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Dedicated to Teachers

Beyond The Letters: Being a Stronger Ally with shea martin


This week on Beyond the Letters, Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts speak with shea martin about the big impact that small moves can make when it comes to supporting LGBTQ+ students, what it means to be an ally, and more. shea is a lit teacher, consultant, and researcher whose work is rooted in antiracist pedagogy, intersectional feminism, and creating liberatory learning structures for BIPOC students. Read their full bio below!


If this is your first time listening to Beyond the Letters, be sure to check out the preview episode


Below is a full transcript of this episode! 

* As a note to our listeners, please be advised that there is a mention of suicide in this episode. 


Kate: Hi, and welcome to the podcast. This is Kate Roberts.

Maggie: And, I am Maggie Beattie Roberts.

Kate: And we like to start by reflecting on one reason why we are doing this podcast in the first place. Well, earlier Maggie and I were talking about the teachers in our lives. Over the course of our conversations one thing that's come up is that sometimes there's not a lot teachers can do or feel like they can do to fight the systems they're in, particularly when it comes to LGBTQ kids or colleagues.

But as Maggie and I were talking this morning, it's amazing what the small things can do. I'm not saying there shouldn't be big things too, but I remember there were teachers in my growing up who did tiny, tiny things to help me feel not completely alone, and to feel like I had a place in my classroom in my school. In a way I can look at those tiny things and be frustrated by them, because they were small, and I deserved more as a young queer kid. But on the other hand, they saved my life. The one closeted teacher in my high school who just gave me a knowing look once, that one look of solidarity saved my life. So, I guess the reason we want to highlight today for why we're doing this podcast, is because ... I think you would agree Maggie, We both believe that teachers can in fact make the difference for kids, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in big ones. So, today we're talking to Shea Martin, who is a high school teacher in Boston and a diversity, equity, and inclusion coordinator and consultant. We're excited to talk today. Hi Shea.

Shea: Hey.

Kate: How's it going?

Shea: It's good.

Kate: So, we've been entering into these conversations thinking a little bit about what moments in our lives were those critical moments that caused us to become the educators we are today. What stories do you have? What moments do you have that sort of made the difference for you?

Shea: Yeah. I think the most defining moment for me as a queer teacher is both this really vivid and visceral memory that I have, but also probably the memory that I tried to erase, and I actually didn't even think about it until a couple of days ago. It happened in the fall of 2017, which as my third year in the classroom, where I just finally found my groove as a teacher, and I had just transitioned from a struggling public school to a struggling school that was part of a national charter network. It was one of those schools that feels like a cult.

Kate: Yes, yep.

Shea: Everyone's family, and they give you cool T-shirts, and they have really cool flare pins, which I was like, "Yes. Flare pins, thank you." But, I also was working like 90 hours a week and just trying to assimilate into this life as a teacher in this organization. But the cool thing was, up until that point I felt so much more supported in my development as a teacher. I was like, "Yeah, I'm making progress with my students," and I just remember we started each morning with this morning meeting, which was in part like pep rally to get us through the day, but most like this laundry list of to-do items for us.

The night before, I'd heard about this student in the school, and the school was in a really tough part of Jacksonville, Florida, and 100% black and brown kids, and just an awesome community. I heard about this student the night before from a co-worker, and the student had been requesting to go by a different name and use different pronouns, and they had been requesting to use a different bathroom. And I had heard just some really negative talk about this student behind their back, but then also heard that they were doing it to the person's face as well. I was in Florida, and I wasn't technically out yet as non-binary to my co-workers. They knew I was queer, but not non-binary, and so I had to really struggle with how to address this.

