Oct 20 2012

When is the appropriate time to come out to your students?

In this post I’m going to write first about a mistake that a new TFAer in Minnesota made and then about a related, and even bigger mistake that I made during my fourth year.  His mistake is not one that I’m blaming on anybody, not him, and not TFA, but it is something that made me think, and when I think, I like to write about it.

The ‘mistake’ on the table is the decision as written about on the TFA Pass The Chalk blog of Blair Mishleau to reveal that he is gay to his classes after a student declared that he hated gay people.  The blog post is open and honest and definitely explores the dilemma that Blair faced in trying to figure out how to respond.  He chose to go for the “teachable moment” and come out to his classes.  Whether this mistake is one that will ‘break’ him, I can’t say.  Maybe it won’t.  Maybe the risk will pay off and it might be the most important thing that his students learn, even if it is subconsciously, this year.  It won’t be on any state test, but to witness bravery like that might make an impact on those students.

But from a teaching point of view, it was the wrong choice.  For one thing, this was just a few weeks into his first year of teaching.  I can see if a teacher has been at a school for four years and knows his students very well and then revealing this, but in this case he prefaced it by first saying “You guys are my friends, right?”  I always advise new teachers to not use the word “guys” — it is a little weak, I think.  And I forbid new teachers from using the word “friends” in this context.  So there was already a bit of a boundary issue, I think.

I don’t think a new teacher should tell his class that he is gay.  I also don’t think a new teacher should tell his class he is hetero.  I think that it is better that students don’t think of their teachers as having sexual preference at all.  I don’t think young teachers should talk about their boyfriends or girlfriends.  My first years of teaching I never mentioned my Canadian girlfriend.  In my second year of teaching one of the girls in my class asked me if I was married and I looked her right in the eye and said “I don’t know.”  This was not the best thing to say.  She was pretty confused since this was a student I knew pretty well, but that’s what I said and she got the point.  Now I’m a 42 year old father of two kids (43 this Sunday!) and I sometimes talk in class about something one of my kids said or did.  I remember some of my teachers doing that from time to time when I was in school, and as a student I never minded it.  But still, in the back of my mind, I think that this is a mistake since the existence of my kids at least suggests that they weren’t delivered by the stork.

So here is the mistake that I made, a story I never wrote about before, but it is one that was memorable for me:

Like most TFAers, I shared a house with another TFAer.  David was a great friend who was, unlike me, very organized.  Well, one Saturday I was going over to school to meet some students for a field trip to The University of Houston.  On my way to school I realized that I had left the permission slips on the kitchen counter.  When I got back to the house, the permission slips were not where I left them, and David was missing too.  I had a feeling that both were together.  I drove back to the school and got on the bus and saw all my students holding their permission slips which David obviously hand-delivered.  My students immediately started asking, “Who was that guy?”  David had apparently gotten on the bus and told my students “Mr. Rubinstein is on his way,” gave them the permission slips and left.

At that time, I didn’t feel comfortable telling my students that I had a housemate.  I had a thing about keeping my life details secret.  I liked to portray myself as an anti-social robot who only thought about math.  As an extreme example, my father once came to visit me in Houston and I brought him to the high school football game — I went to all the games with a core group of teachers, but I had my father sit a few rows away from me because I didn’t want my students to see me with my ‘daddy.’  It was going to be too complicated to explain that I was just 24 years old and that I shared a house with a friend.  Not knowing what to say, I did something very stupid.  I tried to avoid answering the question by saying, as sarcastically as possible, “he’s my boyfriend.”  I guess I was more comfortable with them thinking that I might be gay than knowing for sure that I shared a house with someone.

The immediate reaction was a bunch of kids hooting and one student named Damon repeating “He’s serious.  He’s serious.”  I knew not to deny it, so I just refused to answer any more questions about it.  There wasn’t any aftermath that I can recall, but still it is something I still regret.  With so many day to day decisions that a teacher has to make, it is tough to make the right choice on all of them.

Damon is now about 36 years old and is a minister in Houston.  I last saw him about five years ago when I was in Houston for a math conference.  I met up with him and a few other students for a small reunion.  Maybe because he was a minister now, I felt I needed to make a confession.  Nearly twenty years after the fact I told him that that guy was a teacher who I shared a house with.  We then had a good laugh about it.

