By Joel Ekdahl
My most challenging moment came this past spring when I was teaching English language arts at a local high school. I’m very fond of interactive learning games, so I decided one day to assess my students using Kahoot! This game is wonderful because it is engaging for most students; even my least motivated students liked competing against their friends. Beyond mere competition, students love to make funny anonymous gamer names. Teachers and students alike laugh as they watch usernames pop-up on the gamer board.
Unfortunately, on this particular day, an obnoxious student decided to create an incredibly transphobic username. I immediately deleted the name from the game board, but the other students had already seen the name and they had started to make jokes. Not surprisingly, the transgender student in the room ran out crying. This was an incredibly damaging moment for him and I needed to find a way to reestablish a safe space for him and other students.
The situation was complicated and challenging in two ways. Firstly, this harmful epithet revealed the deeper prejudices in my classroom. Before that moment, I believed that I had successfully created a safe, inclusive environment for my students. This was clearly not true. On top of that, the student who had created this username remained anonymous and there was no way to find out who did it. I certainly didn’t want to start a witch-hunt, but I needed to find a way to restore respect in the classroom.
In order to rehabilitate my classroom as a safe space, I decided to act in three different ways. Firstly, I had a conversation with the transgender student after class. I told him that I supported him as a transgender student and reaffirmed that transphobia and homophobia are not tolerated my classroom. That day, I also came out to him as a queer man. Up until that moment, I had hidden my sexuality from my students. As a student teacher, I didn’t want my personal life to disrupt the rhythm of the classroom. However, I saw that this student really needed an adult who was authentic and real. So I came out to him and told him about my own struggles with discrimination and harassment.
After I had finished sharing, I asked him if I could address the issue during the next day. I didn’t want to draw extra attention to him, but I knew we couldn’t pretend like nothing happened. Harmful words were said and I needed to reaffirm my commitment to a safe and inclusive classroom space. He ended up granting me permission, so I decided to prepare a short talk about respect and safety in my classroom.
When I gave this talk, I didn’t beat around the bush at all. I explained the circumstances and I labeled the event as nothing less than hate speech. Moreover, I added that 1 in 6 LGBTQ students attempt suicide in their teen years, and that number is much higher for Trans students. Even though students might not realize it, microagressions such as these do real harm to the well-being of LGBTQ students. If nothing else, I wanted my students to know that their words have an impact on others; they need to think before they speak.
Lastly, I started to show support for my transgender students in a much more explicit way. I attended GSA meetings every week, I planned and attended Queer prom, and I decided to wear nail polish at school for a whole week. These overt signs of support helped me build rapport with lots of LGBT students at my school and I was happy to be a first responder for them. I’m just glad they trusted me enough to ask for help.
To conclude, this event has directly shaped how to I use technology in the classroom. I still love using interactive games, but I now preface them with a disclaimer about respect and responsibility. Furthermore, when my students play Kahoot!, I always make sure to freeze or shut off the projector screen so the students can’t see the other names. This allows me to quickly delete inappropriate names without harming other students. I suggest that all teachers do this when playing the game. Anonymity is a dangerous weapon and teachers must be preemptive in their efforts to stop bullying.