google search and you will see stories like this one or this one or this one. And then you realize that we still have quite a ways to go.

Some LGBT educators are out in their school communities.  Some have experienced similar warm receptions as mine. Other LGBT educators choose not to deal with the issue at all for fear of what fallout it might bring.  And still other LGBT educators go to extreme lengths in order to hide parts of their lives from their schools because they simply feel unsafe being out. They fear loosing their jobs, they fear parents’ reactions, they fear repercussions from administrators or they fear the comments of their students.  These are all still very real fears for a lot of educators. So we have come a long way indeed, but we still need more. We still need to be there for each other.  We need to support each other.  We need to be able to lean on each other as LGBT educators.

But first we need to find each other.

Enter Twitter.  I am hoping to be able to start connecting LGBT educators via Twitter and to perhaps begin a weekly or monthly or even one-time chat where we can come together to discuss issues that we face in our schools, to discuss how to make our schools safer for LGBT students and teachers, and to support each other in those unique challenges that sometimes it is nice to know that we are not the only ones facing. I want to be able to find a place on Twitter where LGBT educators can connect with and support each other.  I have not been able to find such a place yet, and so I am hoping that perhaps, just maybe, we can start to create one.

But I need the help of anyone who might happen upon this post.  Because finding LGBT educators is not always the easiest thing.  Sometimes, people are afraid to mention that they are LGBT for fear of it causing problems at their schools.  Other times, it is just not something that is mentioned because it might not be a part of an educators small Twitter bio.  Other times, teachers might not think that it has anything to do with them as a teacher and their lives in the classroom.  But I believe it does and I believe that there will be so much power in bringing a group of people together who can talk about life as LGBT educators.

So if you are able, please pass this blog post along.  Help me to get the word out. Help me to begin to create a space that is needed. If you are an educator, and you know someone who might be interested in connecting with this kind of community, please pass this blog post along.  If you are an LGBT educator and you, yourself, would be interested in connecting with this kind of community, please reach out.  Leave a comment.  Contact me via Twitter @JessLifTeach or email me at jlifshitz@northbrook28.net.  Thus far, it is has been hard to find other LGBT educators to connect with, but I know you are out there.  I know that you, too, have felt how isolating it can be.  And I truly believe that there is a need that can be filled by Twitter if we are willing to reach out and start connecting.