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What Sister Mary Clarence Taught Me About Being a Magical Teacher (or “This Is No Longer a Bird Course. The Bird Has Flown”: The Importance of Coming Out from Behind the Teaching Pulpit)

This week, for the first time in my five-year teaching career, I came out to my students as a gay man.

One of my goals for the year was to model for my students what it means to live a readerly and writerly life. Writing a blog accomplishes the latter. Writing with my students does the same. So as we began writing personal narratives on “overcoming adversity,” I did the same activities they did to come up with one of my own.

“Pencils up!” I said. We were poised for the freewriting challenge.

“…and begin!” I used my freshly sharpened Ticonderoga No. 2, to begin the journey. And suddenly, I stopped. I had forgotten to turn off the LCD projector. My writing was displayed for the whole world—the middle school classroom in which I teach—to see.

“Mr. Shinn! Keep writing!” a student yelled from the corner of the classroom.

So I wrote. And at some point during my freewriting challenge the words coming out came out.

During my pre-student teaching quarter, my professor told me about a teacher at her inner-city high school who came out. The professor said something that stuck with me: We must model for our students what it means to be happy, healthy adults.

“Time’s up!” I called out. My students looked at my chicken scratch. They peered at their own messy scrawls to compare. They couldn’t read what I had written. Or maybe they didn’t care that much.

I still had a decision to make.

My students had seen my manicured nails and pedicured toes, so learning I was gay probably wouldn’t be a huge of a jump for them. Yet it felt like a huge jump for me. Should I proceed with the lesson?

“Alright! Time to look at my prewriting and see if anything jumps out.”

I read my prewriting, feeling like I was on an episode of Write or Die with Evin.

When I finished, it was silent.

Just.

Silent.

It was official. They had a gay teacher. Well, they always had a gay teacher—there hadn’t been outright denial or confirmation.

I thought about my 8th grade boys. Could I still be the “man” they needed in their life?

I thought about Sister Mary Clarence (Whoopi Goldberg) of the Sister Act franchise and the secret she kept while teaching the hooligans of St. Francis School, a for-all-analogous-purposes pre-No Child Left Behind failing school. Sister Mary Clarence wasn’t a sister at all. She was Dolores Van Cartier—a ‘sinful’ Las Vegas singer who was only known by the nunnery because she had to hide out there because she had witnessed a mafia hit. Her students didn’t know about her past, but she knew it—and it ended up providing an advantage.

Maybe it was the day she said to a student who was passing notes and kickin’ it with a girlfriend, “You gonna kick it wit’ me or I’m gonna kick you out. What you think about that?”

Maybe it was the time a student interrupted her with a “Yo Mama” joke and she retorted, “No, let’s talk about your mom… who’s so dumb she got hit by a parked car.”

Eventually, her students respected her. Not because she was a teacher, but because she was a person.

A person with fears, hopes, pains, joys, laughs, and tears.

She “came out” of her teacher role and entered into the world of being human to her students, of being and becoming a participant in the learning process instead of pretending she had all the answers.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to come out from behind the teaching pulpit and enter into the story of our classroom.

By the time I thought about all that, the silence was over. My students had questions. Tons of questions, which I answered directly: “Yes, I’m gay.” “Sure, there are probably more gay people you know.” “I told you guys to write from your hearts and I am.”

Evin Shinn is a reality television connoisseur who teaches middle school Language Arts and AVID as a side job. Besides knowing who was voted off the island or received the last rose, Evin balances life by renewing his faith, developing his friendships, focusing on his fitness, and becoming a champion teacher and role model for his 7th and 8th graders. An advocate of students learning core knowledge, Evin believes the Myth of the Magical Teacher isn’t a myth at all—it happens everyday in classrooms around the world. You can find out how he wants education to change at talkingabouttyee.wordpress.com or follow his life onInstagram or Twitter.

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