And so it came up in the meeting, and I remembered that I was sitting with my back to another outspoken teacher, and this teacher was like the poster teacher for the school. So, she was female teacher of color with great results, strong relationships with teachers and students. She was on the website. She was the teacher that everyone wanted to be. And so, the principal said something like, "Now, I know we have a student that has come up in conversations, and has asked to use different bathrooms, and we're figuring out how to deal with it." And, this teacher of the year behind me shouts out, "Well, unless I see a medical sex change on file, I'm going to keep calling her by what her mother named her." There was just like this dripping disgust in her voice as she used those pronouns. I remember that moment. The hair on the back of my neck just stood up, and at that moment I could feel everyone both looking away from me, but also looking at me.

And so I wasn't out as non-binary, and so I was like, "Well, I could just sit here and just figure out how to deal with it later," but I feel like there's so many moments as a teacher and educator we need to speak up in front of our colleagues in a room full of people. And so, I spoke up. I remember that I tried to use everything to diffuse the situation, so the whole respecting the child and legal mandates, and data on mental health and teens, and everything that I said was just like hitting a brick wall. It was the loneliest I've ever felt as an adult and as a teacher, because I remember that the silence in the room as we were going back and forth, and I remember the teacher questioning me and whether or not I respected her as a teacher, and of course she cares about kids, but kids can't just decide what they want to be called.

And so, weeks later we had a mediation, and the principal, I remember she asked me for resources, and nothing was ever done. I remember that kids used to continue to get demerits for making fun of the student, and I would see it logged in our discipline system, and adults continued to make comments in meetings, and I continued to interrupt and disrupt those, but I don't think anything ever actually ever got done with those teachers. Then a month later, that student was involuntary committed for a suicide attempt. I remember hearing about that through word of mouth, and I also remember the silence from the administration and the silence from the teachers and from kids, and no one ever talked about it.

And I think for me as an educator, that was a moment that I understood a lot of things. So one, self-care and what I need to do for myself to take care of myself in that moment, but two, also community and the need for other allies and other teachers and other support systems in that school for not only the students, but also teachers. And then, just authenticity in my practice. I remember beating myself up about whether or not I should have come out as non-binary in the school, and maybe that would have protected that student, or whether or not I was as visible as I could have been as a queer woman. But, I also kind of understood just how complicated it can be in schools for queer teachers and queer students.

And so, I think when I think about one critical moment that has shifted the ways in which I engage in my practice and in my classroom, it has to be that moment, that month of teaching when everything was happening with one student. And I didn't even teach the student, but they had a profound impact on the way that I approach this work.

Kate: Stories tell that moment. I can feel the heaviness of the silence you described. The silence in the room when you were first stepping up to disrupt that. The silence in the school community after the moment of crisis for the student, and just butting up against that silence with the many moments that the collective we need to step into those moments of silence and speak up in front of colleagues.

Shea: Yeah. I think sometimes silence can almost be as detrimental as someone's rude comments or oppressive statements. I think that the silence of a community that is supposed to be supportive, can be heartbreaking, and I think there are just too many times where students and colleagues feel that. So, I think that it's so imperative that we figure out a way that everyone can feel empowered or equipped enough to be able to speak up.

Kate: Well, and the idea that it can't rest all in that situation, on your shoulders. As a queer person, I can't change the systems. I need my straight allies to step up with me. Right?

Shea: Yeah.

Kate: When I was teaching, I was not very evolved. I wouldn't have identified myself as an activist. I was just gay. So I was like, "I'm gay," and that made me super-edgy. I remember that I was teaching and the guy who taught next to me, he was like this cute, straight, very popular teacher, and he came to me and he said, "You know Kate, I just keep hearing our kids use the F word." He's like, "I realized you can't do this. I have to do this. You can't solve this, because if you bring it up, everyone's going to be like, 'Well of course Kate brought it up. She's gay.' But, I've got to be the one to take it on." And, it was such a moment for me to realize that we need those allies, because we're vulnerable in schools. We don't have the productions around us.

Maggie: I think that you speak to the complications ... What I wrote down in my notes was just how complicated this is for queer teachers, non-binary teachers, queer students, non-binary students. That, this is ... the way that you also kind of couch this in the system of education, that there are all of these layers of conversation points, decision points around this work, and sometimes I think for me as even identifying in the community, it's hard to figure out how to start.

