Sometimes it takes feeling safe to let yourself stand out.

Long before I was a Product Specialist at Amara and PCF, I trained to be a teacher. Specifically, I studied secondary education in mathematics to high school students. Algebra, trigonometry, calculus– you name it, I learned how to teach it!

I chose to study education after helping out one of my classmates on a homework problem. I got to see someone go from confused to confident in real time. Sometimes it just takes a compassionate conversation to push past learning barriers. It felt incredible to help someone else see a problem a different way and see it suddenly click for them. And I wanted to empower more people to learn.

I met some incredible people during my studies in the education department. My professors were passionate about improving the education system: educating educators better! I learned tools and tactics to help students of all ability levels feel included in the classroom, including pacing structure, multimedia presentations, and accessibility best practices. It was all very idealistic and motivating.

Then I became a student teacher in a real classroom. I approached this experience with an open heart and excited mind. And just like many idealistic youths, I was met with an environment harsher than my expectations. I planned my lessons, learned the students’ names, and started getting into the rhythm of teaching. There was a lot to learn, but I was ready to learn it. I drove from my college town in my nicest clothes and the best intentions. 

Photo of a desk with books, colored pencils, letter blocks, and an apple on top.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

An Uncomfortable Meeting for Everyone

After a few months of student teaching, I received a notice from my department. I was required to report to the head of my department and my advisor in the main office of my college. I remember sitting in a large, dark room full of heavy furniture of wood and leather. Two men sat in front of me, clearly uncomfortable. They’d received a report, they said, that I was “not dressing professionally.” Now, as a student teacher, I was ready to take feedback and learn what the expectations were in the job that I was training for. I asked them to tell me more about the report but they said that the complaint didn’t list any specifics. So I started asking questions about certain clothes– if the shoes I was wearing to the meeting were appropriate, that sort of thing. But slowly it became apparent that the report they received did not give any suggestions. It was just a warning that I didn’t conform to my teacher’s expectations for how she thought a professional should dress. It was pass/fail and I had failed.

As I left that meeting, I felt so insecure. I wish that I’d had the wonderful people posting the #ThisIsWhatAProfessionalLooksLike hashtag to help me out back then– there is some great discussion about workplace inclusion happening in that hashtag that I could have used at the time! There are even subsequent hashtags for specific professions: #ThisIsWhatALawyerLooksLike, #ThisIsWhatAnExecutiveLooksLike, and even #ThisIsWhatATeacherLooksLike.

I really admire the work that people are doing in these hashtags on social media, making themselves visible to break the spell of unnecessary conformity. Workplaces should be more inclusive and stop implicitly comparing everyone to one rigid ideal of what a “professional” looks like, which is usually an ideal that marginalizes people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ people.

And this ideal clearly starts before kids even get into the workplace. It starts in classrooms. I’d shown up to my student teaching assignment with concerns like “What if my strategies leave students with learning disabilities behind?” and “How can I make math fun for more kids, the way it’s fun for me?” I hadn’t expected fashion to be my downfall.

Photo of a dark snowy path in the woods with a fork in it.

Photo by Oliver Roos on Unsplash

Fitting in for Fear of Failure

As a gender-nonconforming person, I admit that I’d betrayed myself during the rest of my student teaching program. I went back to my closet and examined my teaching wardrobe. I wanted to feel safe and accepted in my school. I began to dress more feminine than I was comfortable with at the time, to fit into the expectations for AFAB people (assigned female at birth). I started wearing my hair down. I traded in my sensible shoes for flats and my slacks for skirts. I felt uncomfortable, but the fear of being singled out again kept me in line. But the only outcome of all the work that I’d done to fit was to implicitly support the strict expectations that I thought were wrong in the first place.

The thing I most regret about this period of my life is not standing firm in my identity and principles as an example for the kids around me. I could have shown them that you don’t have to look or dress a certain way to be taken seriously; that your kindness, your effort, and your intention matters much more than fitting in. The standards that we set in the classroom should build students up instead of boxing them in.

My student teaching experience was disheartening. I ended the semester by switching my major to pure mathematics and off of the teaching track. I want to say that I know that there are good educators out there: people with good intentions and practices, who believe and stand up for inclusive education. I’ve met many of them. And while I lost hope that I could personally flourish as a teacher in the public education system, I did not lose hope for others to push the boundaries of inclusion in traditional learning environments.

From Student Teacher to Student of Life

After leaving the education program and switching to mathematics, I completed my degree and was suddenly degreed but directionless. I wanted so much to make a difference in the world, to help people learn and find their own agency in a world that denies that to so many. I faced the job market, ready to conform after my experience as an almost-educator.

Sometimes it takes feeling safe to let yourself stand out. And that’s what I found at my current workplace. I started as a transcriptionist and sought out each opportunity to work more closely with Amara and its parent nonprofit Participatory Culture Foundation. I was drawn to subtitles because online video content was the number one way that I learned new information. I found textbooks pretty inaccessible as a dyslexic person, so online lectures by professors who taught from those books were the best resource for me! And having subtitles was essential for difficult or poor quality audio, which often happens in a classroom. I learned a lot of things this way, from computer science to philosophy and more!

And suddenly I was a person who was making content more accessible to others, first as a transcriptionist then as a person who hires transcriptionists and translators! I continued to grow into a core staff position as a Product Specialist. As I got to know my team, I realized that I was in a truly inclusive workspace. I started feeling safe enough to stand out.

Photo of a bunch of markers of different colors.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Finding a Place to Belong

As I mentioned before, I am gender-nonconforming. I identify as agender, or if I’m in a fun mood “gender retired.” But I’d always been afraid to use they/them pronouns: afraid that I was asking for too much when what it really amounted to was being myself. It’s sad to me looking back, because I would never have accused another person of these things if they shared their pronouns with me! It was just a rule I made specifically for myself out of fear.

And I admit that the first time we had a group discussion on pronouns, I offered they/she as my pronouns because I was still afraid from my previous experiences as an agender AFAB person. But then someone referred to me as “them” for the first time in a meeting and my heart soared. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt gender euphoria, but it is quite a ride. So I updated my pronouns everywhere to say “they/them” and the rest is history.

I am grateful to my past self for leaving the secondary education path for something less strictly planned out. Because it made room for me to find this team of amazing people who care more about the positive impact of what we do than about fitting into rigid little boxes.

A photo of a walkway with colorful square arches curving to the right.

Photo by Robert Katzki on Unsplash

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