Updated: Nov 17, 2018
I have wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. As a child, I viewed my teachers as demigods, quite literally. They provided structure, reassurance, warmth (in most cases) and above all, it seemed to me that there was nothing they didn’t know or couldn’t do. That perception was so powerful and made a lasting impression on the direction of my life.
I recall, one time, my teacher in primary school throwing a used ballpoint pen in the bin. Nothing special, just a basic Bic or something like that. I so wanted to emulate the magic I felt she wielded with that pen that I fished it out when no one was looking and cherished that pen like I’d found buried treasure. It was at the centre of my role playing at home. I’d sit my teddy bears in groups and call their names in a register I’d made from an old invoice book of my Grandads. Hours and hours were spent developing my very first convictions as a teacher. It wasn’t power I valued, no, it was knowledge and how that seemed to make teachers wise beyond limits. They were the pinnacle of what I felt my life could become - not only as teachers, but as people. Funny, how our pupils perceive us, eh?
Jump ahead fifteen years or so (via work experience in a primary school and a year between my degree and my PGCE as a teaching assistant in a special school) and I found myself on the cusp of my ‘actual’ teaching career. During training, I worked like a Trojan to be the best teacher I could be; to take every opportunity to learn the craft and hone my skills, which had developed over a lifetime. I was one of the fortunate ones who had secured a job early in my PGCE year and was literally spending weekends and evenings imagining what my classroom would look like and what I wanted my first class of pupils to learn and feel. I recall having a big cardboard box at home that I collected favourite books, artwork, inspirational quotes and teaching resources in that I would take with me into my first class.
I had been very comfortably out of the closet for quite a few years with family and friends and was, by the time I gained QTS, in a long term relationship with my now husband (sixteen years this month and counting!). Throughout my degree and PGCE it was a non-issue. But back in 2004 when I gained my first job, a bit of a conundrum seemed to present itself when I was asked a simple question by someone I loved and trusted. “Are you going to tell them you’re gay?”
It sort of hadn’t crossed my mind. I was in a happy, committed relationship just like many of my contemporaries but the only difference was that my partner happened to be of the same sex. My relationship nourished me and was a source of great strength. “Just don’t mention it to the children and if they ask, tell them it’s private.” Back then, times were a bit different. It was before the advent of pre-watershed, positive LGBT visibility and many people’s experience of a gay person was limited to the flamboyant and often crass examples of popular comedians, whose acts were generally a parody of gayness. I knew then, as I know to be true today, the advice I was given was from a point of care and concern for my own career and wellbeing. It kind of made sense to me back then - because I definitely wouldn’t be able to be totally open, best not to mention it at all. ”In fact, I just wouldn’t tell anyone at your school. It’s no one’s business but your own anyway...”
That conversation totally changed my experience of the first four years of my teaching career. I heeded the advice. I remained closeted and protected my ‘secret’ with ninja-like precision. I would fabricate my weekend’s activities, to make them seem ‘straight’. I would pretend I’d been out to the pub with mates, or to see a film, or at a family birthday or something... When the reality was often far more mundane: I was at home with my partner, working and doing a load of whites. The hardest thing of all was feeling on edge when my husband and I were out in public. At that point in my life and career, I would insist that he immediately walk away if we bumped into someone I knew through work. I‘d literally push him away in the supermarket and scan the aisle ahead like I was on an S. A. S. mission, when in fact I was just out to pick up a pint of milk and a Sunday paper.
It was my original intention to not come out straight away when I joined my first school, but once I had gotten to know my colleagues and they had gotten to know me a little, then I would tell them I was gay. But, anyone who’s been in this position would likely agree, the longer the lie perpetuated, the harder and harder it became to be open and truthful. I was closeted for four years.
My lifelong ambition to be a teacher was turning out to be a damaging reality. I loved, loved the children and all the bits in the classroom, but I conducted myself so carefully and self-consciously, that I knew wholeheartedly I wasn’t the best teacher I could be, because only about 60% of myself was in the room.
