It all started with a Safe Space sticker proudly displayed in a high school classroom window. Just seeing that sticker, which is part of GLSEN’s Safe Space Campaign (https://safespace.glsen.org/campaign.cfm), put a smile on my face and reassured me that I had chosen the right school district to work in. The sticker, placed in windows throughout the school by a teacher and LGBT ally, created a lot of discussion amongst my 350+ colleagues while we were at our district office for our annual week-long teacher inservice. In listening to the many conversations generated by the sticker and the message behind it, I realized that, as teachers, we often feel the need to “teach” students that bullying and harassment are wrong, but we don’t often give students the opportunity to learn about the effects of bullying from each other.
After returning from inservice, armed with a few Safe Space stickers of my own, I decided to try something new within my classroom to address this issue. Rather than standing in the front of the room, lecturing my students about the effects of bullying, LGBT or otherwise, I decided it was time for the students to take ownership, for them to lead the discussion. While I’ve had many candid dialogues with my classes over the years, sexuality is still a somewhat difficult, if not taboo, issue to tackle, especially in Conservative rural Alaska. But no matter the potential backlash, I knew the issues of bullying and LGBT harassment had to be addressed within the school, and I felt it was important for the students to have their opinions shared, just as it was important to share my opinions.
When my 10th grade Advisory students came into class the next day, I sat them all down and showed them Joel Burns’ “It Gets Better” video. After flipping back on the lights, I noticed a handful of students wiping tears from their eyes at the powerful and personal message from the Texas City Council member. When I sat back down with them, I reminded students of our class council rules, which include confidentiality and compassion, and I asked if anyone wanted to share how they felt when they watched the video. The responses I received from that simple question were astounding. Some students broke down and shared their own personal stories of bullying; other students sat quietly and listened to their peers express the anguish of being called names, whether in regards to sexuality or not; but one student in particular, asked the age-old question, “What would make someone feel so alone that harm is the only way out?”
With that one question, the walls I had built up suddenly came crashing down, and I felt it was time to have my own “It Gets Better” moment with that class. I shared my own deeply personal experience, which lead to a number of other students gaining the courage to share their personal stories of heartache and utter agony because of bullying and harassment. After the Kleenex box had been emptied and class time was winding down, I thanked my class for their honesty and openness and ended class on a much lighter note, with Shakira’s music video for “Waka Waka,” which focuses on unity, an appropriate theme after our classroom discussion.
I hope that the message students took away from that one class period sticks with them for years to come. While I might not be able to change everyone’s minds about bullying and harassment, hopefully I can change the minds, and the hearts, of the students who walk into my classroom every morning. And to anyone out there, parents, teachers, clergy, friends – please don’t be afraid to have these discussions with the young people in your life. Let them know everyday that they have someone they can come and talk to, share with, cry with, who will listen to them without casting judgment. Please create a safe space for everyone so that one day, hopefully someday soon, bullying and harassment will be a thing of the past. That Safe Space sticker now is proudly displayed in my classroom window. Is it in yours as well?