Kate: That's right.

Shea: Yeah, and I think in some ways I think I was blessed, in that I've never been able to I think in the classroom pass, in quote on quote, for straight. I think when I came out to my students my first year, I was very nervous about it, and then my students were like, "Of course we know you're gay." My girlfriend at the time, my wife now, they're like "Is that Caucasian lady your girlfriend?" So, they had picked up really quickly, and it was the cutest thing in the world, but I've never had that whole should I come out, should I not come out, and students questioning whether or not I was queer.

But, I think that that's a reality for a lot of teachers, and so I think that it's important for teachers who are allies to know that just because your colleagues are not out to you, does not mean that they're not there. The same with students. Just because you know or you think you know that none of your kids identify as LGBTQ+, doesn't mean that they're not actually there and that allyship and disruption shouldn't be a part of your every day practice.

Kate: Well, it's like that thing you talked about in your story, in a slightly different context, about when everyone was looking at you and not looking at you at the same time, which just brings up that idea of, how visible and invisible we can be at the exact same moment.

Shea: Yeah.

Kate: Sometimes I'm visibly gay, so I feel very visible in the world, but it means that sometimes I don't take as much space verbally. Do you know what I mean? I won't speak about being gay as often as ... Not to take your story, but that Maggie will-

Maggie: Oh, yeah

Kate: ... who doesn't present ...

Maggie: I identify more femme, and it is constant verbal coming out. Narration, versus a visual coming out, that I would argue that is more Kate's experience.

Kate: I like to come out with, I break through the big paper thing like they do in the football, and I'm like, "I'm here."

Shea: Yeah, like, "Hello."

Kate: Yeah... how ways you kind of communicate all the different layers of who you are.

Shea: That's right.

Kate: I'm curious about you and your students. How this plays out for you as a practitioner this year now with the students you teach. If you were to guide the conversation into what could educators do based on your work in the classroom, what suggestions would you give?

Shea: So, I think there's so many ways you could start. I think that the easiest way to start and something that I just have pushed for from day one, is just figuring out who's represented in my classroom. And so, just thinking about your curriculum and the content, who's on your walls, what examples are using on assignments and conversations and in culture. So, constantly thinking about, are you reinforcing hetero-normative practices or binaries, or are you disrupting them?

I know that it's going to look different depending on what you teach. So, I teach 10th grade English, so it's super easy for me, because there are tons of queer authors that I could choose from, and there are tons of different poems and short stories and novels we could read. But, it's probably going to be a little bit different for a person who teaches calculus. I'm not even sure what that lesson looks like or what numbers or letters are used in calculus, but I imagine that there are problems and conversations that come up where you can make sure that you are including everyone in the classroom.

And so, I think that the easiest way that I found for teachers to take the first step, is to just look at who is included, but then also left out of what you already have. And, I know that in some schools you have more say in your curriculum and your content than in other schools, but I do think that there are little tweaks that you can make as a teacher, whether it is like a quick write or a do now or an extra credit activity or just a video you're showing, that will make students one, know you are there as an ally, but then two, also just feel included and affirmed and celebrated in your classroom.

Kate: Yeah, the know you are there as an ally ... When I was leading with that story of how teachers changed my life or saved my life, it was just that. Having a sense that there was one adult in the building that maybe sort of had my back a little bit. I even find that when I walk into a school now as a 45 year old married, fully out person, when I see those stickers-

Shea: Yes.

Kate: I cry every single time. I tear up, because it sends such a message. Even if some people are doing it for lip service, it sends a message.

Shea: Yeah, I think that the stickers are one of the most visible things you can do. I've always questioned some teachers who put them up, because I'm like, "Oh, are you really an ally, or are you not?" But, I feel like it doesn't matter if you're a kid. If you're a kid who's struggling, if you see that sticker, you know that, "Okay, I'm going to be okay in this room," and I think that that's super important for students.

