Every Student Deserves to Feel Welcome and Accepted

by | 06.10.19

Erik Sievert is a teacher in Wisconsin. Follow him on Twitter @Mr_EHang.

When I first started teaching, I believed it was important for students to see teachers like me celebrating their diversity and supporting their self-expression – but I wasn’t confident about where to start. This year, I realized that knowing the right steps to take comes from asking myself, “What do these students need?” and “How can I be true to myself as I respond?”

I myself am now an out teacher. I know a lot of teachers don’t feel safe or comfortable coming out to students, and it took me a little while to decide to come out. This is what pushed me to that point: I realized that sharing the facts of my life on an everyday basis was the best way I could be fair to my students, as well as to myself. Students need to see me being true to myself, because they’re trying to learn how to do the same thing.

At my school, LGBTQ+ topics are briefly discussed in seventh-grade health class, but I often hear that students have additional questions. And as some begin to feel safer in expressing themselves and choose to come out, I want them to know there are adults who are like them – and adults who will accept who they are.

Listening to those student voices led me to found a diversity club with my colleague, and we worked with students to build a library that represents diversity in race, ethnicity and religion, as well as in sexual orientation. We wanted to provide a real variety of voices, so our LGBTQ+ books range from “I Am Jazz” to “Julián Is a Mermaid” to “Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag.” We make the books available to teachers for inclusive lesson planning and to students as personal reading resources. They’re stored in a private space, and students can check out books with QR codes if they don’t want to make requests in person – so every student can feel comfortable exploring at the pace that’s right for them.

Already, the collection has inspired our school’s media specialist to order more diversity-focused books, particularly LGBTQ+ books, for the school library. As students start to see the library following in the club’s footsteps, I hope these messages of positivity and inclusion will echo through the community and give each of them a stronger sense of belonging.

Every student deserves to feel comfortable being themselves at school. And there are so many ways for teachers to signal that we value every student in our community – whether it’s casually referencing an LGBTQ+ issue during class, increasing visibility with a poster or adding books that celebrate diversity to the library shelves. My approach to promoting inclusion is to say, “These things can be scary to talk about. But the more we educators talk about them, the more our students will understand that they don’t need to be scared.”

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