By Michaela Liebst
While reading Randy Watson’s comments last week regarding the new ELA competencies found in Navigating Change, I felt an emotion that I hadn’t felt in a long time. After a summer filled with anxiety over the looming school year, I finally had a jolt of…excitement.
Now I don’t pretend to claim that this excitement cured all of my angst about what educators are about to embark upon, but I do know that the competencies resemble an outline. And an outline can lead to a plan. And a plan is exactly the thing that my type-A brain wants more than anything in this world.
I don’t have plans for a lot of what will be coming up in the months ahead, but by being handed the ELA competencies, I can now start to visualize what my students will be expected to learn, regardless of being in-person, on-line, or a little bit of both. I can also start to understand that if the world reverts back to how it was in March, and I can only hold my students and myself accountable for a few key standards, I know exactly which standards those are going to be.
While gaining this structure and ability to place some guide posts in lesson plans is comforting, I also love that the competencies provide room for creativity and grace. Not once do the competencies come coupled with a script and mandatory way of teaching them. They may come with suggestions and sample lesson plans, but teachers are free to practice their creative freedoms to make the competencies come alive as they see fit. In my opinion, this document will be helpful, not just for the upcoming school year, but for years to come.
Because our emphasis this year will be on a few, condensed competencies, I wanted to take the time to emphasize that with the freedom surrounding implementation of these competencies also comes the freedom of assessment. With this being a year where less is more, it may be helpful to incorporate a Standards-Referenced Grading approach when evaluating student work. However, instead of calling it Standards-Referenced Grading, we can call it “Competency Based.” To make this type of grading even more appealing, Navigating Change has already provided you with the rubrics and “I Can…” statements necessary to utilize this type of grading system!
Below is a blog-post I wrote a year ago for my personal blog, highlighting Mary Harrison, a Wichita high school teacher, and her execution of Standards-Based Grading in her class. Mary has presented at KATE conferences several times regarding Standards-Based Grading and provides much expertise on the topic. Her experience can offer a lot of insight into a way of grading that may lessen the already heavy workload of teachers this year. Overall, combining the ELA competencies and Standards-Referenced Grading can come to the rescue this year by ensuring that our assignments are meaningful and that we are measuring the mastery of a student, not their effort.
Last year, Mary began using Standards-Referenced Grading as a way to fix the struggles and moral issues she was having with her grade book.
She was inspired to do this by two different types of students: The "Good-Citizen" Student and the "Absent-Minded Professor."
The Good Citizen is the student who always follows the rules and turns assignments in. He/she tends to get A’s and B’s even if they have a shallow understanding of the standards and content, but get rewarded because they play school.
On the flip side, the Absent-Minded Professor is the student who is a disorganized, hot mess. He/she never turns anything in, but they actually know their stuff and can carry out a conversation, making their intelligence obvious. However, they don’t turn assignments in, so they fail.
"I was so disillusioned by my grade book – what does what I’m doing as a teacher even mean if this kid with a deep knowledge of content is failing, but this one with a shallow understanding is not," Mary stated. In addition to fairness of students, Mary also realized that her grade book was random. She found herself asking "What do I feel like grading? If I didn't feel like grading it, it became a participation grade." Thankfully, her colleague stumbled across Standards - Referenced Grading which seemed to resolve a lot of Mary's grade book issues, and they decided to pursue its implementation together.
At first, both teachers had reservations about tackling such a task. A lot of colleagues at their school were against the idea and would frequently question their motives. In addition to the nay-sayers from co-workers, Mary and her teaching partner also had to find the courage to work their way up the chain of command within their district in order to receive permission to implement the initiative, due to it's novelty to both parents and administration. However, despite the work and the risks, they both felt that they "knew too much and there was no turning back."
One of my favorite quotes from Sal Khan, creator of Khan Academy, is that currently in education, the amount of time given to learn a skill is fixed, while the level of mastery for each student varies, when really, it should be the other way around. As teachers we should demand mastery from every student, but allow them the varied amount of time they need in order to demonstrate complete understanding. Thankfully, Standards-Referenced Grading is slowly guiding us in that direction. As stated by Mary, "Grades tend to ebb and flow especially when they are first learning a skill, but because they can re-try the grades tend to go up."
While Standards-Referenced Grading may feel impossible and confusing, it revolves around a pretty simplistic framework. Standards-Referenced Grading identifies specific learning targets for each grade level and within in each content. Learning targets are written as "I can..." statements for the students, so that it is clear to students what "mastery" of a skill should allow them to do. For examples of some of Mary's learning targets, see the files below.
Each learning target is then paired with a proficiency scale (see the files below). A proficiency scale is a continuum to show the progression of learning, and is what is used to assign student's their level of mastery for the learning target. Wichita's proficiency scales will range from the scores 0-4: 0 means student did nothing at all; 1 – even with teacher assistance student does not show any of the fundamental skills being measured; 2 – shows some mastery of fundamental skills that support the learning target; 3 - student is the meeting the learning target; and 4 - student is exceeding the learning target. The beauty of Standards-Referenced Grading is that if a student is earning a 1 or 2 on the proficiency scale for a specific learning target, they are able to retry as many times as they would like in order to improve their score. Therefore, mastery can happen at any time, allowing true learning and understanding to happen at the rate most suitable for the child. (See the files below to investigate the proficiency scales and “I Can…” Statements provided by Navigating Change).
Some readers may have read up to this point and thought to themselves, "Oh heck no. That sounds way too complex, and there's no way that this would work for my class."
To that, I would like to mention that Mary feels like this method of grading is more simple - it takes out all of the subjectivity and allows students to know before they ever start learning exactly how she’s going to grade them. "Since the proficiency scale says it all, I just have to say “you’re here and this is why” when providing students with feedback," Mary shared.
That's not to say that Mary hasn't had her fair share of struggles while trying to get students on board. Several students who are used to playing the game of school and getting compensated through good grades sometimes struggle with the adjustment.
"I had one student become very frustrated on her first grade for a learning target. She felt that since she worked hard, she deserved a good grade. My response was 'I’m not measuring how hard you worked, I’m measuring your understanding'. Because that student was able to try again and continue to improve her performance on that particular skill, I have seen so much growth in that student and her mindset. She now understands that this grade is just a communication of what I know at this moment in time, and if I keep at it I can raise the grade and my understanding."
Thankfully, Mary's courageous effort to integrate Standards-Referenced Grading into her classroom has paid off nicely. She is now a much more intentional teacher who feels as if her teaching and grades are connected and cohesive. "I am always thinking back to the learning target and am using that to guide my lessons," Mary states.
In addition, she feels like students have learned to take ownership of their learning. Because they are able to re-do assessments as many times as they would like, students are starting to see that they are in control of their learning and how they perform. Thus, student buy-in is increasing, which also leads to parent buy-in. "When I sit down with parents at conferences and explain my system, they all say 'This makes sense to me.'”
I asked Mary if she had any advice for someone who was apprehensive or skeptical.
The first thing she shared was that you have to be very intentional about which learning targets and standards you emphasize throughout the course of a school year. Mary's motto is "Depth over breadth." You can't have too many learning targets clumped together because "mastery is a strong word and so we're really going to have to dig deep and work on the learning targets that I've chosen." She shares that in schools with a transient population, this is especially important. If you have a student who has moved in half-way through a quarter/semester, you really have to narrow down what it is you want that student to focus on.
Second, Mary shared that she understands there is a lot of apprehension surrounding Standards-Referenced Grading and how it will impact Special Education students. While she does use the same proficiency scale for both her SpEd students and honors students, she assured me that there is still an element of subjectivity when it comes to using the scales to assign grades. "I sometimes use other considerations to evaluate – equity vs. equality is how I account for different skill levels, and I'm always taking into consideration what I know a student is capable of before I assign them their final rating."
