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Welcome to our advice column! Today we're helping a teacher who's less than excited about teaching a former student. We're also helping a teacher who is trying to support trans and gender non-conforming students at her Christian school. See what our writers have to say, then share your own advice in the comments! You can read a couple of our previous editions of Ask The Educator's Room here and here.
Dear The Educator's Room,
I need help! I need to change my mindset. I need to be forgiving. I moved up a grade, and I have students on my roster that I had some run-ins with last year, and I'm trying to have a positive outlook. Help!
Wanting a Fresh Start
First, you can acknowledge that you are human and are having a very human reaction to a situation that comes from working with other humans. Being wary of teaching a student who has caused problems in the past does not make you a bad person or bad teacher. One of the many reasons students and teachers look forward to the end of a school year is because they are eager for a fresh start.
Second, students do grow and change. In 20 years, I've had a handful of difficult students who I taught for consecutive years or with a year in-between. I've worried about having them in class again because we were like oil and water, only to discover that a summer or a year of growth transformed our relationships. I am still in contact with one of them (she graduated from college last year). I am teaching another student who drove me crazy, but we've found a comfortable rhythm this year.
Look for ways in which your student has grown and celebrate them. Ask questions about the interests you already know about to show that you pay attention to more than their behavior. With the advantage of hindsight, consider if there were academic barriers that might have caused some of those behavioral issues. Then work to meet those challenges from the beginning. You may not be able to forget the past, but these strategies might help you find the positive outlook you are looking for. Even if you still struggle (and you may), you will know that you made a genuine attempt at a fresh start.
- Sarah Styf
First of all, cut yourself a little slack. Even the most optimistic, asset-minded teacher has those “run ins” that are hard to shake.
Something you might find helpful is to actually have a conversation about the past year with those students. There’s a good chance they’re anxious too.
Even if they are the type to wear the way they got under your skin like a crown, there is almost always an ulterior motive that has nothing to do with you.
Try to keep in mind the benefits of having challenging students two years in a row. You know many of their tendencies already and your shared history can actually be a strong launching point.
Try leading with positivity. “I am so happy to have you in class again! How can we harness your awesome energy so you can be your best?”
Or, from a very real situation I experienced, “You are such a passionate thinker. I’m excited to see how you can develop that strong voice in your writing this year.
If the behavior from last year repeats, try saying something like, “Remember last year when this was happening? That was really frustrating because I know you are a leader in class. I hope and believe you can lead your classmates for the better.”
Maybe they didn’t know how their actions affected you. Maybe they will feel respected if you talk to them like an adult you respect. Or, maybe they will blow it off in the moment.
But, having a conversation can help you take the emotional power back and show them that you care about them, regardless of the past.
- Emma-Kate SchaakeAsk The Educator's Room: A Mindset Reset and Protecting Trans Students Click To Tweet
Dear The Educator's Room,
As a Department Chair, how can I support children who choose different pronouns than their sex assigned at birth? I teach in a Christian school, and the parents are rabid about knowing EVERYTHING about their children. I don't want to harm the kids, but the parents have no clue, and I'm stuck.
I taught in Christian schools for nearly 18 years. There was much I loved about it, especially the feeling of being instrumental in my students' academic and spiritual growth. However, I admit that I struggled the more aware I became of LGTBQ students' challenges in a Christian environment. Therefore, I fully empathize with your situation.
It is a difficult dance in which you want to cause the least amount of harm to the student. Parents may say they want to know everything about their child, but as a teacher and a parent, I know this is just not possible. At the very least, it is essential that you have a conversation with the student and clarify what name they want you to use. The names we use with our students are relational and often not dependent on pronouns. Whether using nicknames or their chosen names, we are recognizing them for how they see themselves.
It is also important to find out from the student the current relationship they have with their parents and how they feel you can best support them. Statistics tell us that if an LGTBQ child or adolescent has an adult they can trust in their lives, it significantly reduces their risk of suicide. Your student may not be looking for a vocal advocate but rather a quiet ally. Do not assume their desires; instead, seek how you can best help them navigate a very stormy period of their life.
Finally, find another ally in the building and ask them how to best navigate this situation with the administration, especially if they come to ask you questions. Have a strong defense ready as you demonstrate your desire to care for the whole child and guide your student on the path to adulthood.
As difficult as it might be to keep a student’s identity at school separate from their identity at home, there are countless, very serious, reasons to protect our LGBTQ students. Especially amidst the latest wave of attacks on everything from pronouns to books, students need safe spaces and advocates more than ever.
Outing a student (which includes using a chosen name or pronoun without their permission) actually violates students’ rights to privacy. The ACLU does not mince words and explains that outing LGBTQ students can open them to “hostility, rejection, and even violence from their parents.”
It’s your duty to protect all of your students, and if they are not in any mental or physical danger, parents do not need to be informed. I recognize the tension in your Christian school climate, but this matter is gravely important to these students.
Because you mention being a department chair, that makes me think you have some influence and an opportunity to be a leader for your LGBTQ students. I would encourage you to talk to your team members about what honoring students’ identities looks like at your school.
GLSEN has great educator resources including guides to pronoun use and professional development that are definitely worth adding to your toolbox. If you feel like you’re on an island, and your team members are hesitant or even resistant, GLSEN has educator networks by state, so find your people. Your students’ lives may literally depend on your support.
about the advisors
Sarah Styf is a 19-year high school English teacher. She lives in the Indianapolis area with her husband and two children. She is passionate about education reform and civic engagement. She can be found on Instagram @sarah.styf and Twitter @sarahstyf.
Emma-Kate Schaake is a National Board Certified English teacher in Washington state. She's passionate about her teacher leadership role at the building and district levels, creating professional development on equity, school culture, and social justice. She writes about her ongoing journey to unlearn myopic history, act as an advocate for her students, and think critically about her role as an educator. Follow her on Instagram @msschaake
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