Care and Feeding

I Attempted to Create an Inclusive Environment for My Students. It Totally Backfired.

A teacher hands out a paper to her students.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by shironosov/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Last school year, I took on my first teaching job as a long-term sub as a high school ELA teacher. On my first day, in an attempt to create an inclusive learning environment, I passed out an icebreaker worksheet that asked several questions, including preferred pronouns. This ended up backfiring. I live in a blue state, but in a suburban area with plenty of conservatives. It’s not uncommon to see a house with a Trump sign right next to a house with a Black Lives Matter sign. Consequently, while I had plenty of students who answered the question honestly, I also had lots of students who wrote their pronouns as “nor/mal” or “attack helicopter.” I feel like it started things off on the wrong foot. It gave me a negative first impression about some of the students, which I don’t think is a healthy mindset for a teacher. Worst of all, I’m afraid I ended up only creating a more hostile learning environment for my trans and non-binary students. The students didn’t necessarily see each other’s answers, but I basically gave some students a platform to express their transphobic views.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

After my contract ended, I got hired by a different school district, this time teaching eighth grade. I’m worried that if I give out the same icebreaker worksheet, even more of the students will write transphobic “joke” answers. At the same time, I’m glad I was able to learn the correct pronouns for my students and avoid misgendering them in class. How should I go about this in the future? Should I scold them or call them out? Or should I just grin and bear it for the sake of the students who take pronouns seriously?

—Pronoun Problems

Dear Pronoun Problems,

You absolutely did the right thing by creating the icebreaker activity. However, unless you’ve left out vital information in your letter, it seems like your only errors were not setting ground rules and not explaining why this is important.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Throughout my twenty-year teaching career (I’m an anti-racism facilitator and a volunteer basketball coach), I never ask my participants to do something without doing those two aforementioned things. I don’t care if someone’s the CEO of a Fortune 50 company or if they’re a fourth grader — they’re not going to come into my classroom or on my court and act like a fool. With that in mind, I start every session with ground rules regarding behavior and respect for others that are visible and constantly referenced.

Advertisement

In the past two years since George Floyd’s murder, I’ve trained tens of thousands of corporate employees on diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and anti-racism—it’s not a stretch to think that no less than a thousand of my participants were racist, hated everything about me, and were forced to attend by their employers. I honestly don’t care. My goal is to ensure their hatred never appears in the workplace or in my class. On the very rare occasion that a participant’s bigotry made an appearance, it was dealt with immediately.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Regarding the importance of the activity, be sure to tell the students why you’re doing it. Maybe you think you did that, but if I were in your shoes, I’d explain the ground rules and importance by saying something like this: “ As we get to know each other throughout the school year, I believe it’s important for you to know everyone’s pronouns in effort to create an inclusive environment. This isn’t a politically correct activity, this is about ensuring every student is treated with respect. I expect you all to take this seriously.” Then point to the classroom ground rules that you have posted throughout the room, so they understand that they’re constantly on notice. Also, if your new school has guidelines on respect and how to treat others, then you should refer to those as well.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

For far too long, we’ve catered to the whims and feelings of bigots in America by doing (and not doing) things that make them uncomfortable or upset. How silly is that? I don’t give a rat’s rear end if they think a pronoun activity is stupid. If they’re in my class, they’re going to fall in line and do it respectfully. Hopefully you’ll do the same thing.

We need to truly stand up for our marginalized citizens in classrooms, boardrooms, and living rooms if we ever want to see some improvement in this country.

Dear Care and Feeding,

A close childhood friend of mine “Anna” has been struggling with infertility. We both married our spouses in early 2019, and they began trying for a baby right away. My husband and I held off due to the pandemic and started trying after we received our COVID-19 vaccines. We were fortunate to get pregnant right away. Unfortunately, Anna has had the opposite experience and has since tried multiple rounds of IVF. I have tried to keep my pregnancy updates, details about our baby boy and becoming a mom as infrequent as possible. I purposely don’t bring up my son as often as I would with other friends in order to be sensitive to her feelings. She claims she’s happy for me but it’s hard for her to hear about my pregnancy and newborn when it’s what she’s been wanting so badly for so long, which I understand.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Before having my son she was forthcoming around her infertility struggles and I provided a shoulder to lean on and ear to listen whenever she wanted to discuss it. I checked in on how she was doing regularly, and have continued to do so, but ever since my son was born she has shut me out. She met him once when he was a few weeks old but shortly after had another unsuccessful round of IVF. I have tried to contact her many times about a funny program or good book I’ve read (basically any topics far from mom life/pregnancy) and have seemingly been ghosted. If she responds she’s quite short. My heart hurts for her and I really, really miss my friend. There’s nothing I want more than for her to have the pregnancy and motherhood experience she so desires. But I’m at a loss as to how to proceed.

