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Should Teachers Talk About Their Families at School?

If so, which kinds of families? At which schools?

Some of you may have heard about the recent lawsuit involving an art teacher in Texas, Stacy Bailey, who was suspended after talking about her “future wife” with her students while introducing herself to her fourth-grade class at the start of the school year. She showed a brief slideshow about herself that included a pretty cute photo of the two women dressed as Dory and Nemo making fish faces and fins with their arms on their hips (image available in New York Times story about the case). The district claims that she violated district guidelines that direct the following: “controversial subjects be taught in ‘an impartial and objective manner.’ Teachers shall not use the classroom to transmit personal belief regarding political or sectarian issues.” Ms. Bailey refused to resign when asked and has been on paid administrative leave since September.

Is family now considered a ‘controversial’ topic? Most teachers safely talk about marriage, kids, and spouses with their students, so how is this anything other than an official move by the district to discriminate against same-sex families and LGBTQ people? As a matter of fact, every elementary curriculum guide I have ever seen centers family as a key component of the elementary classroom in order to help students see themselves in the curriculum and make sense of their networks in their community. Teaching about family without connecting it to OUR families is not only poor pedagogy, but goes against established research and theories of learning that show how learning is relational. We learn better when we have built relationships established through mutual trust and respect. This can happen only by sharing bits of ourselves with our students and their families so they can share themselves with us to create richer learning environments for everyone.

Liz Meyer
Source: Liz Meyer

When my son started first grade, we got a letter home from his teacher in which she mentioned her family and the fact that she had a same-sex spouse and kids our son’s age. This made him (and us) feel so much more supported and welcomed in that classroom. He knew he wasn’t going to have to be the only one fighting to prove that his family existed and was just as important as other kids’ families. He changed schools, and at the start of his second-grade year, two kids told him he couldn’t have two moms or one of them must be a "stupid fake mom." He ended up getting in a fight with those kids because he felt as if he had to defend his family against erasure and insult, and he never quite settled into that school. Because those kids had never heard of a two-mom or two-dad family, my kid had a terrible experience, and the school community never explicitly addressed that harm. I feel it is a big reason why he never trusted his teachers there or felt safe in that school. After many other subsequent difficulties (including being reprimanded for taking a knee during the pledge), he changed to a new school in March.

Every Teacher Project, used with permission
Source: Every Teacher Project, used with permission

Ms. Bailey’s district has renewed her contract for next year, but only if she agrees to teach in a middle or high school. A move which shows the district believes that talking about LGBT people and families in elementary school is not “age appropriate.” This is a common issue surfaced in research about LGBT inclusion in schools, including our research with Canadian educators, but is patently false. Elementary educators feel less confident addressing the topic and report slightly lower levels of support for LGBTQ-inclusive education, but that means we need to offer them more support, not censure and personnel action when they try. Since family and identity are big parts of the elementary curriculum, ALL families and ALL identities should be represented. My colleagues Jill Herman-Willmarth and Caitlin Ryan have just published an amazing book, Reading the Rainbow: LGBTQ-Inclusive Literacy in the Elementary Classroom, that provides information and resources to do this well in elementary classrooms. My own book, Gender and Sexual Diversity in Schools, also provides research to support this effort and additional ideas for content beyond children’s literature.

I am glad to see that Ms. Bailey didn’t resign, as other teachers have done under school pressure, because she deserves to be in the classroom and be seen as a full person by her students and colleagues. I hope you will show your support for LGBTQ teachers in your community and fully inclusive nondiscrimination policies in your districts and states. We need visible, supported teachers from diverse backgrounds in our schools. It’s good for students to have diverse role models and mentors, and it’s good for our society.