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When the Teacher’s a Fan, Who’s on the Team?

By Terry Burant

A few years ago, I was on the faculty at the University of Wyoming when Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student, was murdered in an anti-gay hate crime. In the midst of the collective grief, horror, and soul-searching that followed, the university sponsored several teach-ins. At one of these events, a faculty member explained that she intentionally does not talk about her family life or the gender of her partner during conversation before class begins. If she told any personal stories in her classes at all, she consciously used the term "partner" rather than reveal who her partner was. She chose this route, she said, after she stood back with enough distance to imagine the compounded effect of this informal practice, an example of what Adrienne Rich called "compulsory heterosexuality," on the gay and lesbian students in her classes. The story she shared sparked numerous faculty conversations about honesty, authenticity, privacy, and distance, and the ethical dilemmas inherent in the daily acts of teaching.

After reading about Seavert's Packer fan persona, I was reminded of her story and I questioned once again how much of me I want to make visible in my classroom — and for what reasons.

While I don't come to class in sports jerseys (except when the topic for the day is the history of school mascots and school spirit in my introductory foundations course), Seavert's story made me think about what I might represent — or might not represent — simply by showing up for class each day. Whether I'm wearing my favorite heels or pink and tan cowboy boots, I'm communicating something to my students. By simply being me on the outside — a physically strong, energetic, slightly irreverent, mildly outrageous, white woman with an eye for fashion — my students construct an idea of who I am. And beyond what I wear, they get to know a little more about me as the semester unfolds, often through seemingly insignificant moments. For example, I can always recite the bus routes when they seek directions to their field placements and eventually they find out that I don't own a car. What assumptions, if any, do they make about my politics, beliefs, and values?

I've come to understand that I exhibit who I am in different ways depending on the nature of the courses I teach. In my secondary content-area literacy courses, for example, I teach mostly college seniors who are just a semester away from student teaching in secondary settings. Thinking about my high school teaching experiences, I am reminded of one of my former high school students who told me that the most important thing she learned from me and my teammates was that there isn't just one way to live, that her best high school teachers broadened her view of how she might live a just and meaningful life. Because I see high schools as important sites for students to experiment and think about the kind of people they are and hope to become, I feel that high schools need teachers who represent a variety of models of intelligent, socially engaged, and interesting adults.

My secondary content-area literacy students are going to become those significant adults in the high schools where they will soon teach. Therefore, in this class, I unself-consciously come across like the "Aunt Terry" I am to my sister's teenagers: independent, smart, simultaneously a little hip and a little bookish, unconventional, political, unflappable, and approachable. I have an aura in this class that says, "Nothing shocks me. Just ask." Since I know that many of my students are grappling with who they want to be as teachers, I want them to feel like they can ask me anything. I talk candidly with them about the kind of high school teacher I was, why I was that kind of teacher, the mistakes I've made, why I am the kind of teacher I am, and why I am always questioning the kind of teacher I am and seek to be.

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