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When Students “Come Out” to Teachers

I have something to say, most especially to students, about coming out publicly to someone you trust: do it. It’s my hope that my gay students who haven’t felt comfortable coming out to their friends can do so with their parents. After doing this for nearly 20 years, though, I have learned that it’s easier said than done. When I reflect back on my own childhood and my friends who came out, it was well after middle and high school and, most of the time, it wasn’t much of a surprise. But back in the 80s, it just wasn’t something my friends felt comfortable doing. I can only think of one friend who did so while still in high school. The stigma, at that time, was just too much. And that is truly a shame because I hoped my friends could have found some comfort in their friendships when they truly needed it.

In the six years since I left the classroom I have found that it happens with far more regularity in what I currently do: I’m an assistant principal of guidance and scheduling, and my job is more easily identified as “guidance dean”. Part of that very title comes with the notion that students can seek me out to talk about their issues. Sometimes, it’s about their grades or how they can get tutoring. Other times, students seek me out to talk about the trouble they’re having with their friends. Every once in a while, though, I’ll hear a knock on my door and answer to a student who wants to know how to “come out”. The most important aspect of my job includes building relationships with my students so that I can point them in other directions to get help. It may be to see our social worker or a school psychologist who are far better trained than I to help them. But, occasionally, it’s so they can simply come out and get it off their chest.

This letter, from a student coming out to their teacher in a class-assigned essay, really tore my heart out because it’s so tender and respectful of the space that teacher created in the classroom. The topic was to write an essay on the biggest thing you carry around that you have to get off your chest. Or, as the student who posted on Reddit wrote, “the weight I carry daily”. The response from the teacher is so amazing that I did a fist pump in the air when I read it. It could have turned out much worse, but the trust this teacher created with her students was cultivated on purpose and I can’t say enough how important it is for educators to do this.

When I first started teaching, I never considered creating that safe space for students. I was too worried about hitting the English standards set by the state and making sure they filled in the bubbles on a test and that they read all the required literature from the syllabus. (Oh, how young and green I was!) At first, I copied whatever the seasoned teachers used to do on their classroom syllabus until I had the confidence to create my own. It took a while to feel certain about myself in what I was teaching, but I didn’t necessarily think about how to create those crucial relationships with students. That came later after working on a team with 2 excellent teachers and one rather terrible one. Her negativity and lack of creativity stunned me because she was a year from retirement when I met her. Mrs. Parsons (of course, that’s not her real name) refused to display student work, always sat at her desk, and complained more about students than anyone I’d ever known. One day, during our team planning period, she accused me of being too nice and getting the kids to like me.

I just sat there in stunned silence and blinked about 500 times per minute. Wasn’t I supposed to be nice as a teacher? I didn’t get the memo that I should be mean.

What it made me do was wonder if I was doing something wrong and when my students started asking if they could come in at lunch “just to talk” I considered that maybe I was doing something right. It created a safe place for them to talk to me and/or get advice. They started telling me about problems they couldn’t figure out and really important things I needed to know about them in class in order to meet their emotional needs. Since that time, I’ve put up a rainbow sticker in my office so that gay students could feel safe and it was an overt message. I know that. So far, no one has come out to me since that time, but it has happened in the past. Once, I had a parent call me to say her daughter had come out to her but that she wanted to make sure that someone at school would offer her support should she need it there, too. It was hard for the mom to call and say that, but she needed as much support to help her child.

Students, all students, need to feel that safe with the adults in their lives. I’m so grateful for having seen that letter I saw on Reddit if for no other reason than it’s a good reminder that trusting adults are necessary for kids.

Photo credit to Philippa Willitts

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