J., a 7-year-old boy in my classroom, was bright and energetic, always wanting to help and always starting the day with a smile. J. liked strutting in fashion shows, painting nails, and dancing ballet. The other children noticed quickly that this was not “what boys are supposed to do.” During recess, some teased him for playing the “girl games” or they snickered as J. walked past them. Without even knowing it, the children in my class were sending signals that J.’s identity was somehow wrong.
As an educator, my role is to support children’s learning with multiple viewpoints and guide them to new understandings. It is also my role as an educator to create safe spaces for students to learn about and be affirmed in their own identities. To do this, I create mirrors for my students so they all feel welcome. Mirrors are objects or experiences that allow students to see people like themselves.
We think about the pictures we put on our walls, the identities of the characters in the books in our classroom libraries, and art supplies like construction paper and crayons that allow students to depict different skin tones. We do this so that students have a chance to see themselves and have different parts of their identities affirmed. J. needed to see his mirror just like all other children in my classroom.
In 2017, San Antonio Independent School District added sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to its nondiscrimination policies for students and teachers. Despite this guidance, many campus administrators and district officials have determined these topics too controversial for discussions in elementary classrooms. For example, my campus asked that any topics around gender expression/identity be approved by administration first. As a result, we’re causing harm to children’s social-emotional learning. Denying students a safe environment to be and see themselves harms their academic engagement in the classroom as well.
As an adult I take pride in my identity as a queer Latinx person. However it wasn’t always that way. In junior high and high school, I was really lonely. I knew I was different but didn’t have the words to express or understand myself. I didn’t have a friend, teacher, or adult to stand up for me or guide me toward understanding. Without the proper language or a safe space to express myself, and without someone to guide me along the way, I stayed hidden. No student should have to feel this way.
That’s why, as educators we should focus on the curriculum and content that teaches about and affirms the identity and history of our marginalized communities.
In my classroom, I discuss topics around personal identity. I not only am rooting for my students but providing them the tools to root for each other and advocate change. We read books about activists and dreamers, like those in The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy, and Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly, who didn’t let societal pressures keep them from success. I talk about putting identity in the center of building a better future – with J. and so many others in my school community.
But we can’t do this alone.
In order to do this, our district must promote and provide training so that all teachers can teach about gender identities, gender expressions, and the LGBTQ+ movement. We can start on our campuses by creating safe spaces for our LGBTQ+ staff and students. We can promote education and advocacy around LGBTQ+ issues in our schools. And we can work with organizations to provide training for how to facilitate these conversations. The National Education Association is working toward protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ staff and students. In addition they have resources and training materials for teachers to facilitate these conversations.
We need to provide gender identity-affirming mirrors in classrooms for our youngest learners and empower them to use their voice. That is our strongest tool on the path to building a future where all kids and adults alike have the freedom to show up as their true selves and be respected in any space.