14 Responses

  1. Rachel

    Gary,
    Perhaps you could introduce a thread where your readers could discuss how to handle such “teachable” moments without getting into our personal life? Perhaps suggestions as to how gay teachers can stand up for themselves without crossing boundaries?

    I realize those are two seperate issues, but there are students/families that are increasingly intolerant. For example, I’m Jewish (in the Pacific Northwest). I don’t discuss my religion but if a student asks what I’m doing for Christmas, I do tell them that I don’t celebrate Christmas and why that is. I’ll also answer a few questions about being Jewish and why Jews don’t celebrate Christmas/Easter. Normally it was all “whatever” but one year a student’s attitude went downhill after the revelation. I didn’t connect the dots until someone told me that Student was telling other students that he didn’t respect me because I didn’t accept Christ as my savior. I talked to Student, explained that regardless of religion I was still his teacher and he needed to behave appropriately. I then reported conversation to Principal, and the first question was,”Why did you tell them you were Jewish?”

    I realize this isn’t as big of a risk as someone coming out to their students, but I think that it’s a type of situation many teachers find themselves in.

    On a side note, I did NOT tell a student using “Jew” as an insult that I was Jewish. My thinking was that it wasn’t OK because it just wasn’t OK, not that it wasn’t OK because I happened to fall into that category.

    Rachel

  2. Marc V

    Gary,

    I have been a reader of your blog for a good time now, and first let me say that I sincerely appreciate the time you take to publish your thoughts on various education topics, normally centered on education reform and Teach For America. My agreement with your positions varies from post to post, but your criticisms are almost always productive and come from a valid, informed perspective. If there is anything that we all can agree on, it is the need of a national, nuanced discussion on education. Your perspectives push forward that discussion, and I wanted to offer a delayed thank you for what you offer on this blog.

    However, for the first time I find myself hoping that you retract a post. To categorize a decision as complex, subjective and personal as coming out to a classroom as a ‘mistake’ is presumptive and lacking in empathy. Then you go on to juxtapose your own story against his, a story that demonstrates a clear situation of poor judgment (which you admirably admit, yet end on a humorous note that feels ill-suited due to the content of the post) and is hardly equal to the situation this first-year teacher described.

    During my first year, a student–in the middle of class, of course–asked if I was gay. My first inclination was to immediately say “no,” since I identify as a heterosexual and was in a relationship with a girl I cared very much about at the time. However, I caught myself and simply moved on, reminding the student that my personal life is not a topic of discussion during class. After school, I sought him out and explained to him why I didn’t address his question in class, and then told him that, while I was heterosexual, I had many friends that identified as homosexual and that I respected and appreciated all people, regardless of sexual orientation.

    I bring up this story for three main reasons. First, I do think that you are correct that personal business should be avoided in the classroom and I wanted to share a story that supported that stance. Second, while I do think that keeping personal business to oneself is a good strategy, I believe that building trust with students requires honesty. If it is appropriately delivered, it can be an asset to a teacher, not an obstacle.

    Finally, though, I do not presume to understand what it would be like to be in a classroom that is unknowingly-hostile to any of my identities. I have not had to go through such a situation, and while I proudly maintain a safe classroom (in which all identities are respected and any disrespect or intimidation is flatly prohibited) I cannot place myself in the shoes of anyone who has to decide whether or not to come out to a classroom. It is an incredibly personal decision, and entirely dependent upon the situation the individual is in.

    What the blogger mentioned on the Pass the Chalk blog you linked to (thank you for that) was a need for an authentic discussion on the issue. Along with authenticity, I hope the discussion is built upon empathy as well as the humility to not misguidedly presume that there is a blanket right/wrong decision in this situation.

    Please do not take this as targeted or ill-willed, Gary. And please keep writing; Lord knows we need more discussion about the topics you write about, and a voice like yours would be sorely missed should it ever refrain from contributing.

    Much appreciation and care,
    Marc

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Hi Marc,

      Thanks for your comment. It is thoughtful responses like yours that really make this blog what it is. It’s not just about my opinions and whether or not I am right about this being a mistake or that, but to open up a discussion about the issues. That’s why I don’t think it is necessary to to any sort of retraction. In case it wasn’t that clear, I’ll fully admit here that I could be wrong about whether or not it was a mistake to make the choice that he made.

