I went in to my classroom the other day to set it up for the beginning of the school year. I unpacked boxes of science supplies, wiped off the desks, and took a long look around my room which is my second home.
As I added to a list I had written on the board I noticed that my rainbow “this is a safe space” sticker was ripped in several places. Part of the message on the bottom was gone, and the corners were torn as if someone had tried to remove it from my board.
This observation quickly changed my mood. Who would have tried to remove this sticker that is a beacon of hope and a welcome sign to many of the students at my school?
I wish I could say that this was an isolated incident, but it was not.
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I love teaching and living in Durham. Durham is a city that is composed of every type of person, and as a result, every type of student. I love working with colleagues, students, and parents from every cross section of our community.
My goal as an educator is not only to impart the content to my students, but to provide a safe learning environment where they can grow and develop the skills that will guide them through their future. Ideally, this learning environment should be one that enables each of my students to feel welcome, comfortable, free of judgment, and equal to every other student in the room.
It is also my objective, and obligation, to defend students that are not feeling safe and comfortable.
Unfortunately, homophobia, name calling, and bullying focused on sexual preference, are behaviors that I witness all too often in my school, even in one of NC’s most progressive communities. I see it in the halls and sometimes hear offensive slang thrown around my classroom.
From conversations with students that identify as LGBTQ+, it’s clear that they often do not feel accepted by their classmates, and sadly, sometimes by their teachers. This is very concerning to me and should be to every educator.
LGBTQ+ youth are twice as likely to report skipping school, make up 40 percent of homeless youth nationwide, make up 20 percent of the juvenile justice system, and have a much higher rate of taking their own lives (GLSEN,Voices of Youth Count, Center for American Progress).
But these concerns need not be the educational norm for LGBTQ+ students. With the proper school supports in place, LGBTQ+ youth are more likely than their peers to graduate, to earn a higher GPA, and to enroll in college. Surveys indicate that LGBT youth report feeling significantly safer in school when they know at least six staff members that are supportive (Bull City Schools United).
Recently I asked one of my former students how his experience was at our school. He said, “Being in a school environment where I knew I was surrounded by supportive staff allowed me the freedom to be able to explore my identity without feeling like doing so would make me unsafe. While there were still some classrooms that felt unsafe, I saw these as an anomaly, and knew that I could still proudly represent who I was in these classrooms because the school as a whole was a safe place for me to honor the person I knew myself to be.”
I was happy to hear this even though I know that more can be done to support the LGBTQ+ community in my school and other schools across Durham. As an educator working with a diverse group of young people, it is important that I support, publicly, all of my students and their families. No matter where they are from, how they look, or their sexual preferences.
Durham educators have the opportunity to show our students that we support them by joining together to march proudly at NC Pride. I will be marching on September 29 and I invite all educators to join me. We need to be the visible and supportive allies our LGBT students deserve. Educators can register to attend NC Pride (and receive a t-shirt) at https://bullcityschoolsunited.org/
Mika Hunter Twietmeyer teaches science at Riverside High School. She is Durham Public Schools’ 2019 Teacher of the Year.