Published June 11, 2021
How can kindergarten and elementary school teachers help dismantle gender stereotypes and create an inclusive environment for all students? Meet Chip James, who will answer this question (and more) based on decades of experience as an expert elementary educator and also from his private practice serving LGBTQ-identifying youth and their families.
This History UnErased podcast is funded by the New York City Council Committee on Education. It was developed by History UnErased in partnership with Making Gay History and produced by Deb Fowler; Inge De Taeye; Ali Lemer; and Eric Marcus.
Deb Fowler: Hello, and welcome to UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities — A Podcast for Teachers. I’m Deb Fowler, executive director of History UnErased.
Gender expectations are shaped early—in the home, the media, and our culture at large. But gender stereotypes often negatively affect how children understand themselves and relate to others.
This can be especially true for LGBTQ+ children. How can kindergarten and elementary school teachers help dismantle some of these gender stereotypes and create an inclusive environment for all students? To address this issue, I am speaking with Chip James, who has decades of experience as an expert elementary educator, and also from his private practice serving LGBTQ-identifying youth and their parents.
Chip, how do you view the teacher’s role and responsibility when it comes to helping young children navigate our society's rigid gender expectations?
Chip James: Excellent question. Gender expectations really affect all of us. Children are very keen on picking up messages by observing all of the role models around them. And it's very important that teachers understand that part of what they're doing in the early childhood classroom is they are trying to make sure that these rigid messages don't get installed.
Already kids may be, uh, picking up on and regurgitating, uh, some of the rigid messages that they're hearing. A lot of times these messages come up around conflict situations. Even in the kindergarten classroom, kids may start to call each other gay, or call a boy a girl, or call a girl a boy, simply based on what they're discovering about their behavior. And a lot of times the conflicts are seen by everyone in the class. So at that point it's really appropriate for a full class discussion.
So it is going to be very important for the teacher to be listening for these teachable moments as they arise, and it may be a small intervention, but the timing of the intervention and the gentleness of the intervention work in a very homeopathic way, where smaller is better—smaller and consistent messages.
DF: Yeah, small and consistent, I think that is something that's very helpful for teachers to hear. And that applies to their responsibility as teachers, but also, more broadly, to their position as role models, I think—how they model a spirit of open-mindedness surrounding gender and gender expression...
CJ: So it's very important that, um, teachers understand that kids are listening to their every word, watching their every behavior, scanning for inclusion, for exclusion, and for confusion.
So that when we talk about protagonists in stories, we are already using gender-neutral language in the kindergarten classroom. So, um, heroes can be hes and shes, and even thems. So it's important to model very inclusive language at all times.
DF: Chip, you mentioned that as early as kindergarten, kids may use the word “gay” as an insult. What is a developmentally appropriate intervention at that age? What is important for teachers to do, and perhaps not do?
CJ: Sometimes teachers make the mistake of simply shutting down the use of the word “gay.” Um, and unfortunately that can sometimes leave children feeling that gay is a bad thing. So it can be really important to say that “gay” is not a bad word. It's only a bad word when it's being used to harm somebody. Otherwise, it's a word that describes people who live in our community and go to our schools and drive our school buses and cook our lunches… Um, so it's very important to use the word “gay” in appropriate ways, um, uh, and not just shut down the inappropriate ways.
DF: Can you give an example, Chip, of how you would start such a conversation if you witnessed a student using the term “gay” in a pejorative sense?
CJ: Well, um, by, uh, stepping in and saying, “Oh, you know, we need to talk about the use of this word ‘gay.’”
The other rule of thumb is to check in with what their understanding of the words are. Sometimes kids will not understand what they're saying and sometimes they will clearly understand what they're saying. And kids, even in kindergarten, will say, um, “Gay is like a boy who likes a boy or a girl who likes a girl,” and I'll say, “Well, that sounds pretty close to my understanding of that word.” Um, sometimes I'll ask, “How do you feel about that?” And, uh, that gives the kid an opportunity to talk about their comfort level around the word and, uh, so really it's a corrective experience about using the word “gay,” and that it is not allowed to use the word “gay” as a hurtful word, but it is allowable to use the word “gay” when talking about gay people in our community and our world.
And the other way that I will, uh, explain the word, uh, “gay”—and this I will do with third, fourth, and fifth graders—I will ask the kids to define sexual orientation. And they're very good. Third, fourth, and fifth graders, they generally can explain it.
And so for some of the older kids, they may start to giggle, and, and, and I will acknowledge that. And I say, “Yep, I, I hear the giggles and that lets me know that you have some understanding of these words.”
Some of them, um, may still not, uh, fully understand. And I simply explain it by saying, “This word ‘sexual orientation’ has to do with who somebody ‘like-likes.’ Not just one ‘like,’ we're talking two ‘likes.’ So do we understand the difference between one ‘like’ and two ‘likes’?”
DF: That’s great.
CJ: And the kids are really giggling by now and they're looking at each other. They know what “like-liking” is, and they know it's different from friendship. And it's fun to see them blushing and giggling. And I also explain, uh, “I'm fine hearing the giggles. It means that you're processing what we're talking about. And, and, and one of the ways we deal with any kind of anxiety or nervousness, it can be through laughter. So laugh away.” So I try to make all responses, uh, acceptable responses so that we can process them as a classroom community.
DF: It sounds like you're allowing them the space for gentle self-correction.
CJ: Yes. And I'm also trying to create a comfort level tolerating, um, what feels embarrassing.
CJ: So, so it's not only the LGBTQ kids or the kids who will identify one day as LGBTQ—it's also grounding for all of the students who will benefit from being able to have these, um, uh, sensitive conversations. And because if you can have them using basic language that the kids are using themselves, and you're finding very common-sense ways to use this language, everyone benefits. Everyone feels more grounded. Everyone feels safer. Everyone feels a sense of fairness. And kids above all else in elementary school, they are eager to drink in fairness. So it's really, uh, uh, a powerful, uh, a powerful elixir to use with these discussions.
DF: Thank you so much, Chip.
CJ: You're welcome.
Chip James is a veteran elementary school educator and has a private practice serving LGBTQ-identifying youth and their parents.
Thank you for joining us for UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities — A Podcast for Teachers. This History UnErased podcast series is funded by the New York City Council Committee on Education. It was developed in partnership with Making Gay History and produced by Inge De Taeye, Nahanni Rous, and Eric Marcus. The music you heard is “1986” by BrothaD via Tribe of Noise.
I’m Deb Fowler. Thank you for listening.