We do these diversity dialogue sessions periodically during institute to help us reflect on our identities. They are technically known as “DCA: Diversity, Community, Action” (I think…?) and we usually split into groups based on what topics we’d like to discuss. Sometimes a Corps Member Advisor (CMA) leads a discussion, and sometimes it’s just another Corps Member who was interested in a particular topic. I think they’re interesting just because I like learning about people’s perspectives and I think it gives insight as to why they’re here, or why they joined TFA. I never really considered that being in touch or comfortable with my own identity would help me be a better teacher, but these sessions seem to be continuously proving me wrong.
Today I participated on a dialogue about men in the education field and breaking the stereotypes associated with men teaching ECE. Often the stereotype is that a woman would teach Pre-K or Kindergarten or that if you are a man teaching these grades then you must be the disciplinarian in the school or all the other teachers rely on you to set order in the classroom or you’re gay. I listened to some of my male corps member peers dispute these stereotypes, stating that sometimes disciplining kids does not come easy to them, while others said that their friends do mock them a little for teaching “babies”.
We had a variety of discussions related to gender in the ECE field and how we are perceived by our peers, other teachers, parents, superiors, and our kids themselves. To me, one thing became clear, male or female, no matter what culture you grew up in, even at ages 3-5, you already have a concept of gender roles.
In my classroom, we know our boys expect a man to play “ninja dragon” with them and our girls want to dress me up in princess crowns. I don’t know who made it clear to them, but in my classroom there is a segregation between the ninja dragons and the princesses (the boys and the girls), but the ninja dragons don’t have a teacher counterpart. Because instead of a male teacher, they have 6 female teachers. I have, on more than one occasion, had to prove myself to be worthy of playing ninja dragon obstacle course with the boys. Today I had a boy ask me why there were so many girls everywhere, and why weren’t there any boys to play with (I guess he was ignoring 7 of his male peers that showed up for school today). It sort of broke my heart, that no matter how hard I tried, these kids, at the early age of 4, had already determined that there were established facts about me solely because I was a girl.
Then one of the CMAs shared that he is openly gay to his students. He found this to be the best way to gain their respect and change their perception of gender roles, by being upfront and open with them, though his students are 18 year old, seniors, in high school.
As a result, another CMA shared that she knows someone that because of a lack of protection laws in that state, he won’t disclose his sexuality to his 3rd graders, for fear that he’ll lose his job. I found myself pitying him for having to feel like he was keeping something from his students because the state he lives in refuses to create anti-discrimination laws based on sexuality, but simultaneously, I was asking myself, “they’re in 3rd grade, how important is it that these kids know their teacher is gay or straight, does it matter?” So I asked, “does it matter at this age that my students are aware of my sexuality?”
PAUSE. REWIND. (As my kids say, “RED MEANS STOP”)
Remember at the beginning when I said “I never really considered that being in touch or comfortable with my own identity would help me be a better teacher, but these sessions seem to be continuously proving me wrong”? I think this is where it all came together.
I’m a (newly) 22 year-old, public school educated, Teach for America educator, with the highest quality support system you can find (AKA my family and friends rock). I never grew up low-income, faced serious forms of oppression because of my race or gender, or had an “disruptive home life”. I never thought a diversity session would need to apply to me. Plain and simple: I’m white, I’m female, I’m middle class. I speak my mind and no one puts me down. And last August, when I started dating a girl, I refused to let any of that change. For the most part it didn’t, I still don’t feel like I face any oppression, I’m still financially stable, and my family and friends still back me 11o%. But I had to be introduced to an environment where that wasn’t the case for everyone, and it’s something I had been seriously ignorant about in the past.
My girlfriend is gay. 100% gay. I don’t identify that way, but when I started dating her, I realized, it didn’t matter how I identified myself, because people were going to do it for me. I was introduced into a culture where you had to watch where you step and what you say, because maybe, not everyone was going to be A-OK with me “being gay”, and they also weren’t going to keep their mouths shut about it.
So when I applied for TFA regions I wanted to work in, I only chose places where I wasn’t putting myself in possible danger for holding hands with my girl on the street. For the first time, I had to censor myself, because I couldn’t ignore anymore that this discrimination still exists. And I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I found out I was ECE, because why would I ever have to disclose my perceived sexuality to a bunch of 4 year olds?
PLAY. (“GREEN MEANS GO!”)
Today in the lunch room I was talking to some of my kids about my guinea pigs (my own babies, back home). They wanted to see pictures and know everything so I pulled out my phone and started showing them pictures and videos. They loved it. They started squeaking like guinea pigs and eating all their vegetables because guinea pigs eat vegetables (great modeling tool, eh?). Then one boy asked me, “Where did they come from Ms. Olivia?” and without thinking I replied “My girlfriend gave them to me!” My students stared at me and one girl wrinkled her nose and said, “You have a girlfriend? but you’re a girl….” obviously confused. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t plan for this to happen. My kids are like sponges. They literally go home and tell their parents everything I say, what if they told them this?
I brought this up at the diversity dialogue. I’m usually a pretty private person, so except for the people I actually knew in the dialogue I’m pretty sure my having a girlfriend was new information for most people. The leader of the discussion said, “We’re fortunate that we work in an area that has job protection from discrimination. There’s nothing that can happen to you if your kids go home and tell their parents you’re gay. If the parents have a problem with it, explain to them that it really has no bearing on your teaching their child to read.”
I was more concerned about how do I explain this to my kids now that it was out in the open.
“This isn’t the 50s, times are changing and whether or not they’re immigrants or ELL, they recognize that families are different. Explain to them that they might live with their mom or their dad or their grandparents and that your family is different too.”
Simple enough. It made sense. I nodded. I’m still processing, but I think this was a part of my identity that I hadn’t yet come to terms with, and this is what DCA was supposed to be helping with. I want to be the best teacher I can be for these kids, my heart and soul are in this job. I guess what I didn’t realize is that my identity is connected to that heart and soul and that’s not something I can just push out of the way and do the job whilst ignoring.
It’s cheesy, and this was long, but 4 out of 5 weeks into institute I think I’m finally coming to accept my entire identity and not just pieces. I don’t want to say I’m all the way there, just because I didn’t realize any of this prior to DCA sessions, and maybe I’ll uncover more hidden truths (you never know with TFA..), but I’m getting there.