MAGAZINE FEATURE

Toolkit for The Classroom Closet

This professional development activity gives ideas for developing narrative empathy: using the power of story to step into another person’s shoes in the name of justice.

The author of “The Classroom Closet” takes a risk in describing his experience as a gay teacher. This professional development activity helps you and colleagues to imagine life in that teacher’s shoes. With a strategy called narrative empathy, you will use imagination and storytelling to understand the perspective and experience of another person. Only by gaining that deeper understanding can you and colleagues work to dismantle the shame and silence that “closets” require.

 

Essential Questions

  1. What is a closet, in its metaphorical sense?
  2. How would daily life be different for you if you conducted your professional life from within a closet?
  3. How can you and your colleagues work to dismantle closets, shame and silence within your school and community? 

 

Procedure

  1. Carefully read “The Classroom Closet.” With colleagues, share your initial reactions to the piece. Did anything in particular surprise you or stand out?  Does it seem to you that this teacher’s experience would be very similar or different within your school or community? What other reactions do you have to the piece?
     
  2. Do the next step independently. Consider a daily interaction or experience you might have as part of your life in school. Some examples include:
     
  • Teaching a lesson about a short story in which a man and a woman get married.
  • Casual conversation with a student in which they ask you what you did last weekend.
  • Eating lunch with your colleagues.
  • Meeting with your administrator to discuss your practice.
  • Meeting alone with a struggling student who is the same gender as you.
  • Meeting with parents to discuss their hopes and concerns for their child. 
  • You and your colleagues might choose different stories, or you may all choose the same one. Either way is fine; you will have unique perspectives to share.

    Using the feature article as your guide, write the story of this experience imagining you are the author of the article. This strategy is called narrative empathy: using storytelling and the power of language to try to understand another person’s experiences and struggles.In doing this activity, it is important to keep in mind that you or one of your colleagues might identify as gay, and obviously this will impact how the activity gets done.

    If you are in a situation where you are actually describing your own experience, be mindful of your own emotional comfort level. You can also offer alternatives to adopting the lens of a gay teacher by expanding the activity to include being significantly younger or older than you actually are, or of a different ethnic background, religion or gender identity.
  1. If there is trust and safety in the group, ask volunteers to share their writing and talk about any surprises that came up. What was challenging about this experience? What did you learn from listening to one another’s stories?
     
  2. Discuss these questions with your colleagues:
  • What “closets” exist in your school? What aspects of identity—beyond sexual orientation—might a teacher or other staff member feel compelled to hide? How would this impact their daily life?
  • What sorts of interactions or policies might make it easier to do away with the shame that closets bring? How might you modify your daily behavior to make it easier for colleagues to feel safe and be authentic in their school lives?
  • If you were going to write a letter to the author of “The Classroom Closet,” what would you want to say, and why?