8 Questions with GLSEN’s Educator of the Year
At the GLSEN Respect Awards, we recognize exemplary role models—students, educators, individuals and corporations—that have made a significant impact on the lives of LGBTQ youth. At the event in New York later this month, one of the role models we're recognizing is Stephanie Byers, an Instrumental Music Educator from Wichita High School North as Educator of the Year!
Some of Stephanie's accomplishments include advocating for the needs of transgender students at the State Capitol, participating on panels for the “National Day of Coming Out,” chaperoning the GLSEN Greater Wichita’s “Day of Advocacy,” and training future physicians around transgender health care. We asked this exceptional educator about what motivates her to teach and what suggestions she has for for creating an inclusive curriculum, leading a new GSA and using GLSEN resources.
1. Why did you decide to become an educator?
Wow! Making me put on the “way-back” thinking cap. My first teaching job began in January of 1987 so I’ve been at this for awhile. My decision to become an educator happened when I was 12. In 1975 I started in my first band class - sixth grade band with Mr. Chuck Pappan. I grew up in a suburban, college community, but like most communities there were areas of town where people who were blue collar tended to live. I grew up in one of those neighborhoods. My neighborhood middle school was full of students from working class parents. Mr. Pappan took this ragtag bunch of kids who decided to play in band and began to instill in us the ideas of each person having value, that the quality of your character was more important than whether your clothes were new or hand-me-downs. That everyone deserved to be treated with dignity. He did all of this with the most gentle heart, incredible spirit, and so much humor that our sides would hurt nearly every day after class. He made a huge impression and difference in all of our lives. It was during that time that I decided I wanted to be a band director - a music educator if you will. So from 12 years old I knew this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to teach people to feel good to be with each other, to work for a common goal, to know that even if they’re the only player of their instrument, they are not alone. That it’s okay to laugh at your own mistakes - just work a little harder to not make them next time. And that music feeds our souls and surrounds us in all of our lives.
2. What do you love most about being an educator?
What I love most about being an educator is seeing the difference that takes place in people’s lives. As I write this, Teacher Appreciation Week is happening. My Facebook page has been filled with former students writing to tell me that their fondest memories in high school came from my classes. Some met their future spouse in my class, some fell so in love with music that they became professional musicians and/or professional music educators themselves. One wrote to tell me that I taught them to see music in another light - as a tool of emotion and that music could be far more than ink on a page and sound in the air if you let it tell its story. Some told me of how they clung to music as their homelife unravelled through divorce and homelessness. They spoke of how everyone was treated equally in my class. Some said my classroom was the only place they felt safe to be themselves while in High School. How can you not love the difference in someone’s life that they attribute to you and your class?
3. How do you incorporate lessons of respect in your curriculum?
You’d think that a music teacher would focus on playing the right notes with the right fingerings, the correct rhythms, proper tone and volume. In fact that is a part of my class. But what I see as the main function of music is communication. Communication is a fundamental of life. Respect is integral to good communication. Listening to what others say. Realizing that everyone is giving their best for today and that’s what counts. Our job is to lift each other up and not put each other down.
The building I teach in just held it’s 89th graduation Tuesday evening. In one of our halls there are the senior pictures of nearly every person who graduated from Wichita High School North during those 89 years. As you look through those photographs you begin to notice that at times when our Nation was so separated by race and ethnicity, there are photos of people of color, side by side with white students. Going far back you see photos of students of all socio-economic levels hanging side by side - their commonality? - Wichita High School North. North has always been a building of inclusivity. Acceptance is rooted in its very foundations. It matters less to the teachers of North High where your family is from, what language is spoken at home, how much money your family has, than what you want to do with your life and how can we help you find your best. The quality of your character is valued above all else. Many years ago there was the “Choose Another Word” campaign, an attempt to change the culture of derogatory terms based on sexual preference, ethnicity, learning disabilities, etc… Even though that campaign ended some time ago, our staff and students still practice it.
In my classroom I take it to the next level. Often I point out that there are aspects of our existence that were made by our choice, but most things that make us us came about without our control - our ethnicities, our parentage, our gender identity, our sexual preferences, etc. These are things that contribute to who we are but they don’t completely identify us. Often it’s these very differences that make us interesting people! Since high school music can be competitive we also focus on learning to be respectful of others. We must demonstrate the respect we want others to show us. The idea of “I’ll respect you if you respect me!” is slightly askew. It really should be: “I’ve shown you respect, will you please give me the courtesy of doing the same.” I also try to teach that “those who can” have an obligation to reach out to those who can’t and try to lift them up to reach their best.
4. What is the number one lesson you hope students take away from your classes?
That music is life. In order for things to go well we must all work in harmony. Each of us have our own purpose, but our purpose don’t exist in isolation. Looking out for each other is more important than building divisions between us. Strive to understand each other. That doesn’t mean you have to agree, just try to see life from outside your own perspective.
5. As state legislatures across the country are trying to limit the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming students, how do you make sure your classes are inclusive of these students?
I ask students what their preferred name is to start with. Whatever name is in the records is just a starting point, what I want to know is: what do you go by? I use the pronouns that the student prefers. If I don’t know the pronoun, then I just use their name.
Bands and Orchestras wear “uniforms”. For concerts we wear dress clothes, black on bottom and either white or black on top. Gender doesn’t matter in what you choose to wear, just remember that if you choose to wear a black skirt or a black dress to make sure it is long enough when you sit down.
I’ve begun working with my district to change some of the names of our vocal music ensembles - so instead of “Women’s Choir” - we could use “Treble Choir” etc.
6. What advice do you have for educators trying to build their schools’ GSAs?
Have a ready explanation of what “GSA” means for the school. Advertise. Make it have more substance than just a social group. Work to get students who are “allies” involved. Work with your local GLSEN chapter. You may not know what all the area GLSEN is doing, but your students will - especially via social media.
7. What tips do you have for educators trying to create an inclusive curriculum?
Let what unites us be a bigger thing than what divides us. Teach that being gay, lesbian, bi, straight or transgender aren’t “choices” people make - it’s just who we are. Give space for kids to find themselves.
8. What GLSEN resources have you used, and how have you used them?
Our school is covered in GLSEN safe and inclusive stickers. Teachers and other staff choose to put them up and it’s amazing at how frequently you see one in a classroom window. Being in a large, urban, district, people often come to me to tell me about something happening in another building. I will then call our GLSEN chair person and ask her if she knows about it and who she can talk with to help? I also take GLSEN surveys and share them with our faculty during staff inservices. I would like to find ways to get our GSA more involved with the Greater Wichita GLSEN.