As a teacher, “back to school” is an emotional time for many reasons. It means the end of lazy days and adventures with my daughter, but it also means a new start. A different kind of adventure. I’m thrilled to see my returning students and find out what they have been up to, and I’m also excited to meet the new students that will be starting my program this year. It’s invigorating, full of endless possibilities of where the year could take me.
But it’s also a little scary, because inevitably one of the students will ask me if I’m married. And when I say that I’m divorced, the next question is usually “do you have a boyfriend?” I could just say no and leave it at that, because technically I don’t have a boyfriend - I have a girlfriend. But if I DID have a boyfriend, I probably wouldn’t hesitate to say yes.
To lie or tell the truth?
It’s common for teachers to feel conflicted about how much personal information to share with their students - on the one hand, it’s really none of their business. I’m not there to be a friend, I’m there to teach, and my personal life is sort of irrelevant. On the other hand, students want to know that their teachers are human, and sharing a little bit of myself feels necessary to encourage learning. I tend to lean towards the latter, and yet if I choose to tell the the whole truth in this situation, I am outing myself as gay, and I’m never sure how that will go over.
There are endless questions that run through my mind in those moments… to quote my principal, “can this student handle the truth?” Will it upset him? What if she doesn’t want to be in my class anymore? How will the parents react? Because this isn’t just about me - it’s also about the student, and the learning environment, and I don’t want to be the reason that a student has trouble in school. I’m there to help, and if being gay causes an issue for a student, then that’s a problem for both of us. I could have repeated arguments with myself (and others) over this topic, but ultimately, I believe that sharing who I am makes me a better teacher.
Just as it took me awhile to come out to my friends and family, coming out at school was also a slow process. The first year, I didn’t say much to my students about my personal life other than that I was divorced and had a daughter. Every now and then I would sort of drop hints about having a girlfriend when I was feeling especially brave, but I only ever did so in my single junior English class. My other kids were freshmen, and I just wasn’t ready to go there with them. It wasn’t until the end of the school year that I finally “came out” to my juniors. We were doing a project on recognizing bias and privilege based on our identity as individuals, and I wanted to use myself as example, so sharing some personal information was necessary. However, a colleague suggested that I run the idea by my principal first, to make sure that if a parent got upset that I would be supported. I had done this project with several classes early in my career, before I started identifying as gay, and at that time I didn’t even consider the need to ask permission to tell my students about my life. It seemed completely unfair that I would have to do so now, and yet I felt compelled to do it. Luckily I had a supportive principal who trusted my judgement. But still. It felt like I was apologizing for myself - as if I would be doing something wrong, and would need forgiveness when I was done. When the first day of the project arrived, I was extremely nervous. All of those “what ifs” ran through my mind, and I braced myself for some backlash. But it never came. The students thought my being gay was the coolest thing ever, and not one parent complained. And I think that for many of them, my willingness to put myself out there made the lesson much more meaningful.
Living up to my role model potential
One of my goals in becoming a teacher was to be a role model, but it occurred to me that in not readily sharing with my students I was wasting a valuable teaching opportunity. I considered how many openly LGBTQ students we had at school, and they became my role models. I started thinking to myself that if these teenagers - TEENAGERS! - were brave enough to live their lives openly and honestly, then I could do the same. I wanted other students to see that it’s ok to be different. That no matter their sexual identity, they could live happy and successful lives. And perhaps, in sharing my story, they might be given some hope for the future. The next year, more comfortable with my identity, and with my place at the school, I decided that I would talk about my girlfriend right from the beginning, just like I had talked about my husband when I was married to him. We had a new principal, but I didn’t bother asking him what he thought - I made the executive decision to be authentic and hope for the best. The first time I referred to my girlfriend, a few of the 9th graders looked a little confused, (presumably because I “look straight,” or perhaps they just didn’t know anyone else gay) but they recovered quickly, and again I didn’t receive any complaints.
I’ve come to realize that “back to school” also means taking the things that you’ve learned the year before and applying them, so that this year things are even better. I now have pictures of my girlfriend and me up in my classroom, and talk freely about her and our adventures. This year I will be more honest and open. Just as they have done for me, I will strive to be the role model that the students need.