The same four students hang out together in front of my classroom most mornings. One set is female and the other male. I do not have these students in my classes, and they have never participated in our school’s Genders and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) meetings. Yet I see these LGBT students in the hallway near my classroom everyday. I always give them a smile and sometimes I throw a peace sign their way, too. I give them the nonverbal affirmation that they matter and that they are safe around my classroom. They usually nod and smile back. I was reflecting on this the other day because I met with one of the school mental health counselors. We were talking about another student in my class who has been receiving mental health support. The counselor told me that the student identified me as a supportive adult on campus. I was a little thrown by the thought that out of all the adults on campus, I was the one this student identified as a supportive adult. I have always been nice to the student. I always go out of my way to try and build relationships with students as much as I can. But I never had a real personal conversation with this student. Yet I was the one he identified as a supportive adult. I am the advisor for the GSA club, an LGBT student group, on our high school campus. I fly a rainbow flag in my room. I hold what I call "Restorative Justice Circles" and teach social-emotional skills in my classes. I guess I have not realized how much all this has an impact on my students. Even the students who do not come to our GSA club meetings know that they have a strong advocate in me, so they hang out in front of my classroom, a place where they feel safe. As teachers, we often do not know how powerful an impact we do have on our students. Sometimes a simple smile and peace sign can give students the acknowledgement that, yes I see you, yes I accept you, yes you are safe here and this is your home, this is your school.
Fellow Teachers, Let’s Use Our Powers for Good and Defend All Our Students
Another student, who is in our GSA club, let me know of an incident that happened in another classroom. He told me about a time when his teacher paired him up with another student and the student shouted loudly, “I don’t want to work with that guy, he is
gay!” My student is an openly gay male on campus. He said he felt terrible because all the other students in class started to laugh and mumble, “Oh my God, he is gay!” My student did not respond to the harassment, and the teacher moved on and formed different groups. He told me that he did not feel bad because he was called “gay” by another student. What bothered him most was the fact that the teacher did not say anything. The teacher did not intervene. This broke his heart. He expected the teacher, out of all people, to defend him. As teachers, we must remember that we have a quiet yet huge impact on our students. All our actions, both overt and covert, affect students in more ways we can imagine. This is especially true for our LGBT students.
Jose Lara is a proud assistant principal at Dale Jr. High in Anaheim, California. Formerly a social studies teacher, he is the recipient of the inaugural Social Justice Activist Award by the National Education Association, the largest organization of educators in the country. Lara writes and advocates for student equity, multilingual and culturally relevant education in our schools.