There is tons of resources out there. GLSEN has a great educator guide, but I think just starting out with being as visible as possible for students ... I know in high school I was not out at all. In fact, I was as far in the closet as you could be possibly go. I was in Narnia, and I was just like this ultra-conservative southern Baptist with a pop collar who just hated everything and everyone. I remember I had this 11th grade English teacher, Ms. Fitch, who was very much out. She was the leader of the GSA, and of course that just meant I hated her, because I also loved her.

Kate: 100%. 100%.

Shea: I just remember thinking back to that, and knowing that when and if I needed to talk to someone, she would be the one. But, I think that's just so important for kids to know that there are educators there who are willing to just be a safe space.

Maggie: I love that you say that the ... You're like, "Even if you can't totally get behind the sticker or you're just putting up the sticker, because it's what everybody else is doing, the kids don't know that."

Shea: Right.

Maggie: The kids need all of these flares, these really not subtle, really overt flares and lighthouses to go to when they're ready, if they're ready, if they're in crisis, if they're in trouble. So, your call to think about all the ways you can be visible, feel really important.

Shea: Yeah. I think that because there is such a stigma with being queer, especially where ... I started teaching in the South. That is just not something that people talked about and accepted all of the time, and so because it's something that's supposed to be hidden, it's so important for allies to be as visible as possible. I just think that whether it is putting that sticker up or just mentioning something in conversation with students, and making sure that it's heard between you and students, and also you and other teachers, so they know that you have students' and teachers' backs. That's just so important for students.

Kate: Absolutely. Do you have something else that you want to throw down for people?

Shea: Yeah, I think something that I think is really important is just for allies to educate themselves. And when I say educate yourself, I don't mean that you have to get a degree in women and gender studies. But, I do think that it's worth it to seek out resources and trainings both online, but also in your own community. Because, I feel like no matter where you are, whether it is in the middle of nowhere in Alabama or in a place like Boston that is just overflowing with queerness and resources, I feel like just knowing that community and knowing the work that's already been done before you got there and before you started thinking about allyship, is really important. And so whether that is looking at the state level and seeing what type of programming there is, or looking at your local PFLAG, going to coming out events or Pride, those are just so important to becoming an ally in your own community. It's great to be an ally online and put the filter on your photo during pride month, because it looks great. But, I feel like really becoming a staple of the community is where people should start.

Coming from a small southern town, I recognize the importance of those small organizations who have been doing the work, and who are invested in the community, and so I think ... I really just want to encourage people to actually seek out those buildings and those people who have been doing this work and canvasing and creating this spaces for queer youth for so long of a time. Seek those people out, and learn from them. With that, there's a caveat. I would say, search for a community already in existence, but make sure that that's a place that you belong as an ally, because so many times I feel like allies are super excited and want to get super invested in the community, but I feel like there are some spaces that are only supposed to be sacred for queer folk. So as you're looking for places to learn and to exist with the queer community, make sure that the space that you're seeking and the space that you find is open to allies to come and learn and grow.

Kate: And I think that loops right back to your story where you're talking about that critical moment for you, taught you the value of community and authenticity. This idea that to grow in the ways that we need to grow to not fail our kids and our colleagues and our communities, we need other people. I can't do it on my own. I mean, I can get to a certain place on the internet. I mean, I can get to scary places on the internet. I can get to a certain place by reading articles and going on Twitter chats, but ultimately I have to be with other humans who have done the work and are doing the work to move forward.

Shea: Yeah, it takes such dedication and commitment to really be entrenched in this work for the long haul. I know when I was in Jacksonville, Florida, there was an amazing organization called JASMYN. They did such incredible work in a city that was just not ready to be open and inclusive for all youth. They had been there for so long, and so I feel like for me coming in and not knowing anything about Jacksonville, coming from DC and going down to Florida, it was so important for me as a teacher to check in with them and see what one, what I could offer them, but also what they could offer me as an educator just learning the ropes and learning the laws and learning what I could and could not do.

