When You Don't Have the Words

Scenario #1:  I’m sitting in the audience at a school talent show. The two sixth grade boys chosen to be the MCs walk on stage…in cheerleader uniforms. The crowd erupts in laughter.

I was really upset by this situation, but I didn’t have the words to express why.  I couldn’t figure out why I was so distraught. After I learned more about gender inclusiveness, I was able to understand my feelings very clearly. What I witnessed was the reinforcement of the idea that boys in skirts is something to laugh at, and that’s not okay. I’m still kicking myself for not saying anything at the time, but I didn’t have the vocabulary. I do now, and here’s what it might have sounded like to approach the teacher who organized the assembly:

Thank you so much for your hard work in showcasing the special talent of our students. I want to share something that was an “ouch” for me. When the boys came out wearing skirts and everyone laughed, it made me worry about how that might make some of our children feel. Remember that gender expression varies from person to person and is an important part of an individual’s identity. Can we make a change for tonight’s performance for the parents so that everyone knows they are welcome and respected at our school?

Scenario #2: One of my students comes in crying after second recess because another student called him gay. It is 15 minutes before dismissal.

With the end of the day so close, I felt like I had to act quickly. I reprimanded the child, sent him to sign the Reflect and Recovery Journal, and explained that more serious consequences would occur if he repeated the behavior. I really thought I was doing was the right thing. I stopped that behavior in its tracks. What my response lacked, however, was education. The disciplined student didn’t understand why his behavior was wrong, and I may have actually perpetuated the idea that being gay is an insult. My other students also saw me shut down a potential conversation about LGBTQ topics. After some professional development in dealing with these situations and most important, practice, practice, practice, I realized that students need to understand why such comments are hurtful and that they want their teachers to talk about it. Here’s what it sounded like the next time it happened in my classroom:

What did you mean by that? Do you know what gay means? (Allow for response). The word gay means a man and a man who love each other or a woman and a woman who love each other. When you use the word to mean bad or stupid, it is hurtful.

Scenario #3: In a building Diversity Committee meeting that I am leading, we are discussing the posters we have on our walls. The posters depict children of minority backgrounds in future professions and go against gender stereotypes (e.g. the firefighter is a girl and the teacher is a boy). One of my colleagues asked, “Where are all the white boys?”

I felt completely frustrated. I tried to explain that white boys have only to look around or turn on the TV to see themselves reflected in every profession. That didn’t seem to resonate with the group. Just the next week, I learned about the School to Prison Pipeline. According to the 2009 Civil Rights Data Collection, black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than whites, and blacks and Latino students are twice as likely not to graduate as whites.  61% of the incarcerated population is black or Latino. So here’s how I would have responded armed with my new knowledge:

I understand your care and concern for all our students, but remember that equity doesn’t mean everyone gets treated the same. In this situation, we have to overprivilege the underprivileged group. Look at these statistics. It is so important for our minority students to see themselves reflected in our school environment. More than anyone, they need to see models of successful professionals who look like them.

Situations like these come up in educational settings all the time. The best way to make sure you know how to handle them is to practice and prepare. Consider possible scenarios, and think through how you might respond. Role play with your colleagues. We all make mistakes, but this work is too important not to learn from them.