One of Many Reasons
I am a teacher, Or was, soon. It will be past tense after April. There are many reasons for this. I’m moving across the country, for one. It pretty much necessitated a change in jobs, and I decided a change in careers was in order, too. For another, it is very hard to actually financially afford to be a teacher in North Carolina and have hobbies, nice things, and fun. I generally have to carefully choose which of the above I want. But it gets even more fun when one considers that the rumor mill from the people in charge includes stripping the pay incentives for Wake County. Of course, if we all ran our lives through rumours, we’d have to take into consideration some truly scary ones. But no, the reason I cannot continue teaching runs much deeper.
In my essay, “Being Out”, I discuss to a small degree some of the dangers of being an openly polyamorous pansexual teacher in the south. It endangers my job to be myself, and to be open about who I am. My very existence is considered a political agenda, where someone else’s personal life is free game to discuss with students. This is brought to the front of my mind any time a student asks if I have a girlfriend, and I have to weigh in how much to tell them or not to tell them. For a hetero teacher, this doesn’t really bring up much controversy, because nobody will ever look at their relationship twice. For me, my very existence is by definition an act of defiance against a state where teachers can be axed for anything interpreted as political speech. I’ve already covered all that, though, and all the little anxieties it introduces to my life. I’d like to talk about something more real.
The recent Trump decision to rescind the letter that Obama’s administration wrote to protect the rights of trans students is overall not a monumental decision. We all knew it was coming, and have known for over a week. And it rescinds a letter that, honestly, was not that legally powerful. But this still sends a message. It sends a message to trans teens that this administration will not act to defend their rights or lives, for one. It sends a message to trans teens in the south and in rural parts of the country that they can be freely discriminated against and targeted by their schools. It sends a message to them that this country is run by a group that hates them for no reason other than ignorance. And that message will be heard, because it is loud and obvious and violent in nature. These policies are temporary and may be overturned in an upcoming SCOTUS case, but suicide is permanent. We are going to see a spike in teen suicide attempts over the coming years. That is almost assured. And that ties into why I cannot continue to teach.
I cannot continue to teach because we live in a world where to speak out in defense of basic civil rights is now political speech and for teachers, that means losing your job. We live in a world where a student can proclaim loudly, “Feminism is a joke”, but the teacher cannot address his views or challenge them with confidence, because it is not in their curriculum, and the student can report that as a political statement. I fail to understand how supporting basic civil liberties can even be considered political, but it is, and there’s nothing to change about that. I had to endure that in class today while students were working, actually. That scenario is not a theoretical. I am left in a grey area where I know I should be challenging and expanding the minds of students, but I do not know that I can because of the morass of laws surrounding what is and is not considered political speech. The student was not directly speaking to any female presenting students, so it could not be considered harassing speech or bullying of any type. But the thing is, if a female student heard that, they could very well feel less safe, or otherwise question where I stand on it, because I am silent. And I am their teacher.
That is important and relevant because North Carolina grades teachers on an extensive rubric that covers nearly ten pages, printed without comments. It is a monolithic document with hundreds of little check boxes that get examined three to four times per year, and has many sections dealing with all the various facets of teaching. One of these is the creation of a safe and nurturing environment for students that welcomes all students. Let me repeat that. Welcomes all students. Let us rewind to the previous paragraph. I can certainly ask that student not to say that, but it would be up to the interpretation of the viewer whether that was actually detrimental to the nurturing environment of other students. And that doesn’t begin to broach a much more sensitive subject. The fact that to many, the very lives of LGBTQ people are a political subject. I doubt most parents would actually report me for political speech, nor that WCPSS would actually bow to their whims, over the student’s comments about feminism. I would not be allowed, in all likelihood, to actually challenge those views and try to expand his mind, but I would not likely face censure for telling him not to say it, either.
Conversely, the statement “I will provide a safe space for LGBTQ students” can inherently be called a political statement. A student or parent could file a report saying “this teacher endorses LGBTQ lifestyles and that is pushing a political agenda”, especially under North Carolina law as I understand it. So then, my choice is to let these students, especially trans students, live in potential fear of bullying from other kids or the school system itself, or risk my job. I cannot provide a nurturing, safe space for these students to learn without risking my job, but to fail to do so is to also fail one of the criteria upon which my teaching is graded. This, to me, is not a good choice. I will quote from one of my favorite essays, “Civil Disobedience”, by Henry David Thoreau. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” To me, my only valid choice within the definition of my job is to provide that support, and to openly let the students know that they have that safe space. This is going to be something on every trans student’s mind, and it will be a massive attack on their education. It is not something they can simply “ignore until it goes away.” Other LGBTQ students will certainly have that on their mind as well, knowing the politician’s crosshair is on their head. That is the first conclusion I reached. The second is that I only have one moral choice. That moral choice is to speak up in defense of these marginalized students. It would be morally wrong of me not to speak up for these kids to let them know they have support, and that they are not alone. Certainly, I could probably tell these students 1-on-1 that they have support, but I don’t necessarily know which students this is, and so this is unfeasible.
Now, it is important to note that marginalized students encompasses more than trans students. Speaking up in support of immigrant or refugee students could also be feasibly considered “political speech” and result in a loss of job. This group of students now live in daily fear of their parents being detained by ICE. The really fun part is, these parents might believe they’re here perfectly legally, and then get sent out. So this is an entire part of my student base that are living in doubt and uncertainty. Certainly, I can defend these students against direct bullying, as with other marginalized groups, but I can do nothing further without risking running afoul of NC’s laws against politically active teachers. I cannot publicly tell these students that I am here if they need to talk, nor can I really tell them one on one, because I just can’t tell by looking at them.
Why should the education of these children be any less important than other kids enrolled in school? The education of our youth doesn’t just enrich one student’s life, it enriches all of our lives. And even if it didn’t, my evaluation does not say “environment for citizens”, it says “for students.” To me, there’s no debate. I need to be supportive of all students. Which brings me back to Thoreau. My choice, then, is to risk firing, or to let marginalized students live in fear. To me, this is no choice. It is coercion. As an ardent supporter of the concepts of non-aggression, this is an unacceptable choice. It is not quite Thoreau’s “be unjust or be imprisoned” situation, but it is very similar. And to me, that choice is easy. It is not one that inherently causes me discomfort, as I know what my answer is, and I know it proudly.
The part that I am mentally unable to cope with, long-term, is the fear of homelessness, joblessness, losing my car and my belongings, etc. that losing my job would entail, if a student and their parent decided to complain. I cannot mentally handle the stress of that concern day after day, week after week. I will be completely honest- with the rapid erosion of minority’s rights in the US under the guise of “States’ Rights” arguments, I would likely not survive the year. I would probably succumb to my depression and anxiety within the year, and that would be the end of me. Conversely, keeping quiet would cause me to spiral deeper and deeper into depression and guilt, as I would not be making what I view as the moral choice. To me, it is now entirely impossible for me to maintain my mental health and continue teaching. This is also heartbreaking, though, because I hoped to make a difference in this world through my teaching. Now, I will confess, my vision is somewhat bleak and apocalyptic. And the upcoming G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board case may have a lot of ultimately positive changes. It is possible that it will cement, once and for all, gender protections amongst federal anti-discrimination protections. But in the current political environment, the results for it can be absolutely devastating. I can only hope this case is heard before the new SCOTUS judge is confirmed, because he seems to staunchly oppose LGBTQ equality. Teaching is my passion, but I no longer feel like I can teach to everyone in my classroom. Teaching is my passion, but I no longer feel like I can safely teach while being myself. Teaching is my passion, but this and a dozen other things are why I cannot teach anymore.