Tolerance, Acceptance and UNITY

I took the first steps this week to create an on-campus club similar to the nationally recognized “Gay-Straight Alliance”!

I started by emailing my school Principal, with the basic idea. He responded back to set up a meeting for the following afternoon. To the meeting, I brought a few of the ideas that I had for a mission statement and how to advertise the new club to the students.

My biggest fear with the creation of a club like this is that it will turn into a source of embarrassment. I would never want the members of the club to feel like they had to defend their involvement against harassment at school. I would never want the club’s purpose to become counter-productive. My principal had the same concerns. We had a very productive “brain-storming” session about how to best move forward with the idea and came up with something that I am so proud of!

We decided that it would not be best to create an official “Gay-Straight Alliance” at the Middle School level. We realized that it would be difficult to create the safe environment that we are hoping for, without a prior track-record of trustworthy members and/or advisors. We chose instead to move forward with a “social club”, promoting it as an environment encouraging acceptance and tolerance. I named the club “Unity Link” and drafted a Mission Statement to present to our Guidance Counselors and to our Board of Education.

Mission: Unity Link is an extra-curricular club and social organization that connects students to each other and to the New Jersey Middle School Faculty through peer support, leadership development and discussion. The purpose of Unity Link is to provide a safe environment for students to form alliances and inter-personal relationships that can help strengthen individual confidence. Unity Link will also create a platform to combat teasing, discrimination, harassment, and bullying school-wide. A secondary benefit of the organization is to provide a direct “link” from this alliance to the NJMS Faculty Advisor(s) of the club.

 Why Unity Link is needed: A 2013 survey of Bullying in the United States indicated that one in four kids are bullied on a regular basis. The same survey showed that about 77% of all students reported some kind of verbal bullying. Out of that 77%, 14% have a severe reaction to the abuse, leading to poor self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide.* Student polls have indicated that when an organization like Unity Link is present on campus, students feel safer and more supported. **

The response to the Mission Statement was incredible. The Guidance Counselors on-campus seem very excited about this and so am I. We are still awaiting Board approval, but I am very happy that this first step went so smoothly. Hopefully, in just a few weeks, I will be having my first meeting!

*BullyingStatistics.org, **GSANetwork.org

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A Resolution for the Real World of Twenty-Fourteen

I am usually not a believer in New Years’ Resolutions. It’s way too common for someone to set a goal January first, and forget about it by January thirty-first. It’s also a bit irritating that one can hope to wipe away the past years’ laziness with the turn of a new one. But as the clock ticks down to midnight on Twenty-Thirteen, I find myself setting one very honest, very serious goal.

A few weeks ago, one of my 7th Grade students came to me and asked if she could talk privately. I have acted as a kind of mentor to her for the last year or so. She had some major problems at home and her attitude towards elders and authority figures landed her in a lot of trouble as a 6th Grader. Last year, she ended up repeating Grade 6 – that was when I got involved. She began coming to me for extra help with homework, tests, projects, etc. She also began seeking advice from me about family relationships and some of her friendships. So, when she said she needed to speak with me, it didn’t alarm me – but I also wasn’t at all prepared for this particular conversation.

I knew something was up when she began to appear nervous. This girl does not get nervous. She is confident and strong – never nervous. I asked her if she’d rather write down what she needed to tell me and she nodded. She quickly scribbled a note on a post-it and handed it back to me. The note read, “I am kinda dating a girl.”

Yikes.

I found myself in a situation that I both feared and desired. I feared it because of the many ways this conversation could go South – or how my part of it could be misconstrued. I feared it because of the paranoia that she’d find out about me. But I desired it because this was why I became a teacher. This was what I wanted – to help kids. To be there for them when no one else seemed to be. To be the mentor and elder that they could trust.

She expressed her own fears to me – that she didn’t think she was gay and that she didn’t want people to call her “a lesbian”. I did my best to lend her my thoughts. It went something like this:

“I don’t exactly have a traditional view on sexual orientation and the labels that go along with it. To me, nobody and can label  you unless you give them permission to do so. If you do not consider yourself gay, then you’re not. However, perhaps you should worry less about the label and more about finding whatever it is that makes you happy. Your generation seems to be much more open about exploring gender identity and sexual orientation than previous generations. All that means is that perhaps you don’t know what makes you happy just yet – and that’s perfectly OK. I tend to look at humans like atoms – like in Chemistry Class. Atoms want to find others to bond with, to be happy. When they bond with another atoms, it’s because they have found balance. Maybe humans are the same. We bounce around, discovering the world around us until we find the atom that perfectly balances us. To me, the balance is all that matters – not sex or gender or labels.”

By the end of the conversation, I felt liberated. I was so proud of the fact that I was able to help her with that particular struggle. She thanked me for my help and left saying that she felt better about the whole situation. I figured that was the end of it. I was very wrong.

