Being My Authentic Self as a First-Year Teacher

by | 06.16.22

Phoenix Moony is a teacher in Florida. Follow them on Twitter @mxphoenixmoony.

On my first-ever day of teaching last fall, I was nervous for all of the usual reasons – and for one more. I wasn’t sure yet how I was going to talk with my fourth grade students about who I am as a nonbinary teacher. They knew that I used the honorific “Mx.” and that I use “they/them” pronouns, but I wasn’t sure what ideas they might have about what that means.

I didn’t really plan on saying anything at first. But as our first day started, I could tell my students and I had a rapport. I have a zany, off-the-wall personality; I’ll jump up on a desk, do the worm to make them laugh, get silly with them – and they responded to me right away. We were connecting.  

I decided to read them a picture book, Julián is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love. It’s a sweet book about embracing who you are, and I thought it would set the tone for our love of reading in my class. In the story, a little boy named Julián is on a subway with his abuela, and he sees a group of ladies dressed as mermaids on their way to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. Julián is inspired to become a mermaid himself, and he makes himself a wig and a tail. In a gesture of recognition and acceptance, his abuela ends up offering him a necklace and taking him to the parade, so he can walk with the other mermaids. I was curious about how my students would react to the story, so I read it without a definite plan for whether we’d talk about my own gender identity or not. 

When I finished the story, most of my students just said things like, “Oh, that’s cute, that’s interesting.” And then one student said, “Being a mermaid – isn’t that a girl thing? And Julián is a boy?” I thought, okay, we’re doing this. Some students offered that there are “mermen” also, and the student accepted that. I told them, “You can be either. You can be neither. You can be whoever you are.” I explained that our conversation about Julián connected to who I am, and why I go by “Mx.” I told my students, “I don’t see myself as being a boy or a girl. I’m a mixture. I’m a mix of the two of them. I’m just me. I’m just a human. And I try to be a good human and I hope you’re okay with that.” I let them know that I’d be happy to talk with them more about it later if they had questions, but that now we could move on with the rest of their class. Their reaction was casual: “Yeah. Cool. Okay. So, that’s them.” It was as simple as that. 

I know there are other nonbinary educators entering the teaching profession and already in it now, and many straight, cisgender educators wondering what it means to be a supportive colleague to fellow teachers in the LGBTQ community. I wanted to share a bit about my experience this year, in case it might offer a light for anyone else. Though my first year was a wild, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of year, it was also a lot of fun. I’m excited to come back. Part of what made this year a positive experience was the support that I found in my school community, and the fact that I felt like I was able to bring my authentic self to school. 

Introducing Myself to School Leaders and Fellow Teachers

I have been out in the open for a while. I knew I didn’t want to go back into the closet to teach, so I wanted to find administrators who had my back from the moment they hired me. During my second interview for my job, I let my administrators know that I use “they/them” pronouns and the “Mx.” honorific. I wanted to make sure that my school leaders would be understanding – if not knowledgeable – about my identity, and that they would be willing to learn. Without hesitation, both my principal and assistant principal said, “We think that you would be a great addition to our school and we would really love to have you here.” It was such a clear message that this was where I needed to be.  

Having a supportive administration has made a huge difference. They were able to support me by talking with the staff about my identity before I arrived and offering to field questions. They sent a letter home to families. They introduced me to an HR representative and let me know that if I had any concerns and didn’t feel comfortable coming to them, then she was my person. When there was an issue later in the school year about getting rid of our gender-neutral, single-stall bathroom, they were an advocate to the district. They paved the way for me to feel welcomed at the school when I arrived, and throughout the year, I knew they had my back.

My fellow teachers were, for the most part, very welcoming as well. There were some who didn’t know anything about what it means to be nonbinary and who approached me asking, “Can you make me understand better?” And I said, “I don’t know that I can make you understand better, but I can help you understand me.” And that was all it really took. I appreciated that they stepped out of their comfort zone to speak with me directly.

There were times throughout the year when someone would use the wrong pronouns, and then correct themselves and move on. And that’s what I wanted: colleagues who were willing to learn. 

Introducing Myself to Families 

I knew some families would have more context for my identity than others. I was nervous about being accepted by my students’ families. Before the open house, I sent home a letter introducing myself. I told them it was my first year teaching, that I have two dogs, and that I use “they/them” pronouns. In the letter, I said, “You might hear your students say something like, ‘I’m in Mx. Moony’s class. They painted one of the walls in their room, and I like having them as a teacher.’”

I think it helped that my administrators had reached out in advance. So even though it was something I’d worried about a lot, my experience with families was fine. I learned throughout the year that many of my students had family members and family friends in the LGBTQ community, as most of us do. 

My Advice for First-Year LGBTQ Teachers and Those Who Want to Be Allies

If you’re on a team that is welcoming LGBTQ teachers, try to be open-minded about how they want to be presented and how they want to engage with their identity. I’m very out loud and open, but not everybody is. So for example, maybe a teacher doesn’t want to be out to students but still wants to be accepted and respected as a member of the staff. Being open-minded, working to educate yourself and seeking out the teachers’ needs and wants around support is the best thing you can do.

If you are a teacher who identifies as part of the LGBTQ comunity, there are a few approaches that helped me feel successful this year.

  1. Feel out your comfort zone with your administrators, and invest in building those connections. When you have an administrator who has your back, then you always have someone to seek out when challenges arise.
  2.  Find others who are part of the LGBTQ community or who are strong allies. We’re in a day and age when it’s almost impossible not to know somebody who falls under the umbrella, and finding those relationships is so valuable. Having the other adults in the building have your back makes it a lot easier.
  3. Find a way to respond to questions without shutting down or thinking that people are trying to be offensive, because most of the time they’re notMost of the time, when people ask questions about your identity, they don’t mean to be rude. They just don’t know, and they need to be educated. Find a response that feels beneficial to you, whether it’s talking openly about your identity and educating peers yourself or pointing them toward other resources.
  4. Find the level of authenticity with your students that feels comfortable to you. I know everyone will have a different feeling about this, but I found being open with the students was shockingly relieving. They became my advocates. Two days this semester, I had a sub, and the sub would refer to me as “Ms.” or “Mr.,” and my students would say, “Actually, Mx. Moony uses ‘they.’” They cared about educating others on my behalf.

Remember: Just your presence in students’ lives is powerful. Having the confidence to be authentically yourself – and letting those kids see that you can be successful and confident as an outlier – speaks volumes to them. It sends the message that students can be themselves, no matter who they are.  

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