It is my hope that by reading about Mary's journey with Standards-Referenced Grading, you will see how it could be worthwhile to incorporate this into your teaching practices this year. “Depth over Breadth” is truly the mentality to have as we begin the upcoming school year. With Dr. Watson’s urging to dig deep within the ELA standards, I would encourage you to ensure that your assessments are assessing mastery of these competencies. Whether it be utilizing proficiency scales, student “I Can…” statements, or more rubric-based feedback, this hyperfocus on the competencies will lead to a simplified grading system.
I want to wish everyone good luck with the year ahead, and I hope that this post provided you with some guidance for how to structure a school year that may feel a little unstructured at the moment! Finally, see the files below for examples of learning targets and proficiency scales from Mary Harrison, as well as “I Can…” statements provided by Navigating Change.
About the Author
Michaela Liebst is a K-5 Gifted Facilitator who has a passion for education and a soft-spot for English teachers. She believes that Standards-Referenced Grading is an exciting concept and hopes that grading for mastery instead of effort becomes the norm. She is also exceptionally excited about the Navigating Change document and where it may lead in the future. Finally, she is the editor of this blog and would love for other people to submit posts about their educational passions. You can find her on Instagram (@mliebst) and on Twitter (@michaela_liebst).
By Randy Watson, Kansas Commissioner of Education
I’ve had the good fortune of working with and knowing some outstanding language arts teachers over the many years I have been involved in Kansas education. To just name a few there were Sharon Nelson - Tescott High School, Carol Williams - Andover High School, Barb Wentz – Concordia High School, Bev Nigh – McPherson Middle School, and Carole Ferguson – McPherson High School. These are just a few whom I had the pleasure of working with over the years. In addition, I have had the good fortune of getting to know another outstanding language arts teacher, Jeff Baxter. When I first met Jeff, he was teaching at Leavenworth High School, but now graces the halls of Blue Valley West. Jeff was not only a Kansas Teacher of the Year in 2014, but was inducted into the National Teacher Hall of Fame in 2018.
What these outstanding language arts teachers all have in common is a combination of a love for their content and craft. They love literature, the written English language, the flow of prose that speaks in wonderful ways and analysis of great works of story. However, love of their content alone would not have made any of them wonderful teachers. Each coupled his or her outstanding knowledge and passion of language arts with a deep commitment and dedication to the students they taught daily.
Each of these world-class educators embodies a special gift – to help their students love and see the value of literature, language, poetry and moving oration. As one of their students told me, “You have to love that piece of literature because she loves it so much. She wills you to love it and soon I fell in love with it also.”
During this school year, the challenges of COVID-19 will stretch any educator, even the outstanding, seasoned ones I have mentioned. Challenges of hybrid schedules, of on-site learning coupled with remote learning, possibly changing every day to meet the needs of students and families convey the ever-changing nature of the virus that impacts our state.
This year will challenge the way all great language arts teachers go about teaching and learning. The need to establish deep relationships will be deeply contested as they will have to navigate teaching students who may not physically be present in the classroom.
And it is in this environment of challenges, that I am excited to see what teachers of language arts do this year to inspire their students. It is in that background that another group of fantastic language arts teachers helped craft a document, titled Navigating Change, for all Kansas’ teachers. Those teachers include: Monica Diaz - Garden City USD 457, Whitney Linenberger - Dighton USD 482, Amanda Buethe - Ness City USD 303, Daniel Dawson - Lyons USD 405, Wayne Greenlee - Caldwell USD 360, Megan Kohlman - Hesston USD 460, Peggy Neufeld - Buhler USD 313, Angie Powers - Olathe USD 233, Kendra Preston - DeSoto USD 232, Lori Stratton - Gardner-Edgerton USD 231, and Heather Sazama - Buhler USD 313.
The document they helped produce encapsulated nearly 30 years of work from the Kansas Language Arts Standards and within 60 days they transformed the standards into a competency-based model by grade bands. They also organized these new competencies into a broader theme of Humanities. The work this amazing group of language arts teachers produced has the potential to dramatically change the way we meet student needs this year and well into the future. This work will enable students to demonstrate mastery of language arts competencies in a variety of methods.
In a competency-based model, students move through the curriculum in a personalized way, at their own pace. This pace is aligned to their individual plan of study. Students earn credit and grades based on demonstrating mastery, not based on simply sitting in a class for a defined period of time.
In examining the work completed this summer by these phenomenal teachers, I can only imagine being back in the classroom. I would have been excited to have walked down the hall at Andover High School and begged Carol Williams to co-teach Humanities with me. She would have pushed me to be a far better teacher than I had been in the past. We could have taken Navigating Change and crafted new project-based lessons that brought her love of literature and my love of history into focus for our students. We could have experienced the joy of planning and learning together, instead of teaching far across the school from each other. I’m sure that we would have recruited some other teachers – teachers of music, art, drama -- to help us in this new venture. It not only could have been some of our best time teaching, it would have transformed learning for our students.
This is the opportunity presented to every language arts teacher this school term. The resource language arts teachers created took the work of those great educators I have known over the years and brought teaching and learning forward into a new era. We will see a heightened focus on rigor, accountability and an unwavering commitment to personalizing learning for students.
This year, we have the opportunity to experience what Carol Williams and I never grew to realize – an opportunity to craft new learning experiences for our students. I look forward to what new opportunities language arts teachers will bring to their school and classrooms this fall.
Navigating Change Competencies by Grade Levels
About the Author
Known for his visionary leadership, Dr. Randy Watson’s roots run deep in public education. As a former history teacher, school principal and superintendent, Dr. Watson has dedicated more than 35 years of his life working in public education settings across the state and ensuring every child receives a world class education. That dedication continues in his current role as Kansas Commissioner of Education.
The Kansas State Board of Education named Watson Kansas Education Commissioner in November 2014. In his role as the state’s chief education officer, Dr. Watson provides leadership to the Kansas State Department of Education in carrying out the policies and programs set by the State Board of Education. Currently, Commissioner Watson is leading the agency in the redesign of Kansas public education. Fueled by the state board’s vision for education crafted in partnership with the citizens of Kansas, Watson is leading statewide initiatives designed to achieve this new vision that Kansas leads the world in the success of each student.
A native of Coffeyville Kansas, Dr. Watson attended Kansas State University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in science in secondary administration, staff supervision and staff development, building level certification. Additionally, he received his doctorate of education in secondary administration, school law, curriculum development and instructional leadership, and district level certification.
The recipient of many awards, Dr. Watson was named an Alumni Fellow at Kansas State and in 2015, was honored by being named the Kansas Superintendent of the Year.
By Melissa Buteyn
Grace. Patience. Maslow. Pivot. These words were on repeat in my head as I stared at my principal’s presentation explaining changes that will take place at school this year due to COVID-19. The only thing anyone seems to know for sure is this year is shaping up to be a lot of stress for everyone.
No one has answers that will quell my anxiety about facing 100 kids per day. No one has answers that will allow my students to learn in an equitable way. No one has answers about how parents can work and deal with the changing needs of the school situation. No one has answers that will ensure I’ll be able to do simple things like take a restroom break between classes, either. The potential solutions and potential scenarios seem to bring up more questions. I just want to scream into the universe, “It’s just so complicated and my brain is so tired!” I keep scheduling therapy appointments with Dr. Pasta and Dr. Cookies, and sometimes Dr. Chardonnay if I watch the news, but much to my chagrin, they do not seem to be helping. Now, I need new pants. (Thanks, @erinhmoon for the therapist recs!)
USD 259’s superintendent, Dr. Alicia Thompson, made a comment that really resonates with me. She said, “This is a time to be agile, flexible, practice patience, and have grace.” Despite my internal turmoil, after the virtual conversations today with my colleagues, I’ve started to see a way forward by keeping Dr. Thompson’s words in mind.
