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LGBTQ Pride Month: How #BraveEducation Shaped My Classroom

To close LGBTQ Pride Month, first-year teacher Ammar Zia (Rhode Island '15) reveals how creating an environment of diversity and inclusiveness vanquished his initial fears of sharing his identity with his students.

teacher and students dressed in Greek mythology costumes

By Ammar Zia

June 30, 2016

I joined the Teach For America corps in Rhode Island less than a year ago as a middle school language arts teacher. Immediately after being accepted to TFA, I started having doubts; I thought that Rhode Island was too far and that I wasn’t ready to move across the country.

I thought back to my childhood, especially to when I was told to pack my bags and get on a plane to leave Pakistan. I remember holding the fragile arms of my grandmother as we cried before saying our goodbyes. I did not want to leave her, and I did not want to leave my family. I didn’t know the English language, and I was scared of being misunderstood and labeled as an outcast. I was afraid that people in California wouldn’t look like me, dress like me, or even eat the same food. Being different seemed horrifying. However, my father's words carried me forward: We must go. For your safety. For your education.

My mind was plagued by the same fear and hesitation when I read my placement location for TFA. I would have to pack my bags again, but this time to leave California.

Feeling displaced or lost has been a common theme in my life, especially as a queer person of color.

In my last year of high school, I decided to come out to my family. It took years to figure out my identity as Pakistani, Southeast Asian, a Muslim immigrant, and then as an American citizen, and now I was navigating my queer identity. I felt safe at home, and it was the only place where I felt a sense of belonging. However, I knew that by hiding my sexuality, I was unable to become my authentic self, and I desperately needed to release that burden.

Coming out to my family led to a transitional period of my life. I lost all financial assistance, and ultimately I was forced to turn down all of my college acceptances. I had to pack my bags and move out of the only place I felt comfortable. I enrolled in a community college, took 16 to 22 units a quarter, and worked three jobs to support myself. It was stressful and lonely being on my own, but staying true to my identity was worth it.

As I sat at my desk staring at my TFA offer, I was reminded of my father’s words, and they urged me on to a new journey: I must go. For us. For education.

On the way to Rhode Island, I wondered how my students would treat me—if my queer identity would be accepted and how my students would react to my Pakistani features. I also wondered if I would be judged or mistreated and if I would need to pack my bags, once again, and move to another location. For all my fear, however, I felt supported in knowing that Teach For America could provide me with a community of peers who affirmed me. Whether it was through working with TFA’s AAPI Initiative or LGBTQ+ Community Initiative, I knew there were others who could understand my fears and offer assistance.

TFA introduced me to the concept of Brave Education—that is, reaching beyond creating safe classrooms to encouraging learning environments where notions of diversity and inclusiveness for all students are held up as central to achievement.

The fear that had been building inside me vanished the first day I met my students. They brought their authentic selves to class every day. They were eager to learn, and many of them related to my story and my challenges as a person of color. Students rushed to my classroom to share their stories, or to get ideas for their songs, or to get help on a writing assignment. My students trusted me, and they were genuine with their emotions.

All of the anxiety and questions I pondered before starting my career as a teacher faded away—until one student asked, “Mr. Zia, do you have a girlfriend?”

I knew that I could hide and say that I was single. But I decided to be as brave and as authentic with my students as they had been with me.

I took a deep breath and told my students that I did not have a girlfriend and that I identified with the LGBTQIA community. I remember shifting my eyes, trying to avoid seeing any of their reactions. However, when I looked up, three of my students were silently giving me the shaka sign—this hand gesture in my class meant they could empathize or connect with me on a greater level. This was the first time I had ever felt immediately accepted by anyone, and their response at that moment made me proud and honored to be their teacher.

Now, I see my lively seventh and eighth graders dealing with the same issues that I once faced, but while I felt alone, my students have a place to feel safe and valued. Their acceptance of me and my openness with them have helped us connect in a truly meaningful way. Reflecting on the tragedy in Orlando, in which members of the LGBTQ community were targeted, I know that my students are proof of the power of openness and acceptance and what's possible, even in the midst of the hate and fear that exists in our society.

As we close out Pride Month, I’m hopeful about the progress that has been made in having honest and open conversations about bias. The progressive and inclusive mindsets of my students make me proud of them and optimistic for the future.  My decision to be a #BraveEducator has been worth every obstacle.