“Good morning students…My name is Ms. Ingram and welcome to my Chemistry class!”
Let’s be clear, no one ever introduces themselves as the gay teacher, similar to the way no one is the gay lawyer, the gay doctor, the gay dentist nor the gay author, but when my students enter my classroom for the very first time every year and see a brown-skinned, 5’3” full-figure standing in slacks and a tie with protruding boobs underneath…they know what’s up!
To know me is to know that I grew up wanting to be a Forensic Chemist, so I graduated from THE Fort Valley State University with a degree in Chemistry with a concentration in Forensics and eyes continued to be locked in on accomplishing that goal as I walked onto the campus of Georgia Tech to obtain my doctorate. However, in the same breath, to know me is to know how extremely hard those 3 years at Tech were for me both mentally and emotionally as I continued to the delay the true purpose God laid out for me and my life. Teaching was always a goal for me, but it was one that I was going to pursue after I felt like I completed my industrial career, yet, God wasted no time showing me the hard way that we’re only on this earth to complete his work and according to his schedule. So, after finally choosing to be obedient, I graduated from Tech with my Masters in Chemistry with Thesis (You thought I was about to leave with nothing to show for it? Hell no!) and entered the campus of Kennesaw State University where, a year later, I obtained my Masters of Arts in Teaching specializing in Secondary Science Education with a focus in Chemistry before landing where I am today – a happily employed high school Honors and AP Chemistry teacher in one of the most promising predominantly black schools in the state of Georgia.
Despite living in a time where #TeacherBae controversies have spiked and revealing too much about yourself to your students seems a bit nerve-racking due to the potential backlash, or even consequences, being an out-LGBTQ+ teacher has truly been a positive experience for me spanning from the students to their parents and my colleagues. Granted, I don’t walk around screaming my orientation down the hallway, greeting every parent with my preferred pronouns, forcing my students to engage in woke LGBTQ+ lessons, nor including “Hey, I’m a teacher who’s a lesbian!,” in my email signature, but every person in that building and every child’s parent understands that my room is a safe space regardless not only of orientation or identity but ethnicity, as well. Quite frankly, I have the most loving 150+ kids that come into my classroom every day and have shown me countless times that they honestly could care less about my orientation because, at the end of the day, they only care if I’m genuine. Since Day 1, they’ve gotten to see who I am as I’ve been an open book for them and I’ve allowed them to ask me any question they desired regarding my sexuality within a respectable range as I refuse to hide who I am simply because of my profession.
The worst thing you can do to a high school kid is not keep it a buck (quit cappin’!) and treat them as if they’re still in elementary school with minimal understanding of the world around them. The mutual respect between my kids and I is there because I’ve never sugarcoated anything and I make it imperative to treat them like the young adults that they are. That’s what makes them ride for me like they do at the drop of a dime and feel like they can “check” me when I don’t tell them I won’t be at work on a particular day or when I’m not in my room when they feel like they need me to be for a venting/“Ms. Ingram, I got tea!,” session. That’s what has aided in the creation of the solid foundation for the high level of trust they have in me to hold their most delicate and vulnerable secrets or life experiences; moreover, that’s what makes them want to be 100% comfortable with me even to the point where they’ve Facetime’d my fiancé from my phone just to speak to her in addition to consistently inviting themselves to our wedding alongside giving themselves legit roles in it. To them, I’m more than a person who stands in front of the classroom explaining the periodic table…I’m their shoulder to cry on in the midst of hard times, cheerleader when they need encouragement, counselor when they feel they can’t reach a solution on their own, journal when they have nothing else to turn to, advocate when they have no one else fighting for them, and a bonus mom whenever they need someone to give them tough love for making absent-minded decisions. Each of those roles make being a gay teacher so insignificant to just simply being Ms. Ingram.