I can offer grace to all of the people who are making difficult decisions about school, but especially those who are using medical science to guide them. I can be patient as I wait for the district to struggle through all of the aspects of addressing the complex needs of our educational community. I can remember that Maslow has much to say about how we behave and respond during times of crisis. And Maslow’s ideas apply to far more than just my students. They apply to my bosses, my coworkers, the cafeteria workers, the bus drivers, and my students’ parents.
Dr. Thompson’s words remind me that while I am afraid of horrible consequences from in-person school, I am allowed to find a way forward while facing that fear. I can be brave. I can be creative. I can be patient. I can be kind. I can be strong.
Truthfully, though, I’m really tired of being strong. Actually, it’s not just me. Teachers are tired of being strong. We already carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. How can we possibly do this, too?
I am exhausted from living in the tension of unanswered, complex questions. But I can keep going. I don’t have to like it, but I can do it.
Here’s where pivoting comes in. Honestly, I’m not great at pivoting. I love the routine of school. It’s so comforting to know that the bell will ring and then I start over. Repeat for 180 days. So to hear that I need to be ready to pivot to online or remote teaching at a moment’s notice is unnerving, yet it’s possible. After all, during the KATE summer book club for Untamed Glennon Doyle taught me that I can do hard things.
Here at the KATE Blog, we’ve realized we need to pivot, too. Best laid plans for 2020 are pretty much out the window. And that’s ok. Because we can do hard things. So, we want to hear from YOU! What can we do to support you through this year?
The purpose of the KATE blog is to provide a forum for dialogue and collegiality among Kansas teachers of English Language Arts, pre-kindergarten through post-secondary. Help us make sure we are effectively fulfilling our promise to you.
What do you want or need? Resource lists? Lesson plan ideas? Celebrations of good things happening in Kansas education? More narratives that help us cope with the tension of being a teacher in this crazy world? Let us know.
You can give us feedback in the comments below, on the Kansas Association of Teachers of English Facebook Group, the Kansas English Blog Instagram, or by emailing us at email@example.com.
About the Author
Melissa Buteyn teaches English 1, AP Literature, and Early College Academy English at Wichita Northwest High School. This will be her 21st year teaching in USD 259. She uses the KATE blog committee to justify her addiction to Instagram. Melissa has been on the KATE Executive board for four years and she loves, loves, loves KATE because of the amazing teachers she’s met. She is the 2019-20 KATE Outstanding High School English Educator. You can find her on Twitter @MelB_reads.
By Ayeisha Colligan
The 2019-2020 school-year promised to be an optimistic and exciting year. It marked the beginning of my senior year, more time spent in classrooms, and overall more dedication to doing what I love: teaching. Of course I was excited to finally get out into the field and begin my observations, and try to absorb as much information as possible. Naturally, I had a multitude of questions for my mentor teacher, which he was more than willing to answer; the nature of them being relatively tedious, or related to the general workings of his classroom. How fitting is it that we have now entered a world in which there are no answers to questions I’d dismissed as being too basic, or common knowledge. Questions I thought I’d have more time to answer: “What kind of seating layout should we employ? When does the building open? How many students are in our classes?” Instead, I’m left wondering IF the building will open, how many students I can accommodate, and all whilst also adhering to social distancing guidelines.
I can’t help but make a comparison of my practicum hours logged in Fall 2019 to this up and coming semester. This time last year, I was gearing up to begin teaching; contemplating how high school students were going to perceive me, and how I would begin to start planning my classes. Now, each of those thoughts are running through my mind and more. Before, there was a safety blanket of knowledge and past experiences from multiple other teachers enveloping me like a cocoon. If I ran into an issue, or couldn’t answer a question, I could always get advice from a colleague who had been in a similar situation. Now I seem to be surrounded by an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty and fear.
I’m beginning to see students and teachers alike finding new and innovative ways to make connections, and continue to maintain relationships with one another. Creating a relationship with students is still my number one priority to begin the 2020-2021 school year. In “normal” circumstances, this would not be a difficult task. Since there is only a four or five year age difference between the students and myself, I often find it easy to interact and relate to them. With the introduction of COVID-19, my ability to relate to the average “high school experience” has been eliminated. Instead, I find myself trying to find ways to compare my “lockdown experience” with that of my students, or the hobbies that they discovered while in quarantine.
From a student perspective, Spring Break and the weeks that followed was like living in a dream. Classes were shut down, and teachers began to scramble to revise their curricula to continue to meet the needs of students. As a college student with a full-time job, I’m no stranger to the occasional online course - their flexible schedule is unparalleled. For some of my own teachers, however, this was their first excursion into the online realm. I experienced a wide variety of successes - and failures - with a number of teachers attempting to maintain a regular class schedule online. Some tried to maintain regular class hours, and upload videos of their teaching while others opted for discussion boards. While I recognize that this rapid change was unexpected, there are several aspects of their teaching that I would hope to improve upon.
For one, many students (myself included) learn best in a face-to-face classroom - ESPECIALLY since two of my classes included English Grammar and Linguistics, and Literary Criticism and Theory. Choosing to continue the class through online discussion boards did not aid my learning - rather, this medium of teaching hindered it. Instead of embarking on thought-provoking and organic verbal discussions with my fellow classmates, we began to create forced, and alienated discussion posts. With no active guidance, each of us were left to post our feelings about a given text, but unable to ask specific questions arising from discussion. The same can be said for classes that include uploaded videos of teaching; a disassociation between student and teacher that greatly hinders student motivation and desire to learn. Like many other aspects of teaching, sometimes trial and error is the only way to fully understand which practices work, and eliminate those that are least effective. With the addition of Zoom in the classroom, I can at least hope for some face-to-face interactions with my students this semester. Since I have first-hand experience with the distance that online-only classes can create, I hope to try to find ways to maintain constant communication with my students, that limits their feelings of isolation, and brings some sense of normalcy back to the classroom. Since teaching is an effective master class in trial and error, there is plenty of room for me to explore my options. Inevitably, mistakes will be made. Perhaps while making these mistakes, my teaching style will emerge. I’ve found that students find a certain kind of comfort in knowing that their teacher is not perfect. In fact, I tend to relate more to those that show their mistakes, and model how to learn from them. Therefore, I intend to eliminate some of the alienation that can be felt whilst distance-learning by navigating the vast abyss that is online learning right alongside my students.
As this pandemic continues to wreak havoc on all aspects of everyday life, I’m left wondering how this will impact me, and my future as a student teacher. I’m worried about the connections that should be made between myself, other staff members, students, and their parents. Should my district choose to continue the school-year online, I will lose the hands-on experience that comes with being in the classroom. I fear that this will have a ripple effect on my disciplinary skills, along with the ability to be an effective leader in the classroom. Any experience that I would have gained during a “regular” semester will be erased. I’m enrolled in a Classroom Management class, yet I don’t know if I’ll have a classroom to manage. Though distance-learning will mean losing face-to-face contact with students, staff and parents, I hope to use this opportunity to find new ways to connect. At the very least, this pandemic will give me a chance to explore different kinds of communicative technology, and find ways to implement it into my teaching that I would not have had the chance to do otherwise. In addition to this (and perhaps more importantly), this will allow me to learn how to adapt to difficult circumstances. Since adaptation is an important part of effective teaching, learning how to adapt in an uncertain environment will allow me to succeed throughout my career.
Uncertainty and fears for this semester are not my only worries with the continuous spread of COVID-19. Not only do I have my student teaching semester to worry about, a large part of me wonders about my future - much like my students. I see a decline of high school graduates applying for colleges, and the ones that do are applying closer to home. It’s almost as if our horizons have been cut off at the knees. So what does this mean for me as a prospective teacher? Perhaps the biggest impact that COVID-19 has had concerns the futures of millions just like me. With the unemployment rate rising, and many businesses declaring bankruptcy, even my current situation as a part-time retail worker is in jeopardy. This has only been amplified due to my current graduation date this fall. Most schools do not hire midway through the school year, resting my future on an even more unstable precipice. I continue to worry if future employers will dismiss this semester as irrelevant, or commend me for continuing through the pandemic. Either way, I am woefully unprepared for the world of professional education.
