Every now and then, teachers get the opportunity of a lifetime.
I know I did when I was selected to be a member of the second cohort of Distinguished Fulbright Award in Teaching (DAT) recipients. Still a fairly new addition to the family of Fulbright awards, the DAT Fulbright provides experienced teachers the chance to conduct research in a host country in an area of education about which they feel passionate.
I’ve just recently returned from Mexico City after having spent six months as a guest researcher in the gender studies program, Programa Universitario de Estudios de Género (PUEG) at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). My research focused on interviewing high school-aged LGBT youth on themes relating to gender and sexuality; coming out/not coming out; safety and discrimination; and their vision for making their school’s curriculum inclusive of LGBT themes and issues.
I could not have had a more life-transforming experience.
While I was interviewing 32 students, six teachers, and two administrators, I kept marveling at the fact that this was the most extraordinary opportunity to create change in schools on a global level. Here was a young man sharing how his mom didn’t hug him when he came out; and here was a young woman telling me how she was harassed at school for being transgender and how she had the guts to come to school wearing a dress when everybody else knew her previously as a boy; and here was a young woman telling me her dreams for making her school more respectful of all her friends.
And here was Fulbright giving me the chance to be a researcher, not as a PhD student, not as a professor, but as a teacher.
For six months, Fulbright provided me with the space, time, and funding to pursue my passion as a guest researcher at a major global university; as a public intellectual speaking at international conferences on bullying as well as at UNAM’s medical school; and as an educator delivering professional development to local teachers on LGBT inclusion. This was no sabbatical. This was an immersion in becoming a global educator with a research and passion-driven purpose.
My passion is social justice in schools, and, in particular, the creation of safe and inclusive schools for all students. My research was not only about my position as a researcher but also about my position as a change agent. Giving young people the opportunity to voice their opinions for change was the most important piece of my work in Mexico.
When young people told me that they wanted to see accurate information about gender and sexuality in their health classrooms; or when they wanted to see a trans-inclusive or gender-inclusive bathroom on campus; or when they wanted their teachers, prefects, and peers to stop making homophobic remarks, I knew this wasn’t only a research project but more importantly, the beginning of a lifelong commitment to creating change in schools on an international level.
Now that I’m back in New York, one of the most critical things I hope to do is to continue the conversation about the importance of providing teachers the funding and support to conduct research both in the U.S. and abroad. I recently wrote about this issue in a piece I wrote for Smith College. Teachers are expected to cultivate generation upon generation of thinkers, doers, and scholars and yet we are not given the proper support to be thinkers, doers, and scholars ourselves. For those of us who teach high school, we are only expected to know and teach our content area, assign and grade papers, write college recommendations, and then start over again.
How does this deadening cycle allow us to be a part of a national and global community of educators?
For this reason, it is critical that I bring back my just-emerging understanding of Mexican LGBT youth in schools to my already-existing work on safe and inclusive schools in the U.S. There is no doubt that there are many similarities as well as differences between the experience of LGBT youth in Mexico and of those in the States. The richness of those similarities and differences is what will inform the next steps in my work as a feminist educator and activist, such as:
- Innovating the content of my professional development workshops on LGBT inclusion in schools;
- Broadening the scope and sequence of my research in the future;
- Expanding my publishing to scholarly journals in addition to more blogs and other media; and
- Deepening my own high school curriculum, especially my course on LGBT literature and my course on feminism.
One of the most important women I met in Mexico was Gloria Careaga, who is a leading feminist psychologist at UNAM and longtime LGBT activist. Careaga is also the Secretary General of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Intersex Association (ILGA). In one of her articles I frequently referenced, she writes that as teachers, we need to “confront our fears and break the barriers of prejudices and stereotypes . . . to protect the rights of each of our students . . . and to guarantee respect for the free expression of each and every one of them” (“enfrentar nuestros miedos y romper las barreras de los prejuicios y estereotipos . . . para proteger los derechos de cada uno de las y los estudiantes . . . [y para] garantizar el respeto a la libre expresión de cada uno”).
I completely agree. If there’s anything this Fulbright has done for me is that it has re-affirmed and re-invigorated my commitment to confront my fears, protect student rights, and fight for the free expression—based on race, class, gender, and sexuality—of each of my students for safer schools now, for safer lives always.
Apply today to be a part of the next cohort of Distinguished Fulbrighters.