I caught my breath and looked down at Justin, who was staring at me with intense curiosity. We were standing with the rest of his preschool classmates in the stairwell outside of the classroom, waiting for the head teacher to open the door. All twelve of the jostling, chattering three and a half year olds stopped and turned to look at me. They knew me and accepted me as another teacher at their school—I had been to their classroom several times that year: to build block towers with them, to help them paint, to scaffold their play and their interactions. No one had wondered aloud about my gender until now. I hadn’t had to answer this question yet.
School policies and practices must send a message that all students are safe and free to bring their “whole” selves to school, that every student can safely explore the many varied aspects of their identity, and that harassment and bullying are never acceptable by or toward any student. The best practices do not simply make schools safe and affirming for trans and gender-diverse youth; they make schools safe for all students—lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth; youth whose gender expression varies from what is considered normative for their birth-assigned sex; gender-expansive or gender-creative youth; youth whose gender identity and/or expression goes beyond the binary; and cisgender, gender-conforming, straight youth.
Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.
After giving birth to my son, Kailash, in the spring of 2018, I was in a heightened state in which I became radically more aware of the importance of human relationships. Emerging from my cocoon, I was lucky that the first film I went out to see as a new mother was Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which explores the life and contributions of the host of the popular PBS children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. For many of us, Rogers demonstrates what being a great teacher is all about. After seeing this inspiring movie, I realized that long before we had the term “social and emotional learning,” Fred Rogers was teaching SEL and reinforcing in each episode that our sense of connection affects how we learn. Through his television program, he was in fact sharing the message that the network of human relationships we live in—let’s call it love—is the fabric of our lives.
While I taught in Helsinki, I noticed that my Finnish colleagues seemed to invite one another’s classes into their classrooms somewhat regularly. These gestures were often small, but they seemed meaningful, bringing joy to them and their students.
When I crossed out of childhood, there was no single event; it came on gradually but definitively. I was in seventh grade, 12 years old. My internal life had become complicated and emotional and confusing, and navigating the middle school hallways and lunchroom required a new kind of social agility and insight.
In the Preface to my first book, Mindfulness for Teachers, I wrote about my evolution from preschool teacher to teacher educator to social scientist. The consistent focal center through the decades of that professional journey—as I moved from teaching young children, to researching effective classroom interventions, to working with educators to implement them—was the power of mindful awareness to transform lives.