Advertisement

It’s been nearly a month since we last spoke and our phone conversation was awkward and stilted at best. She has not responded to my messages since. What can I do to mend our relationship? I’m hesitant to have another “I’m here for you” chat as she has expressed she does not want sympathy and prefers I not ask how she’s faring. Yet my attempts at otherwise innocuous conversation have been met with a brick wall. We have been close since primary school, I consider her to be the sister I never had, and I really don’t want this to end our decades old friendship.

Advertisement
Advertisement

— Lonely New Mom

Dear Lonely New Mom,

This is a heartbreaking situation, and my heart goes out to you and Anna.

Advertisement

It’s clear to me that she’s triggered by the thought of one of her closest friends experiencing the life of motherhood that she so desperately wants for herself. The hardest thing for you to do is to remember that it isn’t personal. You didn’t do anything wrong by having a healthy son, and I’m sure she doesn’t hate you, but being around you is simply too difficult for her right now. As painful as it is, you have to respect it.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Right now the best thing you can do is give her the much-needed space she needs to come to terms with her emotions around her fertility journey. But first, I would suggest saying something direct like, “Anna, I know how difficult this time is for you. I’m doing everything in my power to be a good friend, but it seems like you’re not interested in that right now. I’m at a loss on what to do. Can you please keep it real with me and let me know how I should proceed? I love you and I’m going to fight for our friendship that we’ve enjoyed since childhood, but if that means you need temporary distance from me and my son, then I will provide that for you.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

See how she responds after your talk, but my guess is she’ll need some alone time for a while. As long as she knows the door will always be kept open for her to come back to you, she’ll do so when she’s ready.

In the meantime, you shouldn’t feel guilty about displaying the love you have for your son on social media, if that’s your thing. You have every right to “live out loud” regardless of Anna’s personal situation and know that you’re not rubbing it in her face by doing so.

Want Advice From Care and Feeding?

Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

Advertisement

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a son with 5 children, all under the age of 10 (7-year-old fraternal twin boys, a 5-year-old girl, and 2-year-old fraternal boy/girl twins). I am Black, my husband was white, and our son married a white woman, “Greta,” so my grandkids look white as if they have no Black ancestry at all. Because they have 5 children under the age of 9 (I believe twins run in Greta’s family) and I live nearby, they often call upon me to babysit. As you can imagine, when we go out people assume that I am their maid or au pair or some other nonsense.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

While annoying, I don’t really care about minor inconveniences like that after having dealt with a lifetime of more aggressive racism, but I want to find a way to talk to my grandkids about it. I talked to my son about racism when he was growing up because that was something I anticipated him experiencing. But his kids look white, and when their daddy’s with them he looks white too. I have no idea how to word things in a way that my white grandkids can understand.

Advertisement

Unfortunately, Greta is really hesitant about me talking about race with my grandkids. She feels I would be making them feel emotions they aren’t ready to handle. I know that in school they learn about racism, but they tend to emphasize the historical part and don’t really mention or acknowledge the racism that happens today. But my grandkids still see inequalities in society. The 5-year-old confided in me that her friend was being teased because she wore hearing aids and how that was really unfair because her friend already has a difficult life because of her hearing and sight disabilities. I want my grandkids to understand why other people treat me unfairly for the color of my skin just like how they understand why their sister’s friend is being treated unfairly for her disabilities. How to tell them in a manner that still appeases Greta’s fragile sensibilities?

Advertisement
Advertisement

—Time to Have the Racism Talk

Dear Time,

Good grief, if I had a dollar every time I heard a white person say that talking to their kids about racism would make them uncomfortable, my two kids would have their college tuition paid for and my garage would be filled with gold chains and jet skis.

I was first called the N-word by a white person when I was 9 years old. I wonder if Greta cares about how uncomfortable that made me. I wonder if Greta cares about how uncomfortable my mom felt when she cried in front of me after I immediately told her about the confrontation. As you know all too well as a grown Black woman, Black kids learn to deal with the discomfort of racism before they learn about fractions and long division. It’s high time that white parents stop clutching their pearls about how their white children (or white-passing children) will feel about the topic, and get them into the fight to stop racism forever.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Here’s the bad news—as much as I want to say that you should sit your grandkids down and spill everything you know about what it’s truly like to be Black in America, you have to respect the wishes of their parents. So with that in mind, your energy should be directed toward Greta and your son to try to get them onboard.

