Facing Fear

Facing Fear

Little ones have identities that are complex and ever-changing


Sometimes you see a tweet and it leaves you thinking for days. Thinking before you go to bed, thinking when you get in the shower, thinking as you commute to work. Kate Roberts (@teachkate) wrote a tweet that struck like a thunderbolt:

I guess I need to leave this here: Not including books with LGBTQ characters in our classrooms in homophobic. Even if you support the cause but fear the repercussions, that is still fear of the gay. It doesn’t mean you are bigoted, but it does mean the fear rules you.

Homophobia is a living, breathing, thriving creature in our world. From reactions to the kiss in the Macy’s parade to the horrific remarks of a panelist at NCTE, it is fed by fear and ignorance. Fear of difference, fear of upsetting people, fear of “getting in trouble”. Here is the other thing. Addressing it can feel scary because of the strength of people’s opinions. Yet, finding the courage to do so is a matters more than I can say. There are children we have taught, there are children we will teach who will be teased and discriminated against, who will be hurt, emotionally and physically. There is the daily cost of self-esteem and identity issues. Hating yourself because you think you are wrong. Not knowing how to show love and be loved. The incredible loneliness of being invisible and the shame that comes with it. As teachers, we choose to support that hate and invisibility when we cannot get over our fear. I think about every child I have taught. Every round face with tomato sauce smeared on it from lunch, every chubby hand holding a marker, every giggle over a silly book. Can I still make that choice? Can I look at the chubby hand and say, “I will not make the world better for you?” I am a cisgender heterosexual female. What does that mean? That means I have privilege and power and an ethical responsibility to get over my fear and get into the fight for equality.

First things First:

What makes truly remarkable educators is their ability to fade to a quiet presence so that children can grow strong in their personal identity and agency. As a teacher, I don’t want you to be me, I want you to be you.  It is unethical for me to represent only one viewpoint because I feel pressured to by forces around me. We are public school teachers, we serve the public. The public is made up of a vast and unending well of diversity. To not only survive in the world, but to thrive, children need to know people are different and appreciate the differences. They should critically question same-ness, the should value deeply the inclusion of voices beyond their own.

Along with this comes the idea that as teachers we are cultivating empathy and compassion. Therefore as young children stretch their understandings of what a family is, what gender is, what identity is, our goal as teachers is to hold the line of empathy and compassion. Young children will parrot what they have heard or say things that seem racist or homophobic because of a lack of understanding. We aim to maintain the integrity of the little ones while helping them thing critically about the idea. More about that down below, but the key here is that as educators, in order for each child to grow confident and strong in their identity we must commit to making our communities free from language and practices that devalue others. As teachers of young children we feel comfortable intercepting language of hate between children, it is this idea that we must broaden.

If I cannot do this as a teacher, if I cannot represent all identities fairly and ensure the language and physical space of my room supports this., if I feel uncomfortable or afraid to do this, then it is my moral and ethical obligation to get out of teaching.

Okay, now, the fear of repercussions of taking a stand:

If you are still reading, I presume that you are in agreement, you want to represent all identities, and more specifically LBGTQ identities, but you have a whole host of anxieties: caregivers getting upset at you, children asking hard questions that you are not sure how to answer, feeling isolated and alone.. well the rest of this is for you.

1. Place these books in your library as facts, not a focus.

What does that mean? If you have a bin about friends, then a book where there are friend issues AND the child has two mommies, goes into the friend bin. Do not make a bin called “diverse families”. Chad Everett talks at length about inclusivity as the operative word because diverse centers someone, “diverse from whom?” he asks. Start from a position of inclusivity as baseline. This act is about visibility and accessibility. If you have a families bin, then put in a whole pile of books about families ensuring that they show different family formations. Your library should represent the world as it is. Just do it. Do not ask for permission, do not send home a letter. It is not hyperbole to suggest that this act alone shifts the mindset of children. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop is the source of the oft used phrase about books being windows and mirrors. Read her moving words here.

The next part is to use the books as fact, not focus. If we are looking at how alphabet books work, then I could certainly include A is For Activist, or when it comes to study character feelings. we can certainly use Worm Loves Worm. This does not mean that the lesson is about inclusivity, it means the lesson is about studying character feelings. Inclusivity is an act, not a lesson. The thing, substituting the oft-read Pigeon book for Work loves Worm is small, the implications for children are huge. Be brave.

Click here for a book list.

