Earlier this year, I designed a “book tasting” for my middle school class that changed my career in a matter of days. Inspired by a National Council of Teachers of English initiative, I generated a list of 100 books recommended by national organizations as well as reading communities like Goodreads.
Having just finished a unit centered around protest art, I wanted to use this activity to connect students with books related to their chosen interests. As many students showed interest in LGBTQ+ rights, I included Juno Dawson’s nonfiction book This Book is Gay, which I found on the American Library Association’s Rainbow Project book list.
Our class book exploration happened on a Monday. By that Wednesday, I received an email from a parent who attached pictures of Dawson’s book asking me to justify my professional decisionmaking. Before contacting me, the parent had also sent these pictures and their own interpretation to a conservative local radio news station.
Before I could even respond, the media attention within our small town in Illinois had grown exponentially. As parents demanded that their children be pulled out of my classroom, community haters continued to flood the radio website with their comments. By Friday, the police had notified me that someone had even filed a “child endangerment” report against me, and I knew that I had to leave my classroom. I would never be able to teach the same way again.
Within a week, everything that I had known for 20 years was taken away from me. The school board approved my settlement release, and I was no longer employed as a teacher. Blindsided by these abrupt actions, many supportive parents, students, former students, and community members came forward to speak on my behalf at the school board’s community forum, which was held ahead of the board’s vote on my settlement release, but it was too late.
When I cleaned out my classroom and turned off the lights for the last time, I felt sad for the students I was leaving behind. Many of them reached out to me during that time and claimed that my room was one of the only rooms they felt safe to be themselves. How do they feel now? What message does this send to LGBTQ+ students?
While I’m saddened by how the events have played out, there’s a piece of me that isn’t surprised. For the first decade of my teaching career, I thought that my junior high language arts classroom should be an apolitical space meant to block out the world as we read fiction and wrote poetry. Over time, however, I observed so many of the students in my small, rural town receive amazing scholarships to nationally recognized universities only to return home after a year because of their inexperience with interacting with the world outside their rural community.
As a middle school teacher, I could only do so much—but I knew I needed to do something. I realized what a disservice I was doing to my students by ignoring so much of who they are, what interests them, and how they struggle to read an ever-changing world.
When I realized that many of our students had a hard time adjusting to life beyond their small town, I knew I needed to disrupt traditional learning practices. From this revelation, I worked with a colleague to develop an inquiry framework centered on teaching and learning around student-driven questions. Using this framework, teachers engage adolescents in contemporary social issues with young-adult literature by asking questions, conducting research, and constructing authentic writing experiences that connect to students’ interests.
Instead of anger, I choose to focus on hope.
I wanted to provide a learning space for my students that would challenge them to experience different perspectives, develop a sense of curiosity, explore their own identities, and afford them time to think critically about their own values and beliefs. Through careful planning that acknowledged the conservative roots embedded in the community, I was able to successfully integrate this framework for close to 10 years.
However, innovation often comes with a cost. Part of me wants to hang on to my anger at the ignorance of those who made me question my professionalism as an educator and advocate for students. I also feel disheartened as I worked tirelessly on maintaining classroom transparency for families but did not receive the same level of respect or courtesy in return.
Instead of anger, I choose to focus on hope. This ordeal has led me to three important lessons that I hope my fellow educators can take from my experience:
- Build communities of trust. Trust is something that is built over time and needs nurturing, but it begins with listening. Engaging students in activities like listening circles and restorative practices can broaden perspectives and promote mutual understanding. Had these parents afforded me the opportunity to share my thoughts on the subject matter and simply listen, I’m confident that things could have ended differently. It’s essential to listen to our students’ families and understand their perspectives, but teachers deserve the same courtesy.
- Support all students. Having Dawson’s book in my classroom is a choice I would make over and over again. If I were a student in the LGBTQ+ community witnessing this outcry, I would feel unsafe, fearing that I could be the next target. All students need reassurance that they are supported and protected.
- Encourage curiosity. This experience reminded me that it’s important to make time for lots of questions. Curiosity is a form of love. When I ask questions, it’s because I care about the answer and the opportunity to learn from you. As educators continue to be scrutinized, we must continue to nurture curiosity—both in ourselves and our students. For administrators, supporting innovative teaching practices of educators creates a space of growth and autonomy.
My role as a teacher, advocate, ally, collaborator, activist is not finished. As you read my story, I invite you to think about how you play a role in shaping the lives of today’s youth and the world they deserve to live in.
A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2023 edition of Education Week as The Backlash That Drove Me Out of My Classroom