Pride Month: Giving My Students the Classroom I Wish I Had

As a queer educator, it has taken me a long time to find a place where I felt I could truly be myself. Now that I have, I strive to make my classroom the type of place I always wished for growing up.

I remember my earliest school experience where I heard people mention being gay. I was in fifth grade, and a classmate was crying, saying that some boys had teased her about being a lesbian. Not knowing what that meant, it was clear to me that it must be terrible because she was in tears denying it, and other kids were shocked and uncomfortable. My friend explained in hushed tones that it meant a girl who liked girls, her tenor making it clear that this was not okay. 

Our teacher pulled my classmate to the side and told her she could go take a break if she needed it. She also told the boys that talking about “that kind of thing” isn’t appropriate at school, and that was the end of it. My teacher did not join in the ridicule like far too many do. But she certainly made it clear that being anything other than straight was inappropriate, and not to be discussed at school, or maybe ever – a message that took me a long time to overcome.

Since then, I’ve had many experiences that both negatively and positively framed LGBTQ+ issues as I discovered my own queer identity and developed into my role as an educator. They’ve shaped the way that I approach equity and inclusion in my classroom and among my school network.

Messages of Support

During my first teaching job, due to the views and politics of the people in my town, I decided that being open about my sexuality and gender wasn’t an option for me. However, that didn’t stop me from making my classroom as welcoming a place as possible. I used bright colors and rainbow-patterned borders on my bulletin boards and wore a rainbow lanyard, striving to send subtle messages of support to the students who were looking for it. I also spoke to my students about equity and kindness, and gently challenged the attitudes they had absorbed from the culture around them. 

Why shouldn’t everyone be able to be who they are inside, and love who they love?

Then came a day that brought me back to my childhood. Two students were arguing, and one hurled “gay” as an insult in the heat of the moment. I knew this was a teachable moment and, unlike my fifth-grade teacher, I took the opportunity to educate. After the students calmed down, we talked as a class. I reaffirmed the boundaries we had previously set about treating each other kindly, and not calling names in anger. 

I also asked them to empathize about what it would feel like if someone used an aspect of who you were as an insult to others when they were frustrated. I affirmed that there is nothing wrong with being gay, but there is something wrong with using gay as an insult because no one should be made to feel like part of who they are is wrong. 

This was not the last time we had similar conversations that year. But each time we talked it went more smoothly, and students began shifting their behavior without me having to say anything. Seeing that shift among my students was a gratifying change.

Joy of Being My True Self

While I hope that I was a subtle force for inclusion at my first school, when it came time for me to move, I decided I was not going to be in the closet again. Before I accepted an offer at my new school, I made one of the most nerve-wracking calls of my career. I called my new principal to come out. To my great relief, she didn’t miss a beat and told me that if anyone – teacher, parent, or student – had an issue with me, she would have my back. I gladly accepted the job, and she has been true to her words of support since then.

I can’t quite describe the joy and comfort of being out in a welcoming environment after having to hide such basic details about myself for so long. I introduced my wife to my new colleagues when I moved into my new classroom at River Heights Academy in Flat Rock, Mich. On the first day, I showed a picture of my family – including my wife – to my middle school students.

When I realized I am non-binary, I shared my pronouns and name with the staff and students and was met with immense love and support. It’s like when you have a jacket that doesn’t fit for a long time, but you wear it anyway because it’s all you have. And then one day you finally wear a coat that actually fits and it feels just right. 

Knowing acutely the pain and discomfort that can accompany being an LGBTQ+ child, I’ve used my platform as an openly queer teacher to be the example and provide the space I wish I had as a child. I’ve had students ask me questions, come out to me, and tell me they knew I was safe to talk to. It is an honor every time they do. 

Providing a Safe Space to Connect

With these students in mind, I founded Equity Club, designed for LGBTQ+ students and allies to have a space at school to be themselves and discuss anything on their minds. While small, the club allows opportunities for 6th-8th-graders to ask questions and show others who they truly are, and that makes all the difference. 

I am also deeply involved in my school network’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work. We ensure that our students receive an education and curriculum that reflects the varied experiences of people of diverse races, sexualities, gender, ability status, and beyond. That work is ongoing but so important, and I am excited by the growing movement in the education world to push that work for students everywhere.

As I reflect during this pride month, I am proud of the journey that has led me to where I am now, using my experiences to better the world around me. There are millions of queer children in the school system today, and I am inspired to make waves that may lead to smoother waters for them. 

I hope that all teachers can develop a renewed sense of purpose in striving to truly make their classrooms inclusive for everyone.

What you can do to foster an inclusive classroom for LGBTQ+ students:

Ask students for their name and pronouns, and use them.

At the start of any school year, teachers try to get to know their students. Make it a habit to also ask students for their preferred name and pronouns, preferably in a private way by using something like a Name and Pronoun Survey. This allows students to share in a way that doesn’t put them on the spot in front of peers and allows them to share whether they want to use their name and pronouns with classmates and/or parents. This article shares more information about supporting students by asking about pronouns.

When you learn about someone’s name or pronouns, use them consistently, as long as they are comfortable with you using them publicly. Kindly correct people using the wrong name or pronouns as a matter of respect. Everyone deserves the dignity of being addressed as themselves. For transgender youth, it can be a matter of life and death. You can also model inclusive use of pronouns by sharing yours when you introduce yourself and including them in your email signature.  

When co-constructing classroom rules with students, set the stage for an inclusive classroom.

Emphasize that even when we don’t understand or agree with someone, a positive society means we are respectful and kind. Questions are welcome as long as they come from a place of kindness. Don’t let kids use LGBTQ+ terms as insults or slurs, whether they are directed at someone or not. Here are some tips for how to address students using phrases like, “That’s so gay,” in class.

Hang a poster or sign in your room to be a visible ally.

Whether it is an equal sign, a rainbow, or a safe space sticker, having a sign up in your room helps both students and other staff know that you are an ally and helps them feel safer in class and more comfortable coming forward. The symbol doesn’t have to be large or fancy, but place it somewhere it can be seen. When someone comes to you for support, give it to them. 

Gather a diverse set of classroom books.

There are books from Pre-K through high school that discuss a range of LGBTQ+ topics, from family structure to gender identity and more, in an age-appropriate way. Fill your classroom library with such books to let all students learn and read about those who may be different from them. 

Have a willingness to learn.

Perfection is not a prerequisite for an inclusive classroom or allyship. Seek out opportunities to learn about experiences of varied LGBTQ+ people, particularly in the areas of their school experiences. This helps you better understand and support your LGBTQ+ students. If a student asks you about something you don’t know, that is okay! Let them know you are not sure but will get back to them, and look for information from reliable sources. When a student or staff member tells you that you hurt them, try not to be defensive, listen to them, and work to do better.

As educators we are always looking to learn, and that goes for LGBTQ+ matters, as well.

About the author

Jess Stone
Jess Stone is a math teacher at River Heights Academy in Flat Rock, Michigan. As a member of the Distinctive Schools Network Culture and Retention Expanded Design Team, Jess advocates for LGBTQ+ staff members within the organization. Jess also serves on the Distinctive Schools Michigan Regional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Curriculum Committee.