By Brendan Muckian-Bates
I think most educators remember their first year of teaching.
It’s the first time when the training wheels are off. You have your own classroom, your own students, your own meetings to attend. The teacher you thought you were going to be when you were in college is now put to the test.
I remember my first year vividly.
I was teaching Social Studies and English Language Arts to Freshmen and Sophomores during an election year. I figured tensions would be high, but that my jovial demeanor and critical curricula would somehow mitigate this.
I was placed in my school’s old ISS room. Cell phones wouldn’t work here. When it was cold, it was very cold. There were no windows, and I was too poor at the time to purchase classroom decorations. My wife was due to have our first child two weeks into my contract and I didn’t know any subs in the county who could cover my classes for a week. Everything I had planned over the summer was formatted for Chromebooks, but it wasn’t until a few days before I began teaching that I learned we wouldn’t get this technology until January.
Undaunted by all this, I figured that the only thing I could do was maintain a positive outlook and push forward. My students needed me.
Soon into the year, I began making a connection with my LGBTQ+ and ally students. I taught Women’s and Gender Studies at WVU for three years as a graduate student, so I was acutely aware of the need to support these students. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 42% of LGBTQ+ students state that the community in which they live is not supportive of them. LGBTQ+ students are twice as likely to be bullied and harassed as their cisgender, straight peers, and 92% reported hearing slurs about their sexuality or gender in schools or online.
I wouldn’t wince when I heard students shout slurs in the hallway or in my classroom - I confronted it head-on.
It didn’t take long for my students to know which side I was on. After the election, those relationships that I had built up with them would be more important than I could imagine. The students who had been emboldened by hateful speech by a certain presidential candidate had taken out their anger at their peers that Fall. I had incalculable side bars and after class conversations with troubled students. I can’t tell you the number of times I told them, “It’ll get better once the election is over.”
These same students who had bullied their non-conforming peers found new strength in knowing that the country had agreed with them; there would be no consequences for bullying, for hate. In fact, it would be rewarded.
That was when I decided I would help my students start a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at our school. The GSA was to be an inclusive space for students to talk about what issues they were having in school, where they could make improvements, and plan for events.
I worked with one of my students to put on our school’s first Day of Silence through GLSEN. On one day during the school year, students take a vow of silence to protest the hateful discrimination that LGBTQ+ students face everyday in schools, communities, and workplaces. We had around two dozen students participate in the Day of Silence.
At the end of that year, one of my students who helped plan our Day of Silence wrote me a letter that I still have. Every time I read it, I am filled with tears. Reading the ways that one person can positively change the life of another made me confident that everything I had done that year was justified, because it had given some light to a struggling student who needed to know the world wasn’t all bad.
As educators, we know our LGBTQ+ students face harsher treatment from the world around them than their straight peers will ever know. We know that the world is unfair to them, yet we try as best we can to create an equitable classroom and a welcoming school for them five days a week, 180 days a year.
The fight for social justice in education is one reason why our education associations - WVEA, AFT, and WVSSPA - must back the fight for SB 270. SB 270, also known as the Fairness Act, would add sexual orientation and gender identity to our state’s Human Rights Act, making it illegal to discriminate against someone in the workplace or in housing on the basis of who they love. How can our students grow up in public schools believing their teachers want the best for them if they don’t take up the fight for their future as LGBTQ+ West Virginians? How can LGBTQ+ parents of our students see us as advocates for them if we refuse to take on this struggle? How can we give violations and detentions for homophobic speech one day, and balk at actions that would materially benefit these students the next?
Furthermore, both AFT and NEA organize graduate workers and professional staff in higher education. Students who are active union members while in college may receive the benefits of affiliation while in college, only to struggle to find housing or a career in the state because of who they are. If we are to represent them as a union, we must understand that their needs extend far beyond grievance procedures and electoralism. Until this happens, unions will be seen as third parties, as outsiders that don’t take on the fights of all their members.
Our unions, our state, our schools are for everyone. It’s time we make that clear legislatively.