Eric is the Executive Vice President of Growth, Development, and Partnerships at Teach For America.
In New York City, kids in the eighth grade have the opportunity to apply to high schools across the city. For my students, that meant the potential to avoid their local “zoned” school which had less than a 50% graduation rate. Helping my students get into high schools that would put them on a path to choose college was my focus in my classroom.
One of my students, Melissa, was most proactive in seeking help. She was an old soul and my most serious student; a diligent worker, always on time, homework always completed, focused intently on any task at hand. In fact, it was a conversation earlier that year with Melissa which accelerated my learning curve as a teacher: After a particularly tenuous day of classroom management, Melissa stayed back and was the last one to leave my room. Poised and confident, she stopped, looked me directly in my beleaguered eyes, and told me I needed to get control of my classroom and teach better, faster. In her words, “get it together.” She was right and I needed to hear it. Reflecting on that interaction helped me to find my ‘teacher self’ and to lead my classroom with more confidence.
One afternoon in the spring, Melissa was in my classroom after school working on her high school entrance portfolio while I graded papers. After a few questions about grammar for her essay, Melissa asked me if I was gay. In the moments of silence while I gathered my thoughts for a response she continued that her uncle was, that she didn’t care, and that she thought people should do what makes them happy as long as it didn’t bother anyone—and being gay didn’t bother her.
Melissa was giving me permission to come out but I was too afraid to tell the truth. Despite being in New York City, home to America’s largest gay community and birthplace of the struggle for civil rights for gay people, my school was not a safe place ten years ago. Other teachers regularly made disparaging comments about LGBT people in our community and hateful language was ignored in most classrooms and in the teacher’s lounge. So I deflected and responded that these are personal questions and are not in bounds for conversation. Melissa respectfully moved on, choosing not to push the issue, and never again asked me.
There are many things I would do differently were I to teach again. Not sharing with Melissa and all of my students that I am gay and proud to be so is my only and perhaps deepest regret. I do not know what Melissa’s sexual orientation is. But I know there were LGBTQ students in my classes and there were no positive, confident, open LGBT role models in our school or community.
Thinking of my own experience growing up gay in a small, Midwestern town, receiving constant harassment by peers as adults stood idly by at best, or encouraged the behavior at worst, I cannot even imagine what it would have been like to have a teacher I respected be out and proud. In addition to being a role model for kids in my school—gay or straight—had I come out as a teacher, I know I would have had allies. Together we could have changed our school and the experience of all of the students.
I’m sorry for unintentionally sending Melissa the message that being gay is something to be ashamed of, and for reinforcing the harmful message that her uncle, peers, and I are somehow less human and therefore less worthy of the dignity, respect, recognition, and rights afforded others.
Schools remain very unsafe places for LGBTQ students and their teachers. According to the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network’s most recent national school climate survey, over 90% of high school kids surveyed in 3,200 districts across all 50 states and the District of Columbia feel unsafe at school. Eighty-two percent were verbally harassed this past year, nearly 40% were physically harassed (pushed or shoved), and 18% were assaulted (punched, kicked or injured with a weapon). In 20 states, home to some of Teach For America’s largest regions, there are no job discrimination protections based on sexual orientation, which means coming out in some places could result in losing your job.
Coming out as a teacher is a complicated and personal decision with so many implications--I am in no position to say what anyone should do. I did want to share my reflections in case they are helpful for other educators who are struggling with this decision. Regardless of your sexual orientation, our kids need more allies and deserve to go to schools that provide them with a safe and affirming learning environment.
As we celebrate National Coming Out Day and commemorate LGBT History Month, please go to www.safeclassrooms.org and pledge to make your classroom and school a safe place and encourage other educators to join you. There is no path to educational equity that doesn’t include all of us assuming responsibility for ensuring our classrooms are safe and affirming places for every student—particularly those who identify as or are perceived to be LGBTQ.
For any student who may read this and who may be struggling, it does get better and there are thousands of us working to make sure you have every opportunity to fulfill your potential. Keep asking for help until someone listens. If you have trouble finding a trusted adult, contact the Trevor Project or get in touch with the Teach For America region closest to you and we will find a way to help.
As a 2001 Teach For America corps member, Eric led his junior high school students to success on the New York State Regents examination typically given to high school students, and then helped them to apply and be admitted to high schools across the city. Eric first joined staff as a Program Director supporting new teachers in New York City and then went on to lead Teach For America’s St. Louis and San Francisco Bay Area regions as executive director. In his current role, he has helped to grow Teach For America to over 10,000 corps members across 46 sites, bringing its alumni force to 28,000 strong, while increasing funding from $149M to $280M to enable greater investments in recruitment, training, and support. Eric graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Washington University in St. Louis. He is the first in his family to attend college, is proud of his small-town Illinois roots, and loves yoga with Stephanie Snyder. Eric lives in New York City.