      Your idea of saying “I’m not gay, but I have friends who are” is not a bad way to deal with it, but it seems unfair that straight teachers have this luxury of being open.

      One of the young teachers at my school during my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th years told me that when kids asked if he was gay, he would respond by asking “Would it make any difference if I was?” and left it at that. This has a lot of benefits too, though not every teacher may have enough confidence to say that.

      Definitely a complex issue, and I definitely don’t feel like I’m the authority on how to handle this. But having recently posted all my old writings, I starting thinking about my initial purpose in writing about teaching — trying to capture how difficult the job is. We’re constantly forced to make these decisions and there is usually no perfect choice. I wrote a lot about how the problem with a choice wasn’t always evident until after the choice was made.

      Anyway, thanks again for writing. I haven’t been posting a lot lately since I’ve been kind of tired, so your response is greatly appreciated.

      Gary

  3. Marc V

    Thanks for your response, Gary. Your willingness to address comments in a thoughtful, respectful way is one of my favorite aspects of your blogging. Keep doing what you have been doing, and I’ll keep reading.

  4. Teacher and Mom

    Teachers definitely need to set boundaries, and it is never a good idea to be “friends” with students. However, I think you go too far in saying that teachers must hide everything about their family lives. You joke about your students knowing the stork didn’t bring your children, but what about teachers who are pregnant? Should they feel ashamed? Certainly not. I have been pregnant twice while teaching – once while teaching middle school sex education. At the time I joked to my husband that the kids were horrified, like “we know what you did!” But actually they were fine about it. They (and their parents) even had a little baby shower for me! The second time I was pregnant I taught primary grades. The kids were very curious about my big belly, but there was nothing at all sexual about it. They were just excited that their teacher had a baby in her belly.

    Now my kids attend the school where I teach (an inner city public elementary school), as do the kids of several other teachers. We are teachers AND parents at our school, doubly invested in it. Our school culture is such that teachers and parents work closely together, and we have a climate of one big happy family. I would never think to be embarrassed about being married or having kids.

    As for coming out as either gay or straight – I agree that teachers shouldn’t mention it specifically. However, just as I don’t hide my husband or kids, a gay teacher shouldn’t have to hide his or her partner/spouse and children. The more often children see happy families of all kinds, the more they will see that the gender of the partners doesn’t matter.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      I appreciate the comment. I think that first year teachers have to be more secretive. Getting pregnant in your first year of teaching isn’t advisable, anyway. But, yes, students can deal with a teacher who is pregnant, but I’m sure you didn’t announce it to your classes after 12 weeks, just when you had to.

  5. I think you’re missing the power of heteronormativity here. If no young teachers discuss their personal lives, most students are going to assume their teachers are straight. This ultimately is erasure.

    • M.

      This.

  6. I think it’s perfectly fine for one’s orientation to come out to one’s students in the course of normal living – for example, being spotted out on a date, or having a photo of one’s spouse on one’s desk. If you’re putting down any kind of roots in the community, some info about your personal life is bound to circulate. Keeping it professional at work does, in my opinion, include not discussing one’s personal life during class time, but neither does it require being secretive. That said, what I think is awkward about this CM’s story is how the coming out is kind of a “gotcha” to the kids. Even if they come around to being fine with his orientation, it was still a way of handling it that could nevertheless lead to some real awkwardness due to how very personal of a call-out it was, done so publicly, and kind of manipulatively. Putting the kids on the spot like that about controversial subject, and making one’s professional relationship with the students so personal, is not appropriate, I think, and could be detrimental to the class in the long-term.

    • Tee

      I 100% agree with everything in this comment.

  7. M.

    Gary, I’ve never posted here but I normally agree with you 100% and have enjoyed your books. However, as a first-year (non-TFA) lesbian teacher, I can’t stand behind this post.

    I don’t think anyone who is not gay can understand how it feels to be a gay teacher. Likening it to not sharing a girlfriend or joking about a roommate is misplaced.

    It is difficult to be in the closet. In my experience, the more I had to lie or omit a major part of my identity, the more ashamed, guilty, and unconfident I felt. I was lucky to come out in my personal life, but being closeted at school (I am an elementary teacher so my concern is more with coming out to co-workers) has recently brought back all these feelings. I also feel anxiety about losing my job and/or rejection from students and co-workers all while having to uphold a lie.

