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Leading by example—how I affirm my students’ identities

Turner Cooper shows up to class as his whole self, so his students can feel safe to do the same

Author: Turner Cooper

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“Moonlight” was one of the very first times I saw myself on the big screen. I sat in the Magnolia Theatre in Dallas-Fort Worth awestruck, frazzled, emotionally raw, but also  fulfilled. I saw bits and portions of my life and schooling strung together through carefully articulated wording and body language, vivid color schemes and hues, the score that complimented each scene, and most importantly—characters that looked like me, talked like me, felt like me… characters that were me! 

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There are a few scenes in Moonlight that occur on the school grounds that were particularly jarring for me. If you recall, Chiron was in science class and in the yard when he encounters bullying and physical violence. In his classroom, I couldn’t help but notice that the instructor in the room was a Black male educator. My mind began racing. What are the implications of that scene? What did that mean for Chiron? What did that mean for me coming of age? How can, I, as a Black male educator shape a classroom reality where that isn’t an experience that my students have to navigate? 

As we enter the month of June and honor Pride month, I offer this reflection on how my identity has been shaped by a world that tells little Black queer boys that they don’t belong and how my classroom creates an affirming space to see all children, no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression.

The impact teachers can have on their students

In middle school, I had my first Black male educator. He was my 7th grade science teacher, Larry Burney. I don’t think he nor I understood the impact he would have on my life. Little did we know in 2002, that five years later I would enroll in his alma mater, Morehouse College. Two years later, it would come full circle when I completed my first teaching experience of sorts—teaching science to rising 7th graders with Breakthrough Collaborative: Atlanta.

As a middle school student, the struggle with my sexual identity was just beginning. Bullying was ever present. I remember enrolling in dance and being one of the few boys there, and the social pressure eventually pushing me out. Larry Burney’s classroom was a safe haven and solace, though. I was seen, felt, respected and loved. 

However, and unfortunately, there were implicit messages that he—and society—were sending that only added to the internal stress and conflict that consumed me. This conundrum can be summed up in a yearbook comment I received from Mr. Burney (a yearbook comment that I still, to this day, relish with all my being): “Truck Turner— It has been an interesting year. I’m proud of how you have matured over the year. I’m glad that you have started to take some of my advice about life and the pursuit of that ‘one special lady.’ Keep doing what you’re doing and everything will turn out positive for you. Have a great summer.” Just one example of deliberate affirmation and love, but with heteronormativity rearing its ugly head. 

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I knew I was queer/same-gender loving in middle school and throughout high school. Did I want to accept it? And at that time, could I accept it? No. Were there any teachers around that could express empathy in a manner that affirmed my identity and possibly theirs? Maybe. Did they feel safe? Probably not. Being Black and Queer, I was battling (and still battle) anti-blackness and homophobia. Survival was paramount for me, and I could have used someone to advocate for and empathize with me. Thriving is the act of liberatory self-actualization that I want my children to be able to manifest.

These small microaggressions do not change the fact that Mr. Burney made an indelible impact on my life; moreover, they serve as a catalyst for me to be even more aware of my interactions and the words that I use with my first-graders.

As a teacher, I try to show up as my whole self because I want to make sure my actions and/or inactions don't stop my students from self-actualizing. In my classroom, I do my best to create a space for all children—particularly Black children—to be their true, most authentic selves without judgment or shame. I have created a space where students can ask tough questions and receive those answers from a peer's perspective. My classroom is a reminder to my students that “[they] are somebody,” and we recite it everyday. I think that’s the most beneficial way that I try to create inclusivity. I try not to use “boy” or “girl.” I use their names. I introduce them to a myriad of adjectives to describe themselves. Triumphant. Resilient. Passionate. Powerful. Poised. Dynamic. Amazing. Phenomenal. Different. I don't think we recognize that our students understand who they are at a very young age. My students know my language doesn't exclude them.

Teaching tolerance in the classroom

For a recent school event, the teachers received themed t-shirts. The women’s t-shirts had sparkles on them, while the men’s t-shirts did not have sparkles. I asked to receive a glitter shirt. When I wore the shirt in class, one of my students asked me why I was wearing a “girl’s t-shirt.” 

My students are the biggest gender police I know.

When I told him that anyone can wear glitter, they brushed it off. We later read the book, “Sparkle Boy” in class. Around that time, another student of mine came in wearing a pink bracelet. The student who believed sparkles were for girls, had also been taught to believe that pink was for girls. When I sat down with them, I was able to leverage the book, “Sparkle Boy” in our conversation and get them to empathize. But it was still difficult, because there were not characters in that book that look like my students. 

How do we create a space to be shown acceptance and tolerance with books that do not represent our students?

Speaking out and asking questions—that’s how we heal

As a cis-gender Black man, I understand that my privilege and biases have implications for my children. I recognize, as the teacher of 16 dynamic, spirited, beautiful Black children that they, unfortunately, could also become the victims and/or culprits of hate crimes like Muhlaysia Booker’s senseless, homophobic-induced murder. 

Muhlaysia Booker is a 23 year old Black trans woman that was murdered in Dallas, Texas. A month prior, her assault garnered national attention as it was caught on camera.

Teaching acceptance and tolerance could literally mean the difference between life or death for my students—and for society.  

I also recognize as a queer/same-gender loving Black man in the same community as Muhlaysia that conversations surrounding the LGBTQIA+ community are still quite taboo. 

In Dallas, Black voices in particular are silenced, not to mention Black queer voices. My voice has only become this powerful because Black trans women and Black queer folk have taught, loved, challenged and nurtured me. One person in particular is my dear friend and black trans*sister-educator, Alaine Jolicoeur, whose words serve as a reminder and clarion call to action.

“To all future LGBTQ+ educators and leaders, I want you to know that you are not alone in this work and that we are in this together. Be vigilant and cautious because your safety and well-being are of utmost importance especially during the current political climate of our country. Continue to be vocal whenever opportunity permits itself because if you don’t speak, nobody else will, unless it directly impacts them. Lastly, remember always to inform our LGBTQ+ youth that they are loved, that they matter and that it will get better.” — Alaine Jolicoeur

In the words of bell hooks, “People resist by… naming their history.” By speaking out, we begin the authentic journey of healing from the impact of behaviors that are excruciatingly oppressive.

I want my students to know that being different or non-normative is ok because the world that they live in will affirm and accept them. That is the intended outcome. The ability to grapple with questions surrounding our heteronormative, binary world allows students to imagine and feel safe. If we continue to lead with assumptions about what gender(s) can or cannot do, we rob our children of the most important tool that education is supposed to teach them: to ask questions. 

Want to make a difference? You can start in the classroom.

If you have the passion and drive to change and shape lives, teaching might just be your calling.

  • Looking for resources for student allyship? Teaching Tolerance magazine offers many resources, including toolkits for serving LGBTQIA+ students and being an ally. ?
  • Want to discuss "Moonlight" with your students? Teach For America’s LGBTQIA+ Community Initiative produced this comprehensive educator's toolkit using the 2017 Academy Awards Best Picture winning film as a guide. ??
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