Because, allyship is going to look different in every state and every city and every town, based on the laws and based on just the culture of that place. And so, I feel like there are people in your communities that know probably a lot more than you do about what's going on and what's allowed and what avenues you can pursue to be an effective ally for your students and for your colleagues, and so definitely seek those out.

Kate: Well I love that, because in a way what you're bringing up is that there's all these ways to start. Slap a sticker on your wall, get some books in the room, mention some stuff. But what I found with other areas of my progress in evolving, is that those first steps help you to see how important the work is, to motivate you to do that long haul progress. It's like you start to remember that kid in your starting story, and be like, "Oh, we failed them, and it hurt them."

Maggie: And Shea, I feel like you also really speak to the longevity of the work, right?

Shea: Right.

Maggie: That within the first steps, there's going to be a lot of listening, a lot of researching on your own, a lot of asking questions, and that there's a lot of knowledge-building and bucket-filling that we have to constantly be doing in order to walk alongside a group of people we want to support. And so, I appreciate the refrain of lingering and knowledge-building that you're really bringing to this series. So, thank you for that.

Shea: Yeah. And I want to say, I think that this road to allyship is also something that can bring about a lot of guilt for people. Don't beat yourself up because you weren't the perfect ally on day one in the classroom, I think is something that I would like all teachers to think about and just remember, because I think it's very easy to get caught up, for even me to get caught up in that I wasn't able to successfully protect that student that one time. But, I don't think that is something that's going to be helpful for you in your road to supporting and uplifting other students, and so reflect on it, but don't beat yourself up because you weren't able to be the perfect ally every single time. And I also think along with this idea of, yes seek knowledge, you don't need to, like I said before, have a degree or know everything to be able to start just being that safe space for your students tomorrow.

Kate: Thank you for that. Absolutely. Yes, that this is also something that you can ... It's like, you're having a bunch of pots on the stove boiling at the same time. It's like you're getting smart about something, and you can walk in tomorrow with a read aloud of a text that is more gender inclusive.

Shea: Right.

Kate: So, I feel like we could talk for the next five hours.

Maggie: I'm ready.

Kate: But, we are nearing the end of our timestamp here, so I think we're going to have to shift into our closing, which I think Maggie has said in a different voice each time. So, I'm going to-

Maggie: Today, I'm going to say it's time for the closing five. 

Kate: Time for the closing prompts if you will, a little window into ... So Shea, first question. You'll never see me without my?

Shea:  You'll never see me without my pen in my pocket. I often don't take them out of my pocket, so that means you'll never see me without ink-spotted shirts as well.

Kate: That's a badge of honor.

Shea: Yeah.

Kate: Do you have a specific kind of pen that you prefer? I'm assuming yes.

Shea: Yes. So, they're all these BIC gel pens, and luckily for me I have a co-worker whose parent works for BIC, and so I get them for free now. But, I just have them on endless supply, and they're just everywhere. So, I want to be ready to write anything down I need to, so ...

Kate: That's amazing. All right, second. Your favorite article of clothing?

Shea: Favorite article of clothing, I'm definitely going to say my socks.

Kate: What do you love about your socks?

Maggie: I mean, we got to be like, are you Smartwool thick socks? Are you thin socks? Are you-

Shea: I think it depends on the day and how I'm feeling that day. I mean, I live in Boston now, so I've had to buy some wool socks. I just love bright socks, and I love when my socks match or compliment my shirt. I just love colorful socks. If they're witty, even better, but I just love socks.

Kate: Well done. Well done. We have a big debate in our household about thick socks versus thin socks.

Maggie: Yeah we do. We do. Your first concert?

Shea: So, I grew up playing Jazz music, and so I think my first concert was actually ... It was really nerdy. It was a Jazz band called the Yellowjackets, and they're a super cool band if anyone wants to check them out. But, I think my first mainstream concert would probably have to be Eric Clapton now that I think about it.