Everything I’ve said so far has been music to the ears of current high school teachers who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community and maybe even a sigh of relief for those inspiring; however, this written piece of hope wouldn’t serve its full purpose if I didn’t shed light on the struggles of middle and elementary school teachers as they face entirely different age brackets. The difference between teenage students and those who are younger is not only the level of parent involvement but the intent behind their curiosity. Although both age groups are inquisitive, most high school-aged kids have a more self-reflective meaning behind their questions whereas younger children often appear to repeatedly enjoy asking questions about every single word you say or action you make just for the hell of it – but don’t get it twisted, these younger kids aren’t completely oblivious, especially in today’s more technology-advanced society. Yes, their questions are indeed reflective of extreme curiosity, but it’s also due to a lack of understanding in the connections between what they have been told and what they hear and/or see within the various environments they encounter. Young minds are severely impressionable and, as they develop, they rely on the world around them to be their compass in telling them what’s right from wrong and adding a defining visual for emphasis.
Within Kia’s younger-aged classroom, the environmental influence on the sense of life is beyond prevalent – especially with their ideal of gender roles. For example, one day Kia overheard her some of her male students saying, “Ew…she said she got a girlfriend,” and she responded, “Well, why can’t she?” Their only rebuttal was that’s not how they see it on TV, yet, in a way to keep her classroom environment both respectful and inclusive for each kid without crossing the line, she guided the students into a different outlook of the word by breaking it up – “We all have friends. She’s my friend who’s a girl and you’re my friend who’s a boy.” Within another instance, the students overheard her tell her assistant teacher that she loved her.
“Ew Ms. Grant, you love a girl!”
“Yes, I do…if I didn’t love her, it would mean that our relationship wasn’t good enough for us to be able to effectively teach you in a collaborative setting.”
“Ohhh, okay! We got it! We love her too!”
Within Kia’s classroom, it’s not about lying or sugarcoating anything, it’s about maintaining a positive learning environment for authentic children development. One that’s also respectful to their parents and how they choose to raise their child during those vital years. Kia and I, regardless of our same-sex lifestyle, would never want any else to explain what same-sex means to our kids. We want to do it on our terms when we feel our child is ready and no family’s timing – gay, straight or indifferent – will ever be the same!
Moreover, for Kia, this may be a bit easier of a scenario to tackle as she cannot be visually stereotyped as a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Yet, even when you are a female that dresses masculine – or vice versa for men – it can still be handled with just as much class. I’m no stranger to young kids and their high level of curiosity regarding how my gender and my appearance don’t match in their eyes as they frequently ask, “Are you a boy?” Their questions always amuse me as I know they mean no harm and my response is always the same – “No, I’m a girl. I’m comfortable in these clothes just like you’re comfortable in yours.”
Teaching isn’t a profession for the light-hearted or a hobby to pick up just to make money when your life’s compass is off and your current situation isn’t what you pictured “life after college” to be like. This is not only because of what the career requires but because of the many environments and upbringings you touch on a day-to-day basis. Every occupied desk in your classroom is another connection to someone’s culture, religion, tradition, family and so much more – each of which you have no control over. With each connection comes insight into the lessons and ideals a kid has been taught to believe in. You will never know if a child was taught to hate anything LGBTQ+ stands for, has two moms, or was raised by their dad and “Uncle” until their parents felt like they were ready to fully understand their home situation. Regardless of the grade level, as a teacher, you are obligated to do just that – teach, but you also have a duty to yourself to live your life freely and unapologetically and that’s for whatever career you fall into. As a teacher, whether it’s elementary, middle, or high school, you have to ensure and create an open and safe space not only for the sake of yourself, but for the sake of the kids who are still trying to sort through their own thought as they continuously evolve and identify how they fit into this crazy world. Ultimately, at the end of the day, I can’t tell you how to run your classroom as an LGBTQ+ teacher, but I can tell you that it truly is possible. It may take time for you to feel comfortable with freely doing so, but just remember, you will never be happy if you have to leave who you truly are at the door as you enter.