“They may forget what you said, but they will not forget what you made them feel,” is a quote by American writer Carl Frederick Buechner which I believe with all my heart as an educator. Unfortunately, I have seen this play out, manifest in my interactions with my students and fortunately my students have been brave enough to tell me what I have made them feel—they never held it back from me. Good, bad, ugly it took a lot of effort to be bare, with our feelings with each other. It took an immense amount of courage to break the hierarchy in the classroom to come close to each other, be partners in learning, rather than a mere system of giving and receiving.
All this has been possible for I took my chance to do the Teach for India Fellowship. I was allowed as a teacher to love my students freely, given an opportunity to reach out to all my kids, believe in them for who they are. Sadly enough, this is not the reality for many children across the nation. Neither was this my situation in school. I was humiliated for who I am, for being queer, by my teachers and this affected my well being and my overall learning.
So here I am, to share with all, my learnings as a queer educator and the learning I hope I have had received as a student. These are some of the things I did in my classroom and some I have picked up from great teachers that I have come across in my past two years of teaching.
Shed Your Biases
As a teacher we receive a lot of power over the lives of our students. And this in turn leaves them vulnerable to our actions. It is important to recognise our own biases and be mindful in not projecting them on to our students. We need to see them as individuals and always give them an infinite number of chances. Before letting our opinions draw a conclusion about where a child stands in terms of academic performances, it is important to make sure that they are factually backed up.
If a child is struggling it does not mean that she/they/he is a bad learner. It means as a teacher we need to work harder to identify the learning needs of the child. We have our own take on the society, our experiences often shape what we think of a particular community, caste, class, religion, gender, ethnicity etc. But we as teachers need to remember that experiences are personal and that we should never think that our reality is the only truth and the only way to see things.
Being a teacher means to be a constant learner, to be open to perspectives all the time. Oftentimes, we do not do that and end up enforcing our beliefs on our students. Instead of creating thinkers, we end up curbing their curiosity. And without curiosity any learning is futile.
Create A Safe Space
As a queer child, I felt extremely unsafe in my classroom. My peers used to bully me and my teachers never raised a voice against it. Instead, it was said that its all my fault. I should learn to talk, walk and express differently. As a teacher, whenever I stand in front of any group’s students, I shake and cower with the immense amount of responsibility I have, with every word or rather any word I speak; it can either enable my students to feel empowered or scar them for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, I have witnessed the later as a student. I suffer with extreme self esteem issues till today.
I feel that it is my responsibility, or a teacher’s to make sure this does not happen to their students. I together with my co-teacher, in the classroom I taught for the last two years envisaged that we would create a space where all our students will have a voice. We celebrated diversity in terms of gender, religion, disability and class through our lessons. We made sure that our students know what it is to practice empathy towards oneself and others. We tried our best to make our classroom conducive and kind to anybody who is not cis-gender or heterosexual or able bodied/minded or upper caste. We tried to incorporate in them that all of us have potential, it just manifests in different forms.
Here is are some example of novels we taught in our class to celebrate diversity and empathy.
- Boy in the dress by David Williams
- Wings to fly by Sowmya Ranjendran
- The hundred dress by Eleanor Estes
Be Ready To Feel Uncomfortable
Our students live in the same world as us and the world is unjust, cruel and not child-friendly. Yet children need to navigate in this world of adults, of war and of violence. They see, hear and often perceive things that they are not meant to as kids. As adults it is our responsibility to make this world a better place for them, but also acknowledging that it is going to be a slow process is important. Therefore, along with social justice, we need to focus on empowering our kids, to stand tall in this world of dominating adults. We need to hear them out even if what they are saying is making us uncomfortable.
Telling our children what the consequences of their words and actions may have on themselves and on others, instead of shunning them away, is vital for their own growth and development. If you hear a child is using slang, ask them the meaning of it, where they have come across the word and what it implies. Tell them what can be the effect of the word on others and how they be perceived in turn. Making the child feel ashamed right then would end up shutting them up. Remember, as adults, we need to be ready to be uncomfortable so that our kids are comfortable sharing.
Here is a video on the effects of shame that might be helpful.
Also read: Shilok Mukkati On Queer Literature, Art And Activism In India
As much as it is important to teach our students resilience, it important for them to know as well that vulnerability too, is a strength. Our boys especially need to know that it is absolutely okay to cry and be expressive emotionally. As teachers, we need to show them that we too are human and emotions affect us.
Having a bond with your students is important for them to know you as a person. Share your life’s journey with them, tell them what made you and what broke you, tell them what were your turning points. And believe me, I speak from experience that you will inspire your students to feel, to follow their passions, to be human.
Here is a link to a video on importance of vulnerability.
Encourage Sex Positivity
Sex positivity means taking away the shame associated with conversations around sexual desires and pleasure, sex organs and sexuality. Our children live in a world where they are prone to sexual abuse, and in this age of the internet, everyone has access to everything. For pre-adolescent children we need to build awareness around their own body, de-stigmatise the shame associated with naming sex organs, and teach them consent. We need to talk about gender stereotypes from an early age so that our children are capable of recognising gender-based violence.
For adolescent children talking about porn, masturbation, attraction and safe sex is important. Children should not feel shame to talk about sexuality. As adults, it is important for us to tell them what is real and what is make belief in pornographic films. They must know that feeling attracted to someone is not wrong but respecting boundaries, and understanding the importance of consent is crucial.
Here is a link to an article which may be helpful.
Also read: Families Of Choice: Looking Through The Queer Lens
All the above things that I spoke about need an immense amount of unlearning. We need to open our minds before we ask our students to do so. We need to learn to be respectful before we demand respect from our students. We need to be brave in order to expect courage from our kids. All that I have shared, is what I believe will not only benefit queer children but all children. We need to know that all our children are capable and all our children deserve to be loved and understood.
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India