It was in about February of 2008 that I came out to my most trusted colleagues. Why? Because I was getting hitched! After six years together, my partner and I were due to get civil partnered in the August of that year. I think the reality of it was that I simply couldn’t hold it in any more. I had developed some good friendships at school, and it felt very disingenuous to get married, without even telling them I was in a relationship. And the weight that lifted from my shoulders, when I did tell them, was immense. It took courage - and was actually fuelled by four or five glasses of wine, if memory serves me right. To this day, I’m grateful to my colleagues for their immediate support. Several seemed genuinely surprised. I think my efforts to fabricate my ‘straight’ persona were fairly convincing, but their surprise quickly subsided into support and acceptance. Others were less easily fooled and were almost euphoric that I’d finally done it. “I was beginning to think you were just a sad, lonely cat-person who didn’t have any friends or social life,” said one colleague, who was just glad to know I wasn’t lonely. Quite a few of them came to our wedding reception that summer and celebrated with me as a whole person, rather than half a colleague.
In 2010, after six years in the classroom, I was promoted to my deputy headship in a new school which was to open in the September of that year. When I was appointed, only the headteacher was in post and it fell to the two of us to interview and appoint every other member of staff. I had decided long before that I would be ‘out’ from the beginning and I made a concerted effort to nonchalantly mention my husband to our growing team, as everyone else that was partnered did. It was seamless. I was so happy and it made a huge difference to my confidence and impact in the role. There was transparency and respect amongst my colleagues and we enjoyed great fun, socially, as well as being a passionate, effective and dedicated team. I truly felt that the comfort and ease of discussions in the staff room and classroom with my colleagues made me happier and that, of course, made me a better teacher and school leader.
Whilst many parents of the school knew I was gay, I never addressed it with them directly. I stopped myself from the nonchalant mentions about my weekend with them, largely because I was still under the belief that my lifestyle wasn’t understandable or translatable to children... adults, yes, children, no. It just wasn’t the done thing... It might confuse them, or - in the eyes of the growing minority - negatively affect them some way. It was a step in the right direction and I was certainly glad to be a role model to my colleagues.
When I assumed my headship I finally took the decision to be out to everyone and it was the best decision I ever made; not just for the positive impact on my own experience. I mentioned my private life to colleagues, parents and children no more or no less than a heterosexual person in my position would. The children were positively nonplussed about it. To begin with, I used to watch for a reaction on their faces that rarely, if ever, came.
For those with conservative (outdated!) views, who hold the stance of “I don’t have to tell everyone about being straight, so why should you tell everyone you’re gay,” I would challenge you to keep a tally of how many times in a single day that your words and actions promote your lifestyle choices, unintentionally: the little photo of your children on your desk, the mention of the lovely meal you had with your spouse during idle conversation in the staff room, the wedding ring on your finger... Can you imagine censoring all of that, very consciously, every minute of every working day? It isn’t right. Being open at work is not political... it’s a vital expression of the diversity of humanity that our children absolutely need to be reflected within their inner circle.
I could not be more proud, thankful and committed to that school. It was a family, in every sense of the word and it quickly became a safe, inclusive and loving venue for all of us: staff, pupil, parent, community.
Why does this matter? Because right now, there will be a child in your class or school who is gay, or bi, or trans or whatever else they are... and, like the young-me, they will take their cues from your words, your actions, your authenticity... They deserve to know that their own truth has value, wholly and unapologetically. I cherish the thought that children in my school saw me as a successful, happy and passionate headteacher, who worked hard, cared about them, cracked a joke, upheld the rules and - was married to a man. And that was just that. No one thing, precluded the other. I love that they were included, in some small way, during my journey to become a parent through adoption. When I was absent for adoption leave, they knew why. They were excited for me and so, so kind when my little boy came home to us. The cards and words of love and support from the whole school community was a real moment in my life, that I’ll remember forever. And a moment that everyone, straight or otherwise, has the right to experience.
Education of diversity in a non-tokenistic manner is the responsibility of every educator, whatever your own beliefs or persuasions. We must never forget that, as much as the lessons we teach, who we are and how we authentically take the mantle of educator has the power to influence young lives in ways we may not yet appreciate. So, don’t be afraid or ashamed to be you in the classroom. Laugh, cry, be kind, be present, focus on the children. Be professional but be human. You are wonderfully you - and that, friends, is enough.
If you’d like to know more about how John Newton Education could support you, your school or your event in establishing a culture and climate of authentic inclusion and celebration of diversity, including involving parents in the journey, please do get in touch.
Thanks for reading.