Backstory: This past fall Seth Stambaugh was removed from his student teacher post for his supposed lack of “professional judgment” when he told a student he was not married because it is not legal for him get married in Oregon. While the Beaverton School District, Lewis and Clark College, and Basic Rights Oregon wrangled to address this breach of civil rights some among the states teacher education leaders suggested it is only professional for LGBTQ to serve in silence. Fortunately for my sanity, here at UO the leadership stood with Seth on his right to teach. And after some legal threats, and a great deal of time and effort Beaverton leadership reinstated Seth in his original classroom. Yesterday the legal settlement was announced in this case and the district will pay for a small fraction of the incompetence displayed and damage done to Seth’s present life and future career in education.
All of which got me to thinking…
When Seth Stambaugh went to work as a student teacher in the Beaverton School District he experienced the same thing all teachers experience when working in schools, children and their parents are looking very closely at you. Children are watching you and listening to you intently, and they want and perhaps need to know you as a person when you are the person assigned to teach them.
Were the intensely human relationships between children and their teachers not important to us as a society, we would currently have all of our children sitting in font of computers all day long to be schooled. Heaven knows the information technology industry has created and would love to sell us enough machines and games to replace the costly and less predictable human teachers we currently employ in our schools.
But no, we yet employ teachers who we then culturally and quite often systemically expect to teach, to nurse, to mentor, to discipline, to provide social services, basically to offer themselves as human resources to all of our children. In fact as a society we expect teachers to bring every human skill they possess to play in their daily jobs in our schools.
And both research and personal testimonial suggest that those teachers who have the greatest influence on a child’s learning do just that. They connect with their students, they have human relationships with them. This educational fact results in professional mantras like: “Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor: The Three R’s of Engaging Students.” Authentic relationships between students and teachers result in learning.
So as a future teacher Seth was entering a world in which authentic relationships are fundamental to professional performance. And anyone looking at a real, human school today will see students, their families, and teachers relating in human ways. There are married couples teaching in the same buildings and everyone knows about their families, there are parents of students teaching in classrooms, there are human relationships out there in the open all over the community with students and teachers casually make references to their families and lives in the minutia of daily interactions.
And good educators know that all of this is not simply a side effect of being in the same building working in partnership for days and weeks on end. This human element of connection is actually integral to students emotional capacity and desire for learning.
Yet in the case of Seth, a young gay man, it was asserted that his acknowledging his relationship or his life to a curious and perhaps intentionally gay baiting student was ‘unprofessional.’ Ironically it seems to me in looking back on this entire episode that this 23-year-old man who had yet to enter the profession was the most professional educator involved in the situation.
First he offered a simple and accurate truth in response to a common elementary student question about family and relationships.
“Are you married?”
“Because it is not legal for me to marry the person I would choose to marry in Oregon.”
Then he realized both the personal but more importantly the symbolic importance of his removal from the building for disclosing that he was gay. And finally he expected his professional peers to uphold their own ethical and professional standards in terms of both equity and of supporting diverse students and families.
In pursuing this professional path toward equity Seth surely knew that he would be perceived as a ‘whistle blower’ by many education professionals. Given the circumstance he must have expected that by publicly addressing this bias he would face backlash, public ridicule, and further covert professional discrimination.
But as a professional educator he opted to directly address the situation. Seth chose to publicly stand up against the shaming and shunning of gay people by schools that has so clearly been seen to harm children in the many reported gay suicides of this past year.
He also chose to stand up against the soft implementation of non-discrimination and equity laws related to schools. We have oh so many bully policies that exist on paper only, and Seth’s pursuit of equity showed that backroom deals to move the gay to the liberal corner of the building or district is simply not adequate.
And finally he took a professional stand for his own students and his relationships with that small learning community when he insisted he needed to return to his original school.
His personal moves upheld professional education standards lacking in the practices of many surrounding this case.
And they came as they always do, at a cost. Read at length any comment thread from the local Beaverton papers to national press and you will see the personal and professional cost associated with standing up to address inequality.
So the Beaverton School District will pay Seth a small settlement, some of which he is passing along to Outside In and p:ear in Portland, and we will now hear the whining of complaints that he was given or accepted anything.
I can only wonder who I know who would offer so much of himself or herself to such a moment. This young man took great personal and professional risks to stand up to educational injustice.
Would I do the same? Would you?