Veteran teacher: Karen Pence's school erases LGBTQ people; that damages children

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January 20, 2019

Thomas Whaley has been teaching elementary school for 20 years. He is the recipient of the New York State Elementary Classroom Teachers Association Teacher of the Year. His teaching has been profiled for NPR 50 Greatest Teachers for his work with Latinx students. Thomas and his husband have been together 19 years, and are the parents of two children, Andrew and Luke. He is the author of the novel Leaving Montana and is working on a second novel. Follow him on Twitter at @AuthorTomWhaley.

Second Lady Karen Pence’s new teaching job at Immanuel Christian School has me reflecting on the role of teachers and educators in our student’s lives, well beyond the classroom. There has been much attention to the exclusive worldview Immanuel Christian School imposes on its students, families, and teachers. The reality of LGBTQ people are not a part of that worldview, to the extent that students will be expelled and teachers will be fired if they acknowledge the reality of LGBTQ people, either in the wider world...or perhaps through their own personal identity. Immanuel Christian School isn’t the only place with a policy of isolation and exclusion for LGBTQ students and staff, but it’s the one in the news right now, so I’m focusing on it.

I’ve been teaching elementary students for 20 years. It’s where I belong and where the biggest impacts can be made, especially when children are learning how important it is to be open-minded, kind and accepting. Children are born loving and kind. Race, gender, academic capabilities, religions, etc., are never issues for them.

Classrooms, at their best, are blended, extended families. Social, emotional learning perfectly orchestrated in an inclusive classroom environment is vital in our schools. It introduces, engages, entices and masters children’s natural born humanity. Our jobs as teachers are to help them hold on tight to that.

Our world, although filled with many people who celebrate our diverse humanity, is also fragmented by people and communities, like Karen Pence’s school, who preach hatred, ignorance, and intolerance for those who are not the norm they have set for themselves. The problem here, is that children are innocent. They do not have their own concept of what’s normal, other than the environment they live in and the people their guardians permit them to associate with. Many times, what’s considered or taught as normal to them outside of school, may not parallel what they are experiencing in the classroom or real world.

Identities take time to evolve and are easily broken when interrupted. If we crush identities or predetermine them, we will extinguish the light inside the little minds trying to figure themselves out. Most children are too young to have an established identity. They are told by authority figures that they are a boy or a girl. They are exposed to gender specific toys. But they also begin to know what they like or dislike. They form opinions, some by choice, others learned. But as educators, who are we to predetermine what they should like or dislike in the classroom? What they should play with or what color they should like? We have to allow children the opportunity to explore for themselves while learning their ABCs.

Some children are more aware of themselves at an earlier age, and they express themselves in their words and actions. Luckily, in some cases, parents/families learn to accept their child. I worry that the children at Karen Pence’s school are immersed into an academic environment that’s homogeneous in a set, defined, finite, model of what’s “normal”. The result can emotionally cripple children forced to struggle with their “abnormal” self-perception.

How can we expect children to become open-minded adults when they weren’t permitted to experience the full diversity of the world around them as children? In my classroom, kindness counts. Accepting each other and our differences is very important. It’s a policy reinforced by the principal I proudly work for. It’s what our school district and community live by, but that’s not what some children experience, as in the case of the school Second Lady Karen Pence has chosen to work for.

Classroom teachers need to allow children to be creative; to use their imagination and pretend. They must allow children to interact with one another and learn how to deal with different personalities and ways of approaching play.

In primary grades, teachers should allow role-play and avoid gender-stereotyping. When my students play house, I do not correct boys who pretend to be “the mom.” If boys seem interested but apprehensive, I encourage them to play with dolls or use the dress up bin. Same goes for the girls who want to build, play with trucks or pretend they’re construction workers. When comments arise “Mr. Whaley, he’s pretending to be the sister...”, or “She can’t be a police officer,” or “Pink is a girl color” my responses are always gender neutral, explaining that people can be or pretend to be anything they want to be.

Very often, I offer stories about how I used to pretend to be the mom, played with Barbies and Matchbox cars. Teachers need to make sure their students never feel judged or what they are experiencing is taboo. Once they create a negative association with a feeling or experience, it sticks and it often becomes something they will ridicule others about. It’s a negative cycle that we must avoid, and one being reinforced at Immanuel Christian School.

I teach because I believe in a world that can be better. One that encourages personal freedoms and a true appreciation of diversity. One that teaches children to pay it forward. This is what a classroom environment should be like. This is what we need every child to experience.