Years in Education: 35+
Q: What do you have in common with your students?
A: I am an out gay man who has stood in front of students every day for decades. To some that has meant nothing, others resented it, for others it confirmed that for them or their friends and relatives – you can be a successful adult and still be your best self.
I’ve had high school students trust me and tell me they were gay or lesbian. Colleagues have also come out to me, although my fellow teachers often expressed that they were fearful of the community's response although they trusted me with their identity behind closed doors. Even a student's parent chose to talk to me when he realized he was gay. He said I was a role model on what could be – living a quiet but proud life, taking the punches and blows, but showing up every day ready to be there – for kids, for families, for myself. I was moved that he saw me in that light. We’re still friends 25+ years later.
For some secondary students of various minority identities (based on their race, ethnicity, religion, etc.) they equated their challenges as similar to my experience as a gay man who is also not in the majority. They have often said things to me like, "Well, you know what it’s like…"
Being a gay male teacher teaching primary students since 1978, I do understand difference. I also understand being attacked--personally, professionally, physically. I understand prejudice, presumptions, misinformation, and hiding in plain sight.
I’ve been assaulted, chased for blocks by a gang of young men, a knife has been held to my throat, a gun has been pointed at my head, my car has been set on fire, I've been spat upon, and more, just for being me.
I remember the first male cheerleader at a high school where I taught. He was straight, and he took a lot of abuse for being on the cheer team. There was also female athlete who excelled at her sports but then was harassed for being so ‘sporty.’ They both found me at some point and chose to trust me to vent, dump, or ask for help. I was grateful to be able to be there for them. Our first conversation in my classroom every year is about becoming friends and our last conversation is about staying friends and these moments of trust are a big part of that.
I want to think that ultimately both students and I want to be at school. Even those students who ‘buck’ school I believe sense a need to be at school--it may not be the academic learning, instead it may be the social community. But at least they are on site. I can work from that.
I want to be in my classroom every day. Even after 35 years I still think and feel that way. I strive to create an environment that reflects my dedication to my students and they know it. When students cross that classroom threshold I want them to think and feel that they are wanted, their presence matters, and that the room is different and complete when we are all together. Literally, on full attendance days I exclaim, “I LOVE days when EVERYone is here!”
I’ve had students, some in my high school teaching and some in elementary, who did not want to be present. They posture through their various mechanisms – ignoring peers, routines, and me. Students have thrown objects at me, ripped my glasses off my face (elementary student), thrown me against a wall (high school student), in moments of utter frustration. It took longer for those students to see I was on their side.
But, almost every one of my students eventually sees that I really don’t leave, I do what I say, I care about them, and I want to see them in class every day. At some moment, there is always a turning point.
Q: Does it matter that students and teachers have things in common?
A: Yes, it does. However, I believe it’s ultimately about relationships. I think this has proved to be true in my work as a teacher with my graduate students through my kinderkids. What did we experience in class? Did they remember what they learned academically? Nah, they remember how they felt.
Thanks to social media I have the good fortune of being in contact with dozens of former students who initiated contact. I’m working my way through trying to see them now in person as adults--take them to dinner, go for a drink, meet their families.
One of my favorite memories of realizing how important relationships are between students and teachers was on Halloween of 2014, when I was married.
After 22 years of being with my partner, we were stunned when the legality of same-sex marriage actually occurred. After living as ‘out-laws’ for over two decades, we had mixed emotions. We choose to marry on Halloween – we thought, what a scream!
Halloween is a big day at my school, old tradition. As I prepared my kinderkids for it, I had to tell them I would not be present that year.
I was so distressed about telling them why. Despite an improving world and social advancements, I was still sweating saying out loud that I was gay to students. So, one of my lifetime great days, my impending LEGAL marriage, was clouded with my own baggage.
To prepare to come out to my class, I talked with friends, told my administration, and warned my students' parents (who were all thrilled at my news). All of them looked at me so matter-of-factly. They loved me but hardly any knew of the attacks of the past and they didn't understand why I was struggling so much.
On the day before Halloween, I told my students that I would not be at school for the festivities. Ohhh, that was not okay with them.
“Well, why not?”
Through sweat and a shaky voice I said, “Tomorrow, on Halloween, I am going to be married.”
“MARRIED!?!! You? Why didn’t you tell us before today? That’s great. Lucky you… etc.”
“What’s her name?”
There it was. The question that I expected and made me re-visit all the past ugly moments, but I so wanted to embrace my joy in their company, too…
“His name is Norbert.”
Silence – uh oh. Some kids whispered to each other.
“Did he just say ‘his name’ “?
“You’re marrying a man!?”
“Well, what are you wearing? Will it be a costume? How many costumes? What will you eat? Will people dress nice or in costumes? Will you dance?”
And off they went talking about what mattered most – the party!
I took a breath, grinned from ear to ear and became tearful. I realized I was in a most trusted company of friends who simply wanted to share in the joy. And that is what I needed most to know. I shed several layers of armour that morning and love them all the more for the gift of their care.
Kevin is the University of Washington's 2009 Mentor Teacher of the Year. Read more about Kevin's journey here.
Photo (c) 2017 Kristin Leong