While I will continue to carry a multitude of fears with me, I remain hopeful. Many of these fears are things that are completely out of my control, so instead of putting my energy toward these anxieties, I have to focus on the aspects that I can control. I have to remain a strong leader and a positive role model for myself and for all of my students: present and future. The future will always be an uncertain time, and when left to contemplate this upcoming semester, I can’t help but be reminded of this quote:
“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” - Martin Luther King.
Thankfully, I can say with complete certainty that I’m excited (and more than a little scared) to begin taking this first step with my fellow Kansas educators, parents, and students. The road ahead may be difficult, but with time and effort, I will continue to provide opportunities for my students to learn, grow, and be happy. I intend to begin and end my student teaching semester with one worry (and one step) at a time. For each fear that I have, I think of what this fear must feel like to one of my students. They’ve been displaced from their schools, distanced from their friends and families, and deprived of some of the most impactful moments of their lives so far. They don’t need to be met on their first day back with fear and uncertainty. Instead they need a positive role model - one that I sincerely hope I can be.
About the Author
Ayeisha is a senior at Washburn University and will be completing her student teaching semester in Fall 2020. She is a relatively new member to KATE, but intends to continue to be an active member after graduation.
Facebook: Ayeisha Colligan
By Charlie Bartsch
I almost wasn’t a teacher. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I wanted to be a teacher since the fifth grade, but I had a cooperating teacher that told me every day that I would never become a teacher. She never explained why that was, but simply insisted on screaming at me and demoralizing me each time I entered her seventh-grade classroom in Lincoln, Nebraska. She went so far as to call me at my home to tell me to “get my act together”. I remember struggling to re-word my instructions so that the students could understand, but guidance from a mentor was needed, not ridicule. Little did she know that throughout my entire life I had been proving disbelievers wrong. I am driven to prove that I can indeed accomplish what others say is not attainable for me. My experience with a demoralizing and discouraging mentor has shaped how I teach and mentor. My educational and leadership philosophies are built upon empathy and asking questions because I never want to make anyone else feel the devastation of being told they could not achieve their dreams. Assisting others to work through their difficulties and weaknesses is so much more effective than making them feel terrible about their mistakes. This approach to mentorship is essential to working with other humans, both young and experienced.
Now, almost twenty years later, I have more than proven my dedication to my craft and to the people who depend on me. I moved to Kansas when my husband got a job with Koch Industries. It was during this transition that I learned what true compassion looks like through my colleagues and peer consultant.
My evolution began at Southeast High School where I learned that empathy and consistency are the tools to connect with the students. Through these connections, another teacher and I decided the freshmen needed some assistance in adjusting to high school. We created a freshmen advocacy program to 1) help new high schoolers gain the knowledge they needed to be successful in high school and 2) provide leadership opportunities to the upperclassmen who taught the underclassmen the lessons. Throughout the process of this project, my leadership skills were put to the test. We not only had to convince the building and district leadership that the program was worth pursuing, but also the staff that it wouldn’t be more work for them. We took on the duties of creating all the lessons, training the upperclassmen, and monitoring to make sure those students did a good job.
Developing this curriculum and developing the program really helped me to refine my language at each level of our system and emboldened me to stand up for what I knew to be good for our students. After five years in the classroom, I left Southeast because I was asked to apply for a Peer Consultant position. I spent five wonderful years mentoring first-year teachers and planning professional learning (PL). I know it sounds strange to say that I enjoy offering PL, but I have sat through enough irrelevant professional learning that being able to offer current and relevant learning for teachers is exciting and refreshing. Being a peer consultant is the position that taught me the most about how to best support teachers.
Learning to assess a situation and offer feedback without being too harsh or too soft was a tricky subject. Teachers have good and bad days and first-year teachers have more bad than good. When offering feedback they often get defensive, but that defensiveness can be fear, feelings of helplessness, and frustration. Listening becomes the best tool to get to the heart of what is really going on. Teachers need to be heard and most of the time that is enough. Many times, just by talking through a problem or frustration with someone else, the teacher is able to arrive at their own solution. This type of listening and leadership is true guidance - not offering advice, but leading others to their own conclusions.
I use all of these skills in my current position as department chair at Northwest High School. I guide my team of amazing teachers with empathy and perspective. All of the teachers in the department are capable, experienced, caring educators that will do what needs to be done for the good of the students. The only leadership needed is advocacy and positivity. Backing them up when a parent complains or fighting for a new course or program they want to offer helps to build a strong team that works together and supports one another. Collaboration and teamwork is essential in our profession because teaching cannot be done in isolation.
The staff at Northwest are not the only progressive and caring teachers in the field. I have found through conferences and connections with teacher friends in other states that Kansas educators as a whole are some of the most progressive and caring individuals in our country. This progressiveness needs to be reflected in how they are treated by their leaders. For instance, the secondary school system needs to get away from the seniority model for choosing course loads and positions held. These things should be based on skill and the department chair cannot put themselves first in line. First, ask each teacher what they would like to teach the following year. Then, take into account each teacher’s special skills and where those would best be utilized. Build the department chair’s schedule last. That’s right. Take what is left after the teachers have been served. Whatever is needed. This ensures that the teachers are supported by showing them that their leader is willing to take a turn at the difficult classes so that they can have a lighter load. Chairs also tend to have lots of teaching experience. This means they may have more skills to deal with a difficult set of students than a new teacher would. The trend that first-year teachers always get freshmen classes which consist of learners with special needs must change. Give the most inexperienced teachers classes that will serve their individual needs. For instance, if they have great content knowledge but need help with management, give them older students that will go along with them when they try out new management strategies. Seniority cannot be the sole determiner. This is only one example of how to support fellow teachers.
Another way for leaders to support teachers is to disseminate information from the other layers of our system efficiently and effectively. The attitude of a leader directly affects those in his/her sphere of influence. The leader does not need to just buy-in and be disingenuous, but they must listen to concerns and work with the team on finding workable additions to take the initiative or behavior work for their students and staff. The teachers look to their leader for guidance on how to react. They need to know they will be supported regardless of how they feel about the task at hand. I want my colleagues, student interns, parents, and building leadership to understand that I will always advocate for my department’s best interest. In turn, the teachers feel empowered to make the professional decisions they need to make every day. Titles are not necessary in order to be a leader in the teaching profession. Each teacher should be encouraged to take on leadership roles within the system: classroom, building, district, state. This allows teachers to advocate for their students’ needs to a larger forum. Teachers have a voice and should use it to benefit the children sitting in front of them each day. This then starts a chain reaction where students also get the opportunity to see what true leadership is and how they too can be leaders.
In conclusion, what I am saying is that teaching is leadership. And in order to be a teacher leader you need to take calculated risks, pay close attention to your own behavior, and always keep others in mind. I have high expectations for those that I work with and they rise to those expectations because they know I will support them when they need it. Leading with empathy and open ears has continued to serve me well. My student teaching experience has shaped how I treat others and encouraged me to take on leadership roles to help support teachers who need it. All teachers are leaders. All leaders make an impact. Make sure that impact is a positive one.
About the Author
Charlie Bartsch teaches sophomore and senior English and AVID at Northwest High School in Wichita, KS. She has taught in the district for 18 years. She loves helping students and other teachers continue their learning.
Facebook: Charlotte Bartsch
By Heather Hawkins
Possibly the most powerful school experience my students have had while in Andover, KS, has been making connections with authors, scientists, National Parks, historians, students from other countries, and holocaust survivors using Skype. Why do I believe this? A conversation with one former student comes to mind. This student came to visit me when he was in high school, and I asked him to share the one thing he remembered most about middle school. He mentioned the day during his 6th grade year when we had a Skype call with students from India. That one 30-minute Skype call with Indian students, is what he remembered the most.