Later that week, that same student showed up with three more friends that had questions about their own struggles with identity. I sat there realizing that these 4 students are just the tip of the iceberg. I work in a school of 925 pre-teen adolescents. They have questions. They have fears. They have pain. There is a void in my school, and likely thousands across the country, where a safe place should be – a club or group of some kind to give these students a place to talk.

That is my goal. My New Years’ Resolution.

I did some research and found an organization called the “Gay-Straight Alliance”. To be honest, I can’t believe I didn’t get on this sooner. I feel ashamed that I have been a Lesbian Teacher for 8 years and am just now getting serious about something like this. If it weren’t for that particular conversation with that one student, I am not sure I ever would have gotten serious about it. But now I am. I am going to create a Gay-Straight Alliance Club.

Perhaps somewhere through the creation of this club, I can find a way to come out to my students. Perhaps by giving them a safe place to talk and discover, I will see that the best place for me isn’t in the closet.

A Letter to Chris Christie: “The Governor”

Dear [Governor] Chris Christie,

I know that writing a letter like this can be a bit childish and can even come across as cowardly as I hide behind my keyboard. But right now, I have a few things to get off of my chest, and since the voicemails I have left you in Trenton have gone unanswered, to this humble blog I turn.

I am one of your hard-working New Jersey residents and even though I have only lived here for 11 years, I am confident that I have done New Jersey proud. I went to school here, I own a house here and I teach here. Before you roll your eyes, wondering what this “greedy” teacher wants now, I ask that you hear me out (and maybe even take the moment to read My Teaching Story to discover the real reason I became a teacher).

I take my job very seriously. To me, teaching isn’t just a means to an end – I LOVE what I do. I love it when I catch my students showing genuine interest in a piece of History. I love it when a student comes back to visit and shares with me how much I helped her prepare for the next level. I love the feeling I get when I leave school well after 4:30 because I was helping a single kid study for his upcoming Science test. And I love when a parent comes up to say “My son couldn’t stop talking about your class the other day!”

I just LOVE my profession. It’s not an act. I’m not trying to play to your emotions or fill a cliché. It’s a fact. The reason I bring up this fact is because you have repeatedly tagged teachers as greedy, lazy, overpaid, whiny and selfish – to name just a few. You have earned a reputation in this state (and across the country) for “telling it how it is”. Your insensitive and poison-laden words have become expected by the gluttonous reporters that show up to hear you, eager to snag another Christie One-Liner. Are those giddy reactions you see as you slander your citizens really that worth it? Have you ever considered that those so-called “lazy teachers” on which you choose to focus are the exception, not the rule?

I am the rule. Teachers like me are the rule. Everyday, I see my co-workers put their hearts into what they do. We collaborate on how to work with special needs kids. We collaborate on how to improve a certain lesson. We collaborate on the best methods of assessment to reach all kinds of learners. And in between, we feel hurt that our own Governor is out spreading lies to the citizens of the state. According to you, teachers are disposable. At least that’s the way you made it sound when you told teacher Rita Wilson that if she didn’t like her salary, she should quit. Is it really that black and white to you? Are you really arguing that we teach for the money? By my calculations, my gross pay is approximately $1.40 per day for each student I teach. I think those numbers more than speak for themselves.

You put on the Helping Hat, saying that your intention is to improve the school systems and make this a better place for our children. And you don the Cloak of a Champion during rough times to further blind the voters that will soon be stepping into the curtained booth. Perhaps you should worry less about the optics and the P.R. and more about what your state really needs:

1. Honesty. You have repeatedly gone back on your word, unwilling to even acknowledge previous statements made to your public. You refused to comment on this New York Times article, but maybe now you’ll check out what they have to say.

2. Leadership. If you want changes made in schools, sit down with actual teachers to discover where the improvement is needed. Be willing to find real ways to improve the state’s public education system.

3. Accountability. If teacher accountability is what you desire, good teachers will be right there with you fighting for the same thing (and so would I). However, if you aren’t held accountable for your job and promises, how are we to trust you?

On November 5, New Jersey citizens will be voting to either inaugurate a new Governor, or reelect the same one. It is my hope that the citizens of New Jersey have done their homework, read up on the issues, and ignored your altogether insulting P.R. stunts (such as the convenient withdrawal of your attempt at appealing the lower court decision to allow same-sex couples to wed in New Jersey – do not think that went unnoticed). If a mis-informed, perpetually blind public is what you desire, perhaps you’ll win this election. I, however, have more faith in New Jersey. We are Stronger than that.

Sincerely,

That Lesbian Teacher

Just one of your hard-working New Jersey residents.

Scene Life, Take Two

An excerpt from Shallow Hal (2001), starring Jack Black and Jason Alexander:

Hal: You’re not serious! You actually think you’re more mature than me?!

