Post submitted by Kim Westheimer, former HRC Director, Welcoming Schools
“Why does Jacob wear dresses?” interrupted Christopher.
Ms. Wilson paused, “I think Jacob wears what he’s comfortable in. Just like you do. Not very long ago little girls couldn’t wear pants. Can you imagine that?”
That’s a teachable moment.
That’s the moment when a child asks a question, maybe with genuine curiosity or maybe with intent to be mean. That’s the moment that we pause and sometimes fumble for the right answer. We just hope we’ll be as well prepared as the fictional Ms. Wilson.
If you’re an adult who has spent any time with children you’ve been there. You’ve been flummoxed by a question you weren’t prepared to answer. Maybe it was before bed time, maybe it was in a room with 30 other children.
Like everything, it gets easier with practice.
That’s why HRC Foundation’s Welcoming Schools workshops give participants time to practice responding to questions on a range of topics involving gender, culture, sexual orientation, religion, and language. “Why does he act like a girl?” “Why does Ming’s food smell strange?” “Why does Carolina talk funny?” “My grandmother says it’s wrong for two men to get married.”
We sometimes ask participants to think what their goal is in responding to these questions. Is it to educate, to make a child feel better about herself, or to stop negative behaviors? There can be multiple goals as long as disparaging grandma isn’t one of them!
Adults begin to consider how their answer might affect a child who might have a direct connection to the comment. Would that child feel like a valued member of the community as a result of the answer to these questions or comments?
Educators appreciate this activity because they know the lasting ripples created by their responses to difficult questions or comments. They are not just teaching a particular subject matter; they also convey a hidden curriculum that lets students know who’s valued and who is marginalized. This curriculum is not measured by standardized testing, but I’d dare say that if a school’s hidden curriculum does not value all students, their test scores will suffer. (Research backs me up on this.)
Countless parents and students can attest to the power of teachable moments and the messages of the hidden curriculum. They are witness to how just the right words at the right time can change children, schools and families.
I’m reminded of the mother of a gender-expansive son who works with us to help other children receive the kinds of support her son recieved. Here’s how she describes a teacher who knew just how to respond, not only to students, but to a mother who was at her wits end:
“Every morning I would struggle getting Devin ready for preschool. He would want to wear his girl clothes – which I let him wear at home - and I would try to get him into his boy clothes. One morning, he just wouldn’t stop crying. I had had it and said, ‘Fine! You can just go in your pajamas today and I scooped him into the car.’
We got to school late, looking like hell. Devin’s preschool teacher came up to us and saw our distress. Once Devin was in the classroom, she approached me and asked what was wrong. I told her about our exhausting morning routine and she said, ‘I want you to know that if your son wants to wear dresses to school, it’s fine with me. I’ll make sure he’s okay.’ I breathed a huge sigh of relief.”
The next day Devin went to school wearing a dress. The teacher kept him close to her the whole day so that she was the one who would respond to other children’s questions.
“Why is Devin wearing a dress? He’s a boy.”
“Because he likes dresses. Why are you wearing what you have on?”
After a few weeks the questions stopped and Devin just became one of the kids. Smart, funny, stubborn, creative and affirmed for who he is.
Devin changed schools a few years later. One of the last things he did at his old school was find his former preschool teacher.
He insisted on finding her to give a small gift to someone whose gift to him will last a lifetime.