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A group of Teach For America alumni, staff, and partners march at New York Pride commemorating 50 years after Stonewall.

Holding Nothing Back from Students

At five years old, the Prism network is focused on supporting teachers who are supporting LGBTQ+ students. A 10-year education veteran explains why.

October 1, 2019

Paula Ann Solis

Almost one in five members of Teach For America’s 2019 corps, about 18%, self-identify as LGBTQ+. That’s an indicator that the Prism network, convened five years ago by Teach For America, is making an impact.

Prism is a coalition of corps members, alumni educators, civic and religious leaders, advocates and policymakers, and community members, all collaborating to share strategies and resources to support LGBTQ+ students and all students. The network operates nationally and as local initiatives in 26 Teach For America regions. Members meet up annually for a series of Brave Education Summits on topics including rural LGBTQ+ leadership and transgender and non-binary advocacy.

This past summer—as New York hosted the WorldPride event, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising—Teach For America’s LGBTQ+ Community initiative celebrated its own fifth anniversary and brought together its first national board. The board includes 15 alumni and Teach For America staff members plus 3 unaffiliated community. Board members identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, allies, two spirit, and queer with disabilities. “We need all of these people’s experiences and contexts,” says Tim’m West (he/him/his), Teach For America’s LGBTQ+ Community Initiative leader. “All of their perspectives are valued.”

Several board members marched arm-in-arm past 2.5 million spectators during the WorldPride parade (above). Taking energy and a feeling of unlimited possibilities from WorldPride, the board met for two days to set priorities toward building a better future for queer students and teachers. They set a goal of creating new resources for queer educators, especially beginning teachers, who are seeking guidance to live out their full identities in schools.

A man poses for a picture with his hand on his hip.
Caitlin O’Hara

One Teacher’s Odyssey

Am Norgren (he/him/his) (D.C. Region ’10) is a Prism national board member. Now an instructional coach, he comes to the board with nearly a decade of experience in education, where he navigated coming out as a transgender man to students and colleagues. Norgren described to One Day what that took and explained why he hopes to ease the way for a new generation of teachers.

“I am queer.”

There. I had said it. It was the second day of school, and I was standing in front of my seventh grade math students, modeling how to create and share an identity poem. Just four years ago, as a college freshman back in Arizona, I’d come out to all my family and friends, holding nothing back and starting to live as my full self for the first time in my life. But then I became a teacher.

It was 2011, and laws and school policies, or the lack thereof, left me nostalgic for my freer college years. As I was going into my second year of teaching in a Maryland school, just north of Washington, D.C., I didn’t want to spend another year keeping a whole part of my identity in the shadows, leaving me feeling unsafe and less than a full person. I had wondered too many times during my first year in the classroom, “If this is how I feel, how must my students feel?”

That question put me on a path to search for resources, allies, and answers. And it led me to that moment when I came out to my students. When I’d finished my poem that day in my class, I asked, “Does anyone have any questions?” Hands flew up.

“Do your parents accept you?” “Are you in love?” “Do you have a partner?”

Then—on her second day of school, surrounded by kids she barely knew—one student raised her hand and said, “I’m bisexual.”

When you start teaching, the focus is on content, content, and more content. 

There’s a mind-set people try to enforce in young teachers that vulnerability does not yield respect. But I believed then, as I believe now, that half of what we have to offer our students is ourselves. Content is great, but it’s nothing without a human connection.

Frankly, the kids had already guessed about my identity in the ever-active middle school rumor mill. So had my coworkers and other faculty. As a family member (who often handed out microaggressions) put it to me when I was younger, I am “obvious.”

“Half of what we have to offer our students is ourselves. Content is great, but it’s nothing without a human connection.”

Am Norgren

If I had known how, I would have opened up to my students during my first year of teaching. And I had tried to. I had asked a teaching coach for guidance on how to open up in the classroom. Taken aback, she responded, “That doesn’t sound like a good idea.”

So I sought out the advice of other colleagues and allies, and I searched for identity-focused pedagogy to support me. That’s how I arrived at the idea of teaching identity poems in my second year. But first, I approached the school principal with my plan to create a more inclusive environment.

“Why do kids need to know that about you?” he said. I sat in that principal’s office and, for the umpteenth time in my life, had to calmly articulate that there are no parts of my humanity that I should have to hide, as I would never ask another person to hide their ethnicity, faith, or whom they choose to love.

My struggles to represent myself pushed me to work with leaders in the Teach For America D.C. region to create guidelines for incoming queer teachers on the supports available to them. When I left the classroom in 2013 and later started working as a content specialist in Connecticut, it was like hitting reset. I worked with education leaders in that region to collect resources so that, for queer educators, feeling classroom-ready also meant feeling safe and supported.

When I came out as queer to my students, that was only part of my story. I had started to quietly move through a transitioning journey. I lost touch with people because I wanted to avoid them during the messy middle.

It wasn’t until this year that I realized I may have avoided reconnecting with some of my former students due to this self-preservation strategy. But just like that day when I came out in class, I’m sure their only question for me now would be, “Are you loved?”

Editor’s Note: For this article, we followed the Prism network’s protocol of identifying individuals by their pronouns.

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