This has stuck with me and made it clear that the work I put forth to bring such connections to students is memorable. Creating these memorable experiences for all students while I have an opportunity to educate them is my mission.
So why did that student remember the day we Skyped with India? Because my students were able to connect with students half-way across the globe and learn about another culture. Because the Indian students showed us their ceremonial dress, dances, and musical instruments with pride. The students from India were excited to meet us, and our students were mesmerized. They were able to see with their own eyes that the other side of the world has students that are going to school just like us, and yes, they learn to speak English too. My students were able to share about their culture as well, as the students in India wanted to know more about America and Kansas. This global encounter is just one example of the many wonderful connections that students have made through Skype.
Yet another powerful connection happens during students’ 8th grade year. In their ELA class, students read Night by Wiesel and study the Holocaust. I reached out to the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center to connect my students with a Holocaust survivor. Little did I know how much this connection could affect my students. We were able to Skype with Mr. Tuck who was a survivor of Auschwitz. He told us his excruciating story of survival, showed us the tattoo on his arm, and let us know that possibly the most important part of living is to get an education, something he was deprived of being in a concentration camp most of his teenage years. Mr. Tuck also told us that the reason he shares his story is so that people will understand that the Holocaust actually happened, and that if he could survive something so terrible, the students could survive putting up with a bully or having to complete hard work. We have since connected with Mr. Tuck for 4 years in a row, and I still get chills listening to his story.
Another fun and exciting Skype experience that I have put together is the Skype an Author Day. I find a different author to Skype with for every hour of the school day and students get to ask them questions about writing during their ELA classes. Finding authors that are popular is very hard to do, so I usually find authors that may only have a few books published, are affiliated with Scholastic, or their book is on the William Allen White 6th-8th grade list. The Skype an Author Day is usually filled with laughter, but also some nervousness. Students do have a little stage fright before talking to someone that they do not know. So, we practice. We practice Skyping with a teacher that has plan time in order to ask them a few questions, practice our manners, and get comfortable looking into a webcam. Providing my students this opportunity to practice communicating via Skype will go onto help my students in the future. What if they get their first job by way of virtual interview? At least I can say I had a hand in their communication skills in some small way.
But why is Skyping with an author so important? In addition to providing students with an opportunity to practice formally communicating via an on-line platform, when students get the chance to speak with authors, they realize that authors are people, too. Authors have a personality and story behind why they write the books they write. They give students suggestions about improving their reading and writing skills. Authors also give tips on how to overcome writer’s block, and they share that editing is what takes the longest. These connections also reiterate to students what their teachers tell them every day - to read, read, read. When this type of comment comes from an author or expert, students seem to accept the truth a little better. When someone else besides a teacher helps students realize that the information they are learning in reading, writing, history, science, etc. is important, then that information becomes memorable. Connecting with others via Skype proves that learning and receiving an education is the single most important job for any student to complete.
The last example of a memorable, virtual experience I give students is through mystery Skype. During a mystery Skype call, students are given the task of figuring out where in the world the classroom of students live by asking yes or no questions. Students have Google maps on their Chromebooks and must think about geographical questions to ask like, “Is your country in the southern hemisphere?” Each class connected on the Skype call takes turns asking questions until the country or state is revealed. Then the magic takes place. Students ask each other what their weather is like, what sports are played, how many students are in the class, what is the native language. The classes explain their state or country’s flag, their cultures, and even politics. These discussions make my heart smile, because I know that my students are learning about other places in the world besides our small town of Andover. They get to experience a small glimpse of what school is like in another country or state, and that even though the class of students may be far away, they are not so different.
So, how can more educators create these same virtual opportunities for their students?
There are so many ways to find experts and authors. Author Kate Messner has a website that lists the authors that are willing to connect. Skype in the classroom of course has many opportunities such as mystery Skype, virtual field trips, and guest speakers, including authors. CILC.org also has many connections available, but most charge a fee. However, just going to an author’s website, business/museum website, or National Park Service website and emailing the “Contact Us” email can be helpful. What do you have to lose? The worst thing that can happen is that someone might say no. However, this rarely happens if your email mentions students, education, and how connecting with them can bring a wonderful experience to the classroom or library. From one educator to another, this type of virtual opportunity is worth all the time and effort you give.
About the Author
Heather Hawkins is currently serving as a school media specialist library teacher at Andover Central High School in Andover, KS. Previously, Hawkins taught for 11 years as a middle school language arts teacher and 13 years as a middle school media specialist. Serving as a building technology leader and district professional learning team leader for several years, Heather is passionate about teacher collaboration and yearns to enlighten students through collaboration, innovation, and creativity. She is purposeful in giving her students memorable learning activities especially through Skype connections with experts, which build communication skills and cultural awareness.
Twitter handle: @hawkinsh23 and @achs_library
by John Ritchie
I started the 2019-2020 school year--my 20th year in the classroom--with more optimism and excitement than usual. I loved both of my PLCs. The junior PLC was hoping to breathe new life into Miller’s Death of a Salesman by pairing it with Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Second semester, we were ready to roll out (and defend if necessary) The Perks of Being a Wallflower. These literature units would alternate with our renewed pumped up approach to digital literacy and research writing. My senior composition PLC was likewise pushing new citation styles and trying to help students see how and why the different citation styles were applied. Amidst all of this, a friend from Washburn University asked if I would sponsor a future teacher’s observation hours. If all went well, I would mentor ST the following fall during her student teaching semester. I would be open to all of her questions through fall, winter, and spring as we then geared up to an experience none of us could anticipate.
ST’s 2019 fall semester experience went very well. Initially, I would preview the lesson plans for her and then have her come up with questions about anything she observed during her two-hour stay. . Most of the questions were about the classroom layout, why I addressed some behaviors but ignored others, and how the transactions of the day would affect what I did tomorrow. When we got to our junior plays, she knew the classes she was observing well enough to predict that they would hate Biff and Happy (bunch of losers) but love Walter and Beneatha’s spirit. By the end of the semester, she was practicing electronic feedback on essays and creating seating charts based on what she knew about the students. I was pleased with her progress, so I was happy to put in the paperwork to be her mentor for Fall 2020.
I kept in touch with ST throughout the beginning of this past spring semester.. I shared our materials as we put together a tougher research unit than we’d ever done with our juniors. She previewed materials and began to see the delicate balance of creating clear objectives in student-friendly language. When our PLC spent three days wordsmithing a heads up for parents about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, she and I talked through the professional changes the team had made from the first to the final draft. With Part I of Perks completed without controversy just before spring break, I said things would be boring enough that she should focus on her final university classes and check back with me in May.
We all know how quickly things changed during spring break. ST contacted me to ask what we were doing. All I could say was “we’re adapting.” It was tough to keep her informed when my own information seemed to change by the minute. Then came the press conference. All of us in education had an inkling of what would happen, but I doubt any of us believed it. When the words were said, I couldn’t accept it. I jumped as my breaking news alert confirmed it. Dazed, I captured the screenshot for posterity:
Another alert--a text from ST: “Are you watching? What do you think?”
I felt an obligation to be the mentor. A temptation to sit above it all and try to remain objective. But I found I didn’t have the energy or desire. It didn’t feel right. I was watching the press conference blinking back tears because one of the best parts of my life had been taken away for at least the next six months.
“Devastated,” I replied.
As ST continued to check in periodically with me, I wondered how I could continue to offer myself as a mentor to her. I was dealing with Google Meetings that were attended by less than 10% of my classes. Incidents of plagiarism began to spike. It became a vicious cycle of my kids’ motivation dying, which hurt mine, which no doubt hurt my kids, and downward we went. I felt like nothing I did mattered. The assignments and the grading became busy work. What could she learn from someone who no longer felt effective?
I will never be more thankful for my PLC colleagues than I was from March - May 2020. It was easily one of the lowest points of my teaching career, but they helped me survive it. Our weekly meetings were the only confirmation I had that I was not alone, that I was not failing as a professional, and that we were all clawing toward a finish line hoping to have something to be proud of at the end.