2. What if a caregiver objects? Practice what you now preach, accept difference, but you do not need to agree with everyone

A child may bring a book home from your library, maybe its “Daddy, Papa and Me”, Maybe its “Julian is a Mermaid” and a caregiver raises a concern. Practice empathy and practice equality. If someone says they do not like a book, you can say, :” I hear you saying you do not think that book is appropriate.” But you do not need to say, “I will put it away.” Someone can think a book is inappropriate. Someone can also think your spelling instruction should have a test every Friday. Differing opinions are to be expected.  But that does not mean they get to decide what all children have access to in a public space. Some of those opinions are outdated and some are wrong. Things you can say: “I hear you saying…”, “Can you tell me more about why you think that?”, “I’m hearing you say ____, is that correct?” You will hear that caregiver, you will let their concern be aired. You will accept it as their concern. You may get more information that helps you understand where the opinion comes from.  You do not need to fight them, you do not need to convince them, not now,  first you need to build a relationship.  Accepting that the other person has an opinion, one you may disagree with, will go a long way in deescalating the tension.

If you feel comfortable explaining why its important to have these books in your library, Jessica Lifschitz suggests saying things like:

“Let me just share with you WHY this book is in the library and what I have seen it do for the kids in this classroom…” or
“The reason that this book is in our classroom library is because…”
Most times, when we hold people’s humanity at the center of our mind, the fact that every caregiver wants their child to be safe, to be valued, to be seen as capable, we can help shift mindsets. However, if this is the exception to that, if that person becomes rude, threatening, aggressive end the conversation and go straight to your administrator. 

And then, make sure you place that book back in your library,

You work in a public school. Your responsibility is to every child that has and will ever exist in this world. You are the change maker. You are the gatekeeper. “Julian is a Mermaid” will be everything to a child in your care. It will normalize less visible identities for other children. It matters that it is in your library. What equates to a difficult conversation for you, is a difficult lifetime for a child. You can ease the burden, you can help that child be seen and heard, you can help others see and hear that child.

3. What if children start asking hard questions?

Let’s say a child brings in an idea from home, “My mommy said you can’t have two mommies.” What do you do? Well, what would you do if a child came in and said, “my mommy said I should hit people if they hit me at recess”? It is an opinion masquerading as fact. Someone can have an opinion, but that does not change the facts of the world. You can say something like, “”Hmm, really? Let’s look back at our family bin and see if that matches what we see?” If I have placed books like Mommy, Mama and Me and The Great Big Book of Families in my library then I know what answer the child will find.

This is not indoctrination, this is not persuading children to adopt an identity. This is the role of a public school teacher. Two plus two is four and families look different.

In the words of Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards:

No one-time comment of intervention teaches anyone a new way of thinking. By itself, talk rarely changes beliefs. Children construct a positive view of human similarities and differences through many concrete experiences. Interacting with real people has the biggest impact, but useful experiences can also come through books and other media.”  Anti-Bias Education for Young People and Ourselves, p35

And honestly, questions are good! Questions are thinking! Questions are about living and learning in an active way. If a child asks why there are two dads in a book, or why a boy is wearing a dress, you can ask, “Why do you think?” you can ask, “Is _____ always true?” (Eg Is it always true that girls wear dresses and boys don’t?”) You let the facts speak for themselves when you read books that represent them accurately, boys can wear dresses, and you can have two dads, you push into the thinking when it comes up. You will not be able to find a book that represents every identity in the world, what we hope to teach children is that everyone’s story is unique and rich and worthy.

There are few people doing this work more beautifully, powerfully, and honestly than Jessica Lifschitz

4. Make your community

Do not do this work alone. Get on twitter and follow Courtney Farrell (@educourts), Jessica (@Jess5th), Kate Roberts (@teachkate), Justin Dolci (@jdolci) Read what they write, follow who they follow. Ask for help, center the children you teach, find courage.

I guess if I end on one thought it is this, one year I had a child in my class who was gendered as a boy by the world, but represented themselves as a girl in drawing and in language. This child was empathetic and compassionate, joyful and thoughtful. This child was a spark and flame. This child was born to be who they were, and the world was not yet ready. I think about this child nearly every day. This child was no different in spirit, in mind, in playful goofy energy than other child. This child does not need fixing, never needed fixing, and will never need fixing, but the world, the world does. Courage, friends, a very small child is counting on us to see them.

I see this as the start of a conversation, I look forward to continuing it.

A deep and unending well of gratitude to Kate Roberts and Jessica Lifshitz who gave me critical feedback.  They are north stars and beacons of a better, more inclusive world. All remaining errors in the text are mine. 

  • franmcveigh
    Posted at 16:05h, 04 December Reply

    Beautiful. The “facts not focus” and the “What ifs?” Are so empowering.

  • Gina Dignon
    Posted at 18:05h, 05 December Reply

    Thanks so much for having the courage to write this. “Two plus two is four and families look different” That simple and profound line will stay with me as I find the words to have conversations with colleagues about this topic.

Post A Comment