Casting Caution Aside Creates a Safe Zone

We often talk about the teachers who change our lives. We hold them dear in our hearts, conjuring their images and words of wisdom in our dark hours. They continue to guide us throughout our lives, whether they know it or not. 

What few talk about is the students who change teachers' lives.  Yup. It happens that way, too.

There are remarkable children who we teachers hold close to our hearts, who inspire our careers, whose presence in our lives has solidified, inspired, and guided our calling to teach. These are the children who inspire us to be better than we are, and who renew our faith in the future every single day—long after we have finished our short time with them in our classrooms.

For me, one of those students was M.

I posted a sign in my classroom, a poster I had seen on doors of a few of my college professors. It states: “Safe Zone. This space RESPECTS all aspects of people including race, ethnicity, gender expression, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, age, religion and ability.”

I was approached by this man from the University of Northern Colorado who claimed to be advocating for the interests of the majority Hispanic/Catholic population of the town I was teaching in. He asked me to take down this sign. His claim was that by creating a welcoming environment for homosexual youth, I was, in effect, creating a hostile environment for Hispanic children and parents. It was downright abusive, he said.

A week later, I was told by the central administration that the sign was out of compliance with district philosophy and was outside the content area I was contracted to teach. They said I could keep the sign, as long as I used a black marker to cross off the terms "gender expression" and "sexual orientation."

Soon after, I was reprimanded for disciplining a kid for calling another student a faggot. The victim’s father called the principal. Everywhere I turned, people kept telling me that I had to be sensitive to the community—one that did not tolerate homosexuality. I felt that the more homophobic this community was, the more a safe zone was needed.

I thought of M.

He was only 12 when I taught him. I didn't know, or care, whether he was gay or straight. I did know that he was exactly the reason why homophobia is bad for all kids—gay or straight. M was an amazing kid, surrounded by amazing kids. Popular, admired, respected. Smart, artistic, musically talented, funny. A total goofball, effeminate perhaps, and everyone loved him.

I would be a liar if I didn't also admit that I also loved him because he always laughed at my jokes. Like he really laughed, like I was actually funny. I think he did this for everyone else too. M won our hearts by understanding us. I’d say something funny, and no one would get it. But M did, and that made me funny. A teacher should not need that kind of validation. But a teacher is a real kid too inside, you know? M understood all of us and made us feel okay. He had this magnetic charisma that drew people to him, made people want to be near him, to be like him. He was caring and empathetic, and had a way of making everyone feel—I don't know—good.

I think about all the kids in that class. Man, I loved those kids—the whole lot of nerdy little works of unique and individual perfection. They were amazing. I want every group I teach to be like them. They just need an M.

So I had to leave my Safe Zone sign up. And for that, my teaching contract was not renewed.

There you go, world—my deepest professional secret. I have been fired from a teaching job. They fired me because I refused to follow the rules—because the rules sucked. 

I feel bad about it. Like maybe if I had made concessions, I could have stayed and made a difference. But I couldn't do it. Was it selfish? I really don't know. But I know I wouldn't be who I am today if it had never happened.

Norton is a middle school science teacher in Colorado.

Note to Readers: This is an adapted excerpt from a previous blog. The original version contains strong language. To see the full version, visit,


Dear Tiffany, You are

Submitted by Rachael Poe on 8 March 2011 - 11:26pm.

Dear Tiffany,

You are seriously one of my heroes. It saddens me that you lost your job for taking a stand for something you believe in. Just know that your story, your courage give hope and inspire students who feel different, who feel left out. Believe me. I know. I was one of those students. If my K-8 or high school had a teacher like you, my early school years would have been much more positive. I wouldn't have had to wait until college before I finally came out as bisexual. Never give up fighting for what you believe in. I'm sure there are so many schools who will welcome a teacher like you with open arms. Good luck and God bless.

Thank you for being so

Submitted by Lauren on 17 March 2011 - 6:03pm.

Thank you for being so persistent in not taking down your sign. If you took it down, it would be like telling all of the LGBTQ students that they are "wrong" and "not accepted". Can you tell me where I can also get one of those signs?


Dear Lauren, You have to

Submitted by Rachael Poe on 22 March 2011 - 10:05am.

Dear Lauren,

You have to attend the SafeZone workshop before you get the sign. I'm sure your local university holds these workshops throughout the year. Good luck.