Advertisement
Advertisement

In doing so, you can mention how people often view you as the babysitter or maid and how that can be confusing to kids who view you as their loving grandmother if they don’t understand the context behind it. You can also say that they are contributing to the problem of racism by ignoring it and kicking the can down the road until a time when they’re “ready to process racism” (spoiler alert: kids can process racism when they’re kindergartners).

Advertisement

Here’s a friendly reminder—racism doesn’t still exist because we talk about it all of the time. Racism doesn’t exist because Black and Brown folks are crying for equality at every turn. Racism exists because too many good people sit around and do nothing to stop it. Ask Greta if she wants her kids to be a part of the solution or if she wants them to be a part of the problem, because it’s binary.

Also, you really need to appeal to your son here. The dude is half-Black! His mama is Black! How can he possibly look you in the eye and say that teaching his kids about racism can wait until later? He should know better, and it would be shameful if he doesn’t.

Advertisement

After you go through all of that, my hope is your son and Greta will get onboard. If for some reason they don’t, then you’ll have to let it go—at least for now. The bottom line is that just like sex, drugs, and other things out there in the world, your kids will learn about them from other sources if they aren’t being taught about them at home. Wouldn’t it make sense for your grandkids to learn about racism from the people who love them the most?

Advertisement

It makes sense to me.

Catch Up on Care and Feeding

If you missed Monday’s column, read it here.
Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Advertisement

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a low stakes question. I have a brother-in-law who I love. We have a ton in common. He is a phenomenal father and a great partner to my sister. We have butted heads in the past, especially in the beginning of their relationship because we’re very similar, but also because my sister and I had a very different upbringing from him, and it’s caused conflict. Our mother died when we were very young (4 and 5 years old), and our father raised us. He loved us unconditionally, supported us, and created an amazing life that wasn’t perfect by any means, but the best he could do until he suddenly passed away when we were just barely out of high school. Thankfully we’ve had a wonderful extended family that has supported us and been active in our lives. While my BIL had a mom and stepfather, they were mainly absent from his life, shuffled him around (they were in the military so not entirely his fault), but generally not supportive, very selfish, and still act the same to this day. His mother is the only surviving grandmother and has unfortunately continued the non-existent relationship with his children.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

My question is that sometimes he makes off-hand comments about my family, specifically our genes or my Dad and how he raised us. It started off with “If I ever met your Dad we’d have words about how you were raised.” Trust me, this caused a lot of conflict and arguments, and he no longer says things like this. But he still makes remarks, and specifically will say “Great, now my kids have inherited the XXX gene” if someone has back trouble, a surgery, or something else that honestly probably has nothing to do with genes but is just rotten luck, part of getting old, or something else entirely. I would like to find a way to address this to him. While I get it, and he’s allowed to express himself, we aren’t doing the same about his family, and trust me we could. No one disparages him or says, “Oh you had lasik, great, now your kids will surely need glasses” or something else silly. Any advice on how to handle this? I’m truly happy at where we have landed and how much he has truly accepted the unconditional love and support everyone provides (without being overbearing), but this just bugs me.

Advertisement
Advertisement

—Please Stop Blaming My Family

Dear Please Stop Blaming,

An issue is never “low stakes” if it impacts your mental health negatively. If it’s bothering you enough to write in, that tells me everything I need to know about how serious this is.

Not to sound like a broken record, but when dealing with loved ones, the direct approach is the best approach. You already laid out a lot of what you could say just now, but you need to include your feelings. You can start with something like, “I know you’re not trying to be mean, but I think it’s really hurtful when you say XYZ. Even though I could easily do it, I never say similar things about your family because I have too much respect and love for you and them. I’d really appreciate it if you’d stop.”

Advertisement

I would like to believe that would be the end of it, especially if he’s a good, respectable guy. On the off chance he says you’re overreacting, feel free to borrow my favorite anti-gaslighting line, which is, “My feelings about what happened are not up for debate.” Either way, he should come around if he understands how serious it is to you.

Advertisement
Advertisement

I’d advise you to have the conversation once he exhibits the behavior, not at some random time when he can easily deny saying anything wrong. Also, be sure to pull him aside and deliver it in private, so it doesn’t blow up to being a bigger deal than it needs to be. Either way, I wouldn’t let it slide anymore.

—Doyin

More Advice From Slate

My husband wants to go to a bachelor party out of town for the weekend three months after our baby is born. Should I feel hurt that he’s even considering it?

Advertisement