    Coming out in any situation is stressful and scary. I don’t know if the teacher made the “right” decision, but I don’t feel like it’s your place to publicly judge him. I don’t think it’s your intention, but I think your post adds to the shaming of gay people. I know it made me more uncomfortable about being a gay teacher.

    This all comes from a real fan of yours…perhaps that’s why I took it so personally.

    • Gary Rubinstein

      Hi M,

      I do feel bad that this post has made you uncomfortable. I don’t know if this will help or not, but keep in mind that my critique is not so much what he told them, but what he told them three weeks into the school year. It was just too soon, I think, teachable moment or not. And I can see how keeping secrets about something might seem to imply that that thing is ‘bad’ but I wasn’t really thinking in those terms. It is more about what is their business and what may or may not make it more difficult to teach. So I wouldn’t tell my students other things like if I was living off a trust fund or was a lottery winner. I wouldn’t tell them that I had a nose job. I guess the post is about boundaries. Without them, students get confused.

      In a lot of ways, teaching has a component, especially for young teachers, of acting like something that you are not. For instance, as a young teacher I always wore a tie — I rarely do now. I wasn’t truly comfortable in this tie, but I would never have said to my students “This isn’t how I look in my regular life. The last time I wore a tie before teaching was at my sister’s wedding.” It would be too risky.

      Anyway, I do hope that this puts things into a better context, but I understand if it doesn’t too. I think the comments by you and by others are what makes this post ‘worthwhile’ so I’m glad to have gotten such input about a topic that I don’t know intimately.

      Gary

  8. Alex

    Hi Gary,

    This was my first time even thinking to research this topic online. I am really thankful to have seen this blog.

    I was recently struggling with this issue in my 1st year of teaching in a new school, new state, small town, etc. Though I had previously taught for 11 years prior to this, I had never thought to mention my sexuality before because of the following factors: 1) I’m a very private person and it’s not really any of their business that I am bisexual nor does it have anything to do with school/class time. (By the way, maybe someone can add to this topic about whether it’s easier or harder to come out as “bisexual” rather than “gay” or “lesbian”. I would argue it’s harder just simply because the word “sex” is in it and it takes you right into the bedroom…wince.); 2) I didn’t have any long-lasting, meaningful relationships to share about or hide from if directly or indirectly asked so it was easier to deflect or ignore. And, well, you get the idea.

    Now, though, things are different. I do have that long-lasting relationship and I am “out” in every other aspect of my life, including with my colleagues (both administration and fellow teachers). It’s with the kids that I am now struggling.

    Since I moved out to the Pacific NW with my girlfriend (and now wife), I have felt at times like a liar for not giving just a simple answer to a kid instead of acting all weird or trying to deflect questions about my personal/family life. I, too, was advised that I shouldn’t talk about it in my first year at this new school, that the students had to first get to know me and see how I tick before I divulged something of this sort. Upon reflection, I guess I get that. I just hate how I feel in the “lie”. It makes me feel ashamed of something that I have long put past me. Thank God!

    I relate to you a lot, Gary, about your work and personal boundaries (the story of your dad, wanting the kids to think that you’re a robot and only care about math, the tie wearing, etc.). Even though to some, I’m sure, they find your actions comical and maybe even unnecessary, I can totally relate. And I thought I was the only weird one…lol.

    What you described is me. I equate your tie situation with my feelings on wearing makeup at work when I don’t in my personal life. Also, I am a singer-songwriter/musician, but I don’t necessarily want my kids seeing videos of me performing online. I am just their teacher after all. Side note: yes, they do find me online because, again, small town and word gets around. But these are not videos uploaded by me that they are finding so there’s nothing I can really do about it. So, I even act weird about that and there’s nothing potentially inappropriate going on there.

    I hope this wasn’t too rambly. It’s really hard to sum up a lot of these feelings and my experiences with this issue. But I thought I would share because I do question where the line is in terms of being “real” with your students. How can they trust you and understand you if you can’t answer them honestly about something that is in essence everything you are and stand for?

    Just some thoughts…

  9. Gay Teacher

    You are a douche.

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By a somewhat frustrated 1991 alum

Region
Houston
Grade
High School
Subject
Math

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