Mauricio: You’re right…you’re probably more mature than me – but at least I have a biggerwilly!

[tick]

[tick]

[tick]

Hal: Yeah, bigger than a mouse’s.

Mauricio: What was that?

Hal: I said you’re willy’s bigger –

Mauricio: I know what you said – but, it took you like, 8 seconds. You can’t come back with a comeback after 8 seconds. You got 3 seconds…5tops! That’s why they call it a “QUIP“…not a “sloooow-p“.

Ever have those scenes in your life that didn’t quite play out the way you wanted them to? The kind where you wish you had all the time in the world to think of the perfect response? Or that you could just rewind time and do a scene all over again so you come out sounding like a champ? Well, let me tell you, that desire is HEARD on my end.

Scene 1 Take 1I consider myself a pretty well-spoken person. I am not the kind of arrogant jack-ass type that spits my views all over the place expecting everyone to just nod and agree. But I am also not the silent lamb breed that rolls over and takes it whenever faced with adversity. I pick my battles wisely, and when I feel something needs to be said, I say it.

But there are times, when the words I wanted to say just don’t come at the moment I needed them. I find myself replaying scenes of my life, rewriting my lines to make me the bad-ass champ they write in movies and shows. Olivia Pope meets Erin Brockovich, with a little Idgie Threadgoode thrown in there for good measure. Do I always regret the original words I chose (or didn’t say at all)? No way. But it sure is fun to play director and invent scenes that would have made my character pop on that screen.

Last Thursday was “Back-to-School Night” at my school. It’s when parents and/or guardians come in for a Meet & Greet with the teachers. They visit all the classes in their child’s schedule and learn the gist of what each class (and teacher) is about. As frustrating as it is to come back to work at night after a long day, I usually don’tmind Back-to-School night. I find it fun to explain what I do, why I do it, and the basic day-to-day of my class. I usually leave with a big smile on my face and a pep in my step because I just got to explain my cherished Personal Philosophy of Teaching 6 times to parents that clearly take an interest in the lives of their children (at least enough to show up!).

This year, however, I was not looking forward to the occasion because of one parent in particular. He is the kind of parent that is not at all satisfied with his son, the teachers, the administrators, the world – I mean he has some serious issues. But it seems he has taken a particular disliking in me over the course the last few weeks. He’s made it clear in recent emails and rants that I am “a terrible teacher.” The words hurt – oh how they hurt – but I try and focus on the kids (and his son really is a good kid) and on the positive feedback I get so regularly.

Needless to say, however, I was worried about Thursday night. During the time-slot designated to Period 3 when I have the above-mentioned student, sure enough Mr. MeanGuy shows up. I go through my spiel and end with the following: “Since tonight is not a conference night, I cannot take the time to answer individual questions about your child’s performance, but please feel free to e-mail me with questions, or you can schedule an appointment through our Guidance Department for an after-school conference.” I said this same thing to each class of parents that night, as well as to any parent asking specific questions. The administrators of our school insist that we do not treat Back-to-School night as a time for conferences, and I willingly oblige.

It was following my very clear final statement and dismissal to the next “Period” that Mr. MeanGuy approached me. He is taller than I and thick like a line-backer – altogether pretty intimidating even before opening his mouth. And then he opened his mouth. He began pointing his finger in my face and accusing me of being unfair to his son. His accusations were not only false but very disrespectful – all in front of many other parents in my classroom. I felt like crawling into a hole and disappearing.

In the interest of being respectful and professional, I answered with the same not-a-conference-night statement I had just made. He didn’t accept right away, continuing to berate me right there in the front of the room. I insisted again that he’d have to schedule a conference and he finally left.

I can’t stop replaying the whole scene over and over again, trying to rewrite my part. What would the bad-ass me have said? How might I have laid into him with the searing words of the strongest females on the big and small screens? I’ll never know.

Life isn’t a movie. Things happen and we either work to overcome them or we don’t. Sure, it would be great to be able to write it all out, plan it to the tee and cook up some awesome one-liners in the process. But that would mean we’d know the ending – and what’s the fun in that?

Inspired, Scared, Courageous, Scared

While absent-mindedly trolling the Internet just moments ago, I found the most amazing article about a Middle School History teacher coming out to her students. As I read the story, I felt like I was reading about my own life as it happened in an alternate reality. In that reality, I was brave. I came out to my students from the get-go. And I stood up to those that tried to knock me down. But it wasn’t me. This was someone else’s story – a story that I have for so long wanted to make my own.

