As theatre practitioners, I believe we are constantly negotiating different identities. Scholar, teacher, performer, leader, family member, and friend are a few of the various caps I carry. “Andy”, “Sir”, “Andrew”, “Mr. Waldron”, “Waldron”…lots of nominatives for the same person, yet each is a little different and each is a shard of the greater stained glass window.
I walk into the classroom as “Mr. Waldron” or “Waldron”. At first I kept hearing my dad’s name echo down the halls, but soon I grew comfortable with that nomenclature. When I first began teaching high school, however, I wanted to be the cool theatre teacher. I was “Andy” in the rehearsal space and “Mr. Waldron” in room 372. That lasted about 2 weeks. Working with undergrads, I become “Andrew” (from the course syllabus and the Registrar’s Office), and while working with second graders, I respond to “Mr. Andy”
Yet, seated deep below these titles and various levels of formality, there is fear. Fear of an identity I will never take on but that still plagues me. Fear, not of how I see myself but how others will see me.
Let’s not pull any punches. I am a gay man that works with young children and I’m afraid other people will see me as a creeper, a pervert, or a pedophile. Yes, those are strong words, yet those are the labels, the identities, the more conservative and vocal members of our society use to paint the LGBT community. Even though I know they’re wrong, it’s hard to shake those voices. I don’t believe them, but what if others do? If my hand touches a young person “too long” or I spend “too much” time paying attention to one child, then my professional “name”, my reputation, will be in jeopardy. Now my background is in secondary education, so the boundaries have always been pretty clear. For me, these concrete areas become hazy when working with younger students.
I remember my first day working with pre-schoolers in grad school. We had the classroom prepped and when the kids came in, I was suddenly surround by a group of eager little guys. My professor later explained that young boys tend to gravitate towards men in a classroom environment because they don’t see male teachers as frequently. Sitting “criss-cross-apple sauce” in a circle, I had one boy leaning on my left knee, one on my right, and one sitting in my lap. Instead of focusing on the drama activity, my mind was racing.
I didn’t know what to do with my hands. Do I rest them on the boys’ backs? That seems weird. I’ll place them naturally on my lap. Ok, his lap is on my lap, what the heck do I do now? I can’t fold my arms, my knees are occupied…behind my back. It won’t look like I’m touching a kid if my hands are all the way behind me. Awkward posture, but I can roll with this…I think.
I spent the next 10 minutes worried that if moved my hands, I’d look “suspicious” to the preschool teachers. At the end of the lesson, the boys wanted hugs. How do I hug a stranger’s child and not look creepy? That night I began to second-guess my decision to be in a class dealing with little folks. Is it worth the stress? Will I always be viewed suspiciously? How do I shake these feelings of fear and doubt?
Recently, my anxiety has been eased by two insightful encounters. First, I had the opportunity to observe a male teacher instruct an early childhood classroom. While I had observed pre-school and elementary teachers before, they had never been male. Seeing this man interact with young people gave me a positive role model. I saw how he interacted, how he spoke, and, most importantly, where he put his hands. That may seem like an odd thing to pay attention to, but I needed to see how he physically engaged with children. I needed to see my own behaviors confirmed in another teacher and learn new strategies for working with young people.
Second, I came across a well written piece of scholarship, “The (Im)possibility of Gay Teachers for Young Children,” by James King (in the 2004 Theory into Practice). In it, King examines the roots of homophobia in the early childhood classroom and, more importantly, how gay teachers can actually be assets to students. I needed to see these words on a page, explained in a language outside myself, in order to fully reflect on my own feelings, experiences, and doubts.
I had to see another male teacher interact with young children in order to become a more confident teacher myself.
So with that in mind…
-How can we facilitate a diverse learning and observing experience for our young colleagues?
-How can we create partnerships, mentorships, and opportunities to express and explore individual early career teacher concerns?
I had to read about the nature of that fear in order to better understand it.
And with that in mind…
-How can we foster a robust exchange of ideas and experiences about issues that may not qualify as “scholarship” or “publication-worthy”?
As theatre practitioners, I believe we are constantly negotiating different identities. Sometimes that negotiation feels less like a give and take and more like a hostage situation. For a long time I was trapped by my fear, unwilling to even try working with pre-school and elementary school students. I have a feeling that my fears are not mine alone and that other male teaching artists and educators have similar doubts and concerns. To be honest, I still have some reservations about how to interact with these tiny human beings. What once paralyzed me, however, now just propels me forward.