As the school year wrapped up, my PLCs made a Google Form reflection for our students that we counted as the last assignment of the semester. We asked students to be honest about what worked for them and, in a worst case scenario, what should change if we had to go through this again next fall. Some of my worst fears were confirmed--the students saw some of what we did as boring busy work--but we also received encouragement saying they thought we did the best we could under the circumstances. One thing I noticed was how many students said they appreciated the ongoing contacts, even if the students did not engage us in return. There were also many genuine messages about how much they enjoyed and missed our class. That helped me realize that any successes we had in the fourth quarter were from the relationships we had built the previous seven months. It also helped me realize that I could continue as a mentor for ST by building off the relationship we had created last year, and by welcoming her as a colleague into our PLC.
It’s now late June. ST has finished her PLT and is beginning to ask questions about the fall. During any other year, we would approach it the same way I usually approach the fall and reflect upon on the previou year: identify what worked and what we can do to improve upon it; identify what bombed and evaluate if it is worth salvaging it,;and identify what new learning has excited me in the past year and where I can implement it. Of course we can still go through this process and build on the foundation created from last year, but the pandemic remains the inescapable elephant in the room. We cannot plan for it. Instead of giving in to the despair I felt earlier, I tell her it is an opportunity to dive deeper into what teachers and students in our district, and across the state, are already using. As we are a Google school, one priority is making sure she is proficient with Google Classroom and Forms. We look at screencast software and search teacher sites for the most user-friendly resources. I give her National Writing Project books and links to sites like KATE and NCTE’s ALAN site. The exchange flows both ways. As someone who is only five or six years older than our students, she is more likely to know what technology will be most engaging to them without seeming forced or, dare I say it, cringe. Part of her job is to suggest whatever she thinks might help us engage our students. She floats the idea of a Tik-Tok for our classes. I am not yet convinced, but I am listening.
Now we get together at least once a week to walk a public trail and talk about the fall. We get past our anxieties by discussing education developments. We joke that our walks in the summer humidity will give us the endurance to teach eight hours while wearing a mask. Many Board of Regents schools have announced that on-campus classes will end with Thanksgiving break. Will that happen to us? We know it’s possible. Based on the 4th quarter, we decided to suggest to the PLC that we put the major work in the 1st quarter. It may be an illusion of control, but the discussions help us acknowledge the challenges that lay ahead. Relationship-building is our top priority. Our first assignment together is to come up with a plan to build connections with students as soon as we are able to contact them, regardless of what that contact might look like.
I still worry whether I’ll be an effective mentor for ST. Even under ideal conditions, student teaching is an unpaid internship with all of the stress of teaching without many of the benefits. She is entering a situation that turned us all into first-year teachers again. This year her questions will often be the questions I’m trying to answer, too. The best that I can do is to acknowledge my own doubts, but show how we push past them through continuous learning and flexibility. I will show her how to enter a career that often thrives on adapting to crises whether it is school violence, sudden changes in curriculum, or even a pandemic.
About the Author
About the author: John Ritchie lives in Topeka where he teaches English 11 and Composition at Washburn Rural High School, and Composition as an adjunct professor at Washburn University. He has been an active member of KATE for 15 years.
Facebook: John Ritchie
By Carmen Macias
In college, Tuesday nights were sacred to me.
My overinvolved schedule and anxiety diagnosis caused me to be stressed constantly. Every day brought on a new wave of deadlines, papers, and assignments. On top of schoolwork, there was the pressure to maintain relationships, too. I was also encouraged to network and look for potential future opportunities. Because I was a student athlete, early morning practices and weekend competitions took much of my energy. All of these worries incessantly interrupted my day.
However, Tuesday nights mollified the tension.
Active Minds is a national organization that promotes mental health and works to destigmatize mental illnesses on college campuses. I encountered the organization when I was a freshman at Rockhurst University. Each year, our Active Minds chapter brings in a nationally recognized speaker. My teachers offered extra credit to anyone who attended the event, so I was sold.
That evening, the speaker shared how he lost his best friend to suicide. It was discovered that his friend lost a battle to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The speaker was devastated because he too struggled with OCD. He realized that if only they had discussed their hardships together maybe things would have been different. The story of the speaker touched me. In addition to the immense sorrow I felt for the speaker, I also felt shock and amazement that someone would share such a moving story with so many strangers.
Before Active Minds, I had no idea what taking care of my mental health meant. I thought it was not something to discuss with strangers or in public. I was aware I struggled with anxiety, but I had no idea anyone else did either. When I went to my first Active Minds meeting, I met many other students who had the same struggles as myself. I still was not comfortable sharing my experience with mental illness, so I listened to everyone around me. I heard phrases for the first time that would soon become mantras for me:
Not everyone has a mental illness, but everyone has mental health.
You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of someone else – You cannot pour from an empty cup.
You do not have to have a mental illness to go to counseling/therapy.
You are not alone in your struggle.
I am here for you.
The world needs you here.
After that initial meeting, it did not matter what I was going through during any given week. On Tuesday at 9pm, I knew that I was going to be heard at the Active Minds weekly meetings. Active Minds gave me a safe place to grow. I learned how to allow myself to let go of some of the insecurities I had, and continue to have, surrounding mental health. I was able to drop the toxic mindset that if I asked for help or went to therapy, then I had failed. Active Minds let me be kind to myself for the first time in years. I was welcomed into this community of nonjudgement and love. In this organization, I was listened to and felt heard. The leaders cared about me because they knew what it was like to struggle. I was encouraged to seek counseling without feeling as though I was less than because of it. I felt liberated. I wanted to shout to the world what I had discovered with Active Minds. So, I did.
After becoming a general member, I applied for a position on the Executive Board. My Junior year, I served as the Public Relations Co-Chair. In this position, I connected the student body to our mission. I managed the social media pages, made flyers, painted banners, etc. The best part about this position was that I was able to reach out to members of the Rockhurst Community and ask them to share a snippet of their mental health journey through our social media campaign called #MindsofRU. Students, faculty, and staff members shared their thoughts on managing mental health, self-care tips, a piece of their mental health journey, and other mental health related topics. I loved this role so much because I was able to connect someone’s story to a wider audience. Eventually, I decided to step into a bigger role of President.
When joining any organization, it is important to realize that you are now an extension of that group. You will always be associated with that organization no matter what you do. I quickly learned that when I took on this position. Because Active Minds aims to create a safe place for anyone during our meetings, people associate the executive members as safe people to turn to as well. Once I filled the role as president of the mental health organization on campus, members of the Rockhurst community felt safe approaching me with their struggles both inside and outside of meetings. I was often approached at the dining hall, in study areas, and even at bars. People trusted me with their feelings and knew I would listen to what they had to say. I always did my best to make sure they felt heard and to involve a mental health professional if needed. I did much more in my position than listen to the struggles of others and advocate for the importance of mental health, but I think that that was the most important work I did.
I journeyed from thinking that speaking about mental illnesses was scandalous to preaching how necessary it is to normalize help-seeking behavior. I was able to make this transformation because of the community Active Minds gave me. I know that the stigma surrounding mental health is still prevalent. However, I think the younger generations are better at speaking out. I worry more for the teachers and faculty members in educational institutions. Is there anyone encouraging teachers to seek therapy? Who is telling educators that they cannot pour from an empty cup? Where is the safe space for faculty members to discuss their struggles without judgement and the feeling of inferiority? Active Minds helped me understand myself and others better. Educators also need mental health advocates. Where are they?
The first step to normalize mental health conversations is creating a community that prioritizes mental health. I believe high schools across the country should look into establishing an Active Minds chapter at their school. High schoolers can utilize Active Minds to learn about the importance of taking care of themselves while also advocating to other students. Every chapter is required to have a faculty advisor. This advisor can be the branch between the faculty and students. If the student body creates a space for open discussion of mental health, hopefully that can pour into the administration. Together, students and administration can change the culture surrounding mental health.