The teacher’s name is Jody Sokolower. To me, she’s a hero. Reading her words, I started to feel so ready to do what she did. I began to imagine her story playing out in my own school, with my students and administrators. And then, just as quickly as I felt ready, fear crept in. That is where I am stuck. For every part of me that feels inspired and ready and brave, fear looms like a dark cloud ready to squash it. Each time I imagine all of the students that are just waiting for a Gay or Lesbian role model, fear reminds me of the parents, administrators and other students that could be ready to pounce. How did she do it? How did she get so brave?

In her story, Jody talks about how it started with the question, “Are you married?” I can’t even count the number of times I have gotten this question from my students. And instead of holding my head up to the world with the truth, I brush past it with a simple, “Nope.” Over and over again, I have had the opportunity to come out to my students, but I always find a way around it.

Last year during the Presidential Election, my Honors classes worked the entire month of October on a project in which they researched the many Presidential candidates and studied their specific beliefs and policy platforms. One of their assignments was to come in ready for a Socratic Seminar, during which the students would be discussing some of the “hot-button” topics of the 2012 campaign, including Same-Sex Marriage. For this type of lesson, the desks are set up in two circles – an inner circle for discussion and an outer circle for observation. The entire seminar is driven by the students – I simply watch and take notes. It wasn’t long before the discussion settled onto Gay Marriage. I held my breath, curious to hear the opinions of my students. And as each student contributed their personal beliefs, I was shocked. Even though a few students had some religious reservations on the topic, most of the class was in agreement that Same-Sex Marriage should be legalized. I felt myself getting choked up as I watched. One student said that he didn’t even understand why the government should get involved in people’s personal lives, and that soon this topic was going to be as ridiculous as slavery once had been.

I can see the opinion on homosexuality of the American Youth changing before my eyes, but I still cannot shake the fears. Unfortunately, I can no longer tell if these are genuine fears I have, or simply excuses to avoid the issue. Is the backlash I am anticipating real? Will there really be an angry mob ready to mobilize? Or is it just something I am creating as a why of putting it off?

I know this: Jody Sokolower’s story has made me feel inspired and scared. I know, too, that I cannot continue to keep my life bottled up. This needs to happen. And the sooner I make that clear to myself, the sooner I can get to work on clearing that dark cloud, and moving on.

My Teaching Story

I grew up in a big city as a Military kid. Even though I was fortunate enough to stay in the same city throughout my education, my parents moved us around quite a bit as they got their own lives together. By the time I stepped onto my High School Campus as a Freshman I had already been to 5 different schools. Since I always seemed to be the new girl, focusing on my actual school work seemed like background noise. It’s not like I was a bad kid, but definitely not what one might call studious. I was so intent on finding “the thing” that would make me fit in, that I didn’t see the point of putting my energy into class.

That all changed my Freshman year in my History class. I never considered History my favorite subject – I honestly don’t know if I even had one – but the way our teacher captivated us each day made me want to know more. He was enthusiastic and passionate and it all came out in his lessons. Initially, I just liked the class as a time slot in the day. I’d look forward to it each day because I couldn’t wait to hear new exciting stories from the exotic History Guy, Mr. Brockett.

Soon, however, I started to realize that I was getting into the subject, too. Mr. Brockett inspired us to discover our own favorites in History by giving us fun incentives for outside of class. I became so into U.S. History that my free time was spent reading war memoirs from General Patton, looking up first-hand accounts of the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, and even annotating Hitler’s creepy manifesto Mein Kampf. I found something within myself because Mr. Brockett was willing to show us an exciting side of a subject we all thought we’d heard before.

One day in class, it just clicked. I looked up at Mr. Brockett, and wanted to be him. I wanted to do what he did. Since that moment, I have put my whole heart into teaching. I worked one period each day as Mr. Brockett’s Teacher’s Assistant for the next 3 years. He taught me some of the behind-the-scene-secrets to teaching and even let me prepare small pieces of lessons that were especially exciting to me. In college, he continued to mentor me. I called as often as I could to discuss strategies I was learning. I absolutely could not wait to step into my own classroom one day and put it all into action.

When I got my job, only 2 months after I graduated, my father gave me a starfish necklace. He told me a story that I have never forgotten…

“One day there was a terrible storm along the coast that left thousands of starfish stranded on the sand. A man watched as a little boy walked from starfish to starfish, picking them up and tossing them into the water to save them. The man looked up and down the beach. There were stranded starfish for as far as the eye could see. After a few minutes, the man approached the young boy. He asked, ‘What are you doing? There are way too many starfish that need help. There is no way to save them all, so what does it matter?’ The young boy simply picked up another starfish and tossed it into the water. He looked back up at the man and said, ‘It mattered to that one.'”

I try and live my life with that story as my inspiration. I think of how Mr. Brockett helped me and how I can help my students. Even if I can inspire 10, or 5 or even 1….even if all I can do is get them interested in my lesson for the 42 minutes they have me each day, I can feel like I made an impact.