Kate: I mean, Eric Clapton's not the worst, let me tell you. I mean if you're going to go see a mainstream concert, that's-

Shea: Right. I feel like it's a pretty cool concert to have.

Kate: It could be a lot worse.

Shea: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Kate: Your first queer icon?

Shea: Okay, there's no question with this, and is it okay if it's a fictional person. Is that okay?

Kate: 100%. There are no rules.

Shea: Okay, Bette Porter taught me everything I know about being queer. I used to sneak downstairs in my parents' basement to watch The L Word on Showtime, Showtime on Demand. I think I'm still in love with Bette Porter today. And so ...

Kate: That's amazing.

Maggie: Yes. I love that. And then, you're current queer icon?

Shea: I think I'm going to say Roxane Gay, because she's amazing and fantastic.

Kate: Yes, and has the best Twitter feed in the known universe.

Shea: Oh, absolutely. There's no one better.

Kate: No one better. She stole the game. Amazing. Shea, thank you so much for your time, your work, your story-telling, your heart. We appreciate it.

Shea Martin: Thank you all. I appreciate it.

Learn more about Beyond the Letters on the Heinemann Blog!

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martin headshotshea martin is a lit teacher, consultant, and researcher whose work is rooted in antiracist pedagogy, intersectional feminism, and creating liberatory learning structures for BIPOC students. shea’s research examines the current educational landscape of America’s southern cities with a particular focus on how gender and race inform successful BIPOC student-teacher relationships in underresourced communities. A native of the D.C metro region, they began their teaching career in Florida and recently relocated to Massachusetts to pursue graduate studies. Outside of their work in education, shea is known for making the dopest mixtapes and never bailing on a brunch date. Find them on Twitter at @sheathescholar


AU_Roberts-Kate_AuthorPhoto_web-4Kate Roberts is a national literacy consultant, top-selling author, and popular keynote speaker. She taught reading and writing in Brooklyn, NY and worked as a literacy coach before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project in 2005, where she worked as a Lead Staff Developer for 11 years. Kate's latest book, A Novel Approach, asks how we can teach whole class novels while still holding onto student centered practices like readers workshop. She is also the co-author of Falling in Love with Close Reading (with Christopher Lehman), DIY Literacy (with Maggie Beattie Roberts), and she co-wrote two Units of Study books on Literary Essay. Her work with students across the country has led to her belief that all kids can be insightful, academic thinkers when the work is demystified, broken down and made engaging. To this end, Kate has worked nationally and internationally to help teachers, schools, and districts develop and implement strong teaching practices and curriculum. 

Follow Kate on Twitter @TeachKate and find her blog at KateAndMaggie.com


maggiebeattieroberts-11Maggie Beattie Roberts began her teaching career in the heart of Chicago and then pursued graduate studies as a Literacy Specialist at Teachers College, Columbia University. She worked as a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for nearly ten years where she led research and development in digital and media literacy, as well as differentiated methods of teaching and content area literacy.

Maggie is currently a national literacy consultant, guest teacher, author, and frequent presenter at national conferences. She is committed to helping teachers tap into the power of their own deep engagement in reading and writing, and leads school-wide staff development around the country. She is happiest teaching alongside teachers in their classrooms. She is co-author of the popular book, DIY Literacy: Teaching Tools for Differentiation, Rigor, and Independence (with Kate Roberts), and authored several Heinemann Unit of Study books on the teaching of writing. Her latest article, Thinking While Reading: The Beautiful Mess of Helping Adolescents Learn and Celebrate How Their Minds Work (co-authored with Kristen Robbins Warren), is featured in the December 2016 issue of NCTE's middle school journal, Voices from the Middle. You can learn more about Maggie’s work, as well as access videos and other resources, at KateAndMaggie.com.

Follow Maggie on Twitter @MaggieBRoberts


Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Kate Roberts, Maggie Beattie Roberts, Beyond The Letters, shea martin

Date Published: 06/06/19

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