Opening up about mental health can be scary. Here are a few of my favorite resources concerning mental health!
About the Author
Carmen Macías is a recent graduate from Rockhurst University. She majored in English and Non-profit Leadership with a minor in Psychology. Carmen is a member of the 2019-20 Active Minds National Student Advisory Committee. She likes to spend time with her emotional support animal, Giles and break down the stigma surrounding mental illness. Silence Kills So We Speak.
By Nathan Whitman
When I became employed at my first and present job as an English teacher in 2012, I knew that I was in for a culture shock. I had graduated from a 6A KSHSAA (Kansas State High School Activities Association) division high school of more than 2,000 students, and now I was going to teach in a 1A school of a few more than 200. However, upon having one of my first meetings with a school employee, I realized that Burrton was in for an equally stark culture shock from me.
I’d read the state data reports. I knew that the majority of my students would be white. I knew that a handful were of various minority and cultural groups. Nevertheless, when I inquired of a staff member about how many students in the school were LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) and if there was a GSA (gender and sexuality alliance), I was told, “We don’t have gay students at this district.”
With that perspective – no wonder! I was certain that these kids did not feel like they had a welcoming culture to be themselves. Clearly, this “educator” either did not know, did not care, or chose to be in denial of the hard fact that 4.5% of Americans are LGBTQ, and that number represents only the self-reporting to a Gallup poll. Those in the closet are surely even greater in rank. In my head I’d done the numbers: at a school of around 250 individuals (staff and students) – and I may be rounding up – 11-12 had to be LGBTQ in a given year. Knowing those statistics, I was determined to chop that closet door down: Here’s Johnny!
Throughout the course of my studies at Wichita State University, not only did I become certain of my career path as an English educator, I also realized that as much as I wanted to be a queer role model for my students and ally, I still had to play my cards carefully and closely to the chest. At the time, Kansas had no workplace protections for LGBTQ individuals unless they were written into the employment nondiscrimination clause (to no one’s surprise: sexual orientation was not and still is not covered by many districts’ contract language – my own included). Furthermore, with Kansas being an at-will state, I’d have to document anything I did in support of LGBTQ students or advocacy for myself (for legal reasons), as I could – and still can – be terminated from my job at my employer’s whim with no reasons given. While the at-will language states that “your employer can fire you for any non-discriminatory and/or non-retaliatory reason,” unless I had proof that my firing was discriminatory or retaliatory, I would and still can be sunk. This blog post could even be cause for termination, and I’d never know. Luckily, I’ve had fantastic administrative support, but I know that others are not so lucky.
I would like to think that LGBTQ educators can feel more at ease with their own personal lives and advocacy of LGBTQ students as of June 16, 2020, which is when I am writing this new draft of this blog post. For those unaware, in an unprecedented motion, two conservative Supreme Court justices sided with the four liberal that Title VII protects LGBTQ employees from workplace discrimination and termination. Hooray! I can now put up a picture of my husband and me after our wedding this summer and not be fired – I hope.
I preface the core of my post with these anecdotes and current events because we LGBTQ educators may now have more protections in our employment, but our students still lack protections of the most basic kind in their school policies. Check yours: Does it include a nondiscrimination clause on student sexual orientation and gender identity? Now is the time to use our newfound privilege to advocate and lead by example because, even with the Supreme Court ruling, there are political ploys at play to undermine trans youth via Title IX. I say this with resolve and guilt, for I know that I haven’t always been the best example and that I could have done more for many students, but I didn’t because I was afraid.
Instead, I did minor things to advocate: I put more LGBTQ affirming texts in the school, counselor’s, and my classroom libraries; provided Safe Zone training and signage for teachers who were interested; encouraged students who asked to bring same-sex dates to dances; made sure to highlight queer writers in the school-approved curricula. It wasn’t until the last few years that I dared to even show my partner in the beginning of the year “About Mr. Whitman & His Class” slideshow. But, I digress.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has an enlightening list of ten – often bizarre – myths about LGBTQ persons employed by those who wish to discriminate or do harm to that community. One thing that all teachers need to recognize is that these myths are still believed and used to justify discrimination toward LGBTQ students and educators. Three of them – in my opinion – form the core of what many students experience in their schools in Kansas, and if we’re going to truly support our students, we have to be willing to confront these misconceptions head-on.
Myth 1: LGBTQ Persons are Pedophiles or Perverts (SPLC no. 1)
This myth often appears when it comes to bathroom and locker room usage – particularly with trans students and educators. While more awareness is finally being afforded to the trans community, many still don’t understand that trans people just want to go to the bathroom, that they aren’t wanting a peep show, that they already feel out of place in their body and want nothing more than to be left alone and to be themselves. LGBTQ youth are one of the highest risk groups for suicide because of so many factors such as rejection from family and homelessness. With LGBTQ students already facing so much stress and pressure, allowing them proper bathroom privileges is the least a community can do to alleviate some of that stress. I personally know the hassle that bathroom usage can bring, as I choose to use the staff unisex bathroom. One homophobic accusation is all it takes to ruin a career.
Myth 2: It’s a Sin (SPLC no. 9 & 10)
According to the Pew Research Center, 76% of adults in Kansas identify as Christian. As much as we love talking about the separation of church and state, you’d have to be an absolute fool to say that religion plays no part in Kansas’ political or educational landscape. Two respectable professors from state university education programs have told me stories of teachers in training who said that they’d refuse to use a trans student’s pronouns or accommodate LGBTQ students in other ways if it conflicted with their religious beliefs – and they’re not the only ones. For students from all walks of life to have a welcoming climate in a public school, all students must be welcome, loved, and validated, regardless of the staff’s private religious practices.
Myth 3: It’s a Choice and/or It’s an Illness, and You Can Change (SPLC no. 9 & 10)
I have a hard time deciding which myth is the most damaging, but I’d say it’s a safe bet that telling LGBTQ youth that they’re broken (this ties to the sin myth) and need to change is pretty close to the top of the list. Ex-gay and conversion therapy have done irreparable damage to LGBTQ youth and spread like wildfire in states like ours: my own brother survived it, and I narrowly escaped having to participate. Now that scientific studies and mental health professionals even confirm that trying to change one’s sexual orientation can lead to lasting mental health consequences and even suicide, many states are banning the practice. If we as educators truly value the buzzwords “social-emotional wellness,” then we better damn well do our best to crush this myth for our students.
This leads to the inevitable question: What can you as an educator do? That’s easy. Educate yourself. Attend a Safe Zone or Safe Space training. Help start a GSA. Advocate for unisex bathrooms and nondiscrimination policies in student handbooks. Call out anti-LGBTQ comments and microagressions in staff meetings. Watch queer cinema and television. Read queer YA literature. God-forbid, meet and befriend an actual queer person without asking prying, borderline-fetish questions. It’s amazing how human we are. Use your power and privilege to advocate for LGBTQ equality.
At the end of the day, I don’t want any student to feel the way that I felt – to be told that they’re hopelessly broken, that God doesn’t love them, that they didn’t pray or try hard enough to change. High school is hard enough as it is. One of my most formative memories originates from high school when I was arguing with my brother – also gay – regarding his sexual orientation. I told him that I wished he was “normal” because deep down inside, at that time, I wished I was “normal.” What I didn’t realize, and what’s taken me close to over a decade to come to understand, is that I truly am that: normal. And all my queer students are, too. And, what a difference it would have made, if just one adult had told me, “You’re fine just the way you are.”
About the Author
Nathan Whitman is the current Kansas Association of Teachers of English President. He teaches 9-12 English at Burrton High School USD 369 and is also an adjunct professor at Hutchinson Community College.
By Erica Shook
This year, with all its insanity, was my tenth year of teaching. During those years, I have had a number of LGBTQ+ students pass through my classroom--some who are open with their sexuality or gender identification, and some who don’t choose to share that until after they have graduated high school and have gone on to the next phase of their lives. But all of them hold a special place with me forever. I have had a couple of transgender students over the past couple of years, one in particular whose voice I want to share with you. You see, this student has an amazing talent as a writer and an important perspective to share. I remember how nervous he was the first time the counselor brought him to my classroom to introduce us so that I would know him by his chosen name instead of the birth name listed in PowerSchool. He has a quick wit, a clever mind, and an amazing smile. But he was also struggling, though he shared that with very few people. Early one February, as we were talking about senior showcases, I asked him if he knew what he wanted to do after high school. His answer broke my heart: “I haven’t really thought about it. Most days I’m not sure I’ll be alive that long.”
Talking was hard at first, but writing was cathartic for him, so we focused on that as a way for him to communicate his feelings and experiences. Many days we spent my planning period working side-by-side at a table in my classroom: him writing, me grading or lesson planning. I would help edit when he asked. I believe very strongly that what he has to say should be read by everyone--certainly all educators--and I am sharing that voice here with his permission.
The following is a small portion of his words, shared with me over a period of months. My hope in sharing with others is that they will reflect on the relationships they have with students in their classrooms or school communities and ask themselves if there are areas in which to grow:
“To begin, I struggle with dysphoria from being transgender. Being trans has affected almost every part of my life.
Every morning when I wake up, I struggle to get ready to start my day, beginning with chest binding. This can cause many internal problems such as pain and overheating and can worsen already existing problems such as asthma and respiratory infections. It gets hard to look at things positively when every morning you have to face your worst flaws. When brushing my teeth, sometimes I have to refrain from looking into the mirror. If I do, I tend to wonder if I am passing well enough? Is my chest flat enough? Would changing my shirt help? Nevermind, I will just wear a hoodie every day, even when it’s 95 degrees outside. However, that's not even the hardest part. Night routines. That’s the hardest part. After the day is done with its battles, I have my worst one going home and taking a shower. Time to undo the one thing keeping my confidence up. My appearance. There is a mirror, which is very inconvenient when the last thing you want is to literally face yourself. So now my gaze stays fixed. Fixed on one thing. Getting dressed. Do you enjoy a hot shower? I wish I could say yes. That’s where most people relax. Yeah... not me.
Truthfully, I do not enjoy a hot shower, or even a cold one. However, I do enjoy the relief of the constant pressure on my ribs and being clean.
When I go out to eat, go to school, or go to a public place, I have to use the restroom before I leave the house and normally won't return to a restroom until I get home. Yeah, imagine that discomfort. At school there are two restrooms I am allowed to use: either the one in the nurse's office or the staff restroom. I feel as though this just calls me out further. How am I supposed to feel normal when I can’t even use a restroom 95% of the time?
Being trans has caused a lot of mental health issues--it's depressing being separated. Which name do I write on my papers? Which line do I fit in during P.E.? Which locker room do I use? I constantly feel like no one gets it. It is very lonely, and it’s hard to explain why I can’t just go to a certain place, or why I have to cut my trip short because there is no restroom for me to legally use. I constantly struggle with feeling accepted, especially around my family. I have been bullied and harassed for being transgender. I am different--everything is different. I have all the typical teenage bullshit, but on top of all of that, I am trans. I need to find less destructive outlets. To hide one problem, I tend to take on a different problem. I need to find some balance in my feelings. I can never find a good place between being too feminine or too masculine. Puberty is something that is making me anxious; it’s something I am going to have to go through all over again in the future.
Throughout life, you have to meet new people. I hate having to introduce myself to anyone. I don’t know how they will feel about me or the intrusive questions they may ask. I don’t know how to explain myself. Really, I don't want to. Coming out can either make you closer to family or destroy your relationship with them. There are countless reasons why relationships are difficult with a significant other. You have to open up even when you don't want to (about your triggers, about where they can and can’t hold you, about things they can and cannot say, and about dealing with how their family and the public feels about you). It feels so unfair to put someone you care about through all of that. I hate name problems, like when I am dead named (called my birth name) because of my family in front of someone who knows me as my chosen name or having to explain pronouns.
My future is my biggest worry, aside from my day-to-day problems. I don’t want to go to college, and that is going to upset my family. I have fear of what my future might look like. Financially, for myself, things are going to be very expensive. Things like surgeries and testosterone. I fear failure. I hope to one day do something big, like write a book, or maybe even a play. I want to try and make a difference for kids like myself. But, I worry about being fired due to my identity, being harassed or bullied by the public or coworkers, potentially ending up homeless, being denied housing or evicted, denied medical care or being targeted by others.
A lot has been taken from me because I am Trans. My childhood was not always happy, and I remember being alone a lot of the time. My sister and cousins never wanted to play things that I enjoyed. They played with makeup or Barbies and did each other's hair. They would play house, and I would only take part if I had a male role...like a dad or brother. I didn’t enjoy having family occasions--my birth name was said and used too often. I love the beach. God I love it. The sand, the water and the smell. It helps me feel free. It helps my mind. Which is amazing but sad because I have to wear a t-shirt. It’s hot there, and it makes me uncomfortable. The city pool is just Hell. I can’t get married wherever I please. I can’t have my own kids like a normal cisgendered male, and that kills me inside. Thinking about it makes me sick...it makes me feel empty. I think I hate that part the most. Anger overwhelms me, and makes me hate the world as well as myself. I hate my body so so deeply. I love children, but having them, that is going to be hard. It’s unfair for my significant other. I fear I am not enough, or won't be enough. I feel that I am not enough. I am not as strong nor as big as a typical male. I don’t have many friends because it’s hard to bond. I never got to play the sports I wish I could have or write the name I felt was right on the top of my papers. I never got to express myself. I fell... deep. Into a hole of self-loathing and doubt.
Sleep sucks, waking up sucks, peeing sucks, going out to eat sucks. I am alive, but am I living? I am scared. I am so scared of losing hope and just not having anything but myself. I was always alone, so I came out to fix that. I was wrong because now I feel even more alone. It is hard to even breathe thinking of all the things I didn’t get to see. I didn’t get to control. Yet, I am still in the same spot and not shit has changed. The world has expressed my unwelcomeness, but I did not ask to be here. When I am asked why I chose this, I say I didn't choose a thing. I didn’t choose to hate my physical existence. I didn’t choose to fight all the time with loved ones or my own personal battles. I did not choose to struggle every day. I wish that was understood. I want nothing more than what those people who question me have. I want what you do, I promise.
I have yet to understand why such bad things happen to the best of people. Especially things that no one should ever go through. I guess life just isn’t fair. I feel sad right now, maybe the word I'm actually looking for is overwhelmed. I broke yesterday. I cried...on the floor in the bathroom and made some very bad decisions. I just hurt...all too bad. Replacing emotional pain with physical pain. Does it help? Well, my honest answer is yes. But only for a moment. Only while it's literally tearing you apart. Then its effects last forever. In a helpless spiral you will fall. I want to love and be loved. I want to spread it and I want to feel it. I want to love myself the most. It is so confusing. I hate my physical being; however internally, I don’t believe I am terrible...
I hope one day it all won’t hurt so bad. Some things that happened, I will take to my grave remaining secret. That is where they belong. Dead. As dead as they made me feel. In time I will be better. I hold onto that thought. I don’t know how, or even when. But that time will come.”
About the Author
Erica Shook is the English Department Chair at McPherson High School, USD 418. Because of her passion for students, educators and education, ELA, YA literature, and social activism, she is also a Project LIT Community chapter leader and the KATE Vice-President. One of the most important things she has learned during her time teaching is that absolutely everything that happens in one's classroom hinges on the relationships built there. Representation matters and is an essential component of those relationships. Follow her on Twitter at @Ms_Shook or on Instagram at @ms_shook for book suggestions to build classroom libraries or for continued professional development. You can also check out https://www.glsen.org/ or https://www.tolerance.org/ for additional resources.
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