MEd students Beck Watt and Alex O'Leary joined us to talk about being a 2SLGBTQ+ ally in the classroom, how to address difficult topics in the news, and bringing representation into the classroom every day.




Beck Watt
Beck Watt

Beck Watt is a tattooed teacher of music and active flutist from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Beck currently teaches in Winnipeg’s inner city developing a grade 7-12 band and music appreciation program. In addition to their work within the Manitoba music community, they have been a guest speaker and lecturer on allyship and supporting transgender and/or gender diverse students in Manitoba since 2018. Beck is currently working on completing their Master’s thesis through Queen’s University exploring gender in Western instrumental music practices through the experiences of transgender and/or gender non-conforming instrumental musicians.

Alex O'Leary
Alex O'Leary

Alex O'Leary is finishing their Master's in World Indigenous Studies in Education while also teaching at the Junior High level in Halifax, NS. Their thesis looks at the friendships between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous educators in public education and how these relationships play a role in education settings. Alex is also passionate about fostering classroom spaces where all students and staff feel seen and celebrated in all their identities.

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Podcast Transcript

Intro: Talking about innovation in teaching and education, Popular Podagogy, discussions that are topical and sometimes philosophical. Popular Podagogy. Popular Podagogy.

CC: Hi there. Thanks for joining us, and welcome to another episode of Popular Podagogy, where we try to bring big ideas and teaching and education to life. I'm your host, Chris Carlton, and this podcast is being brought to you by the Faculty of Education at Queen's University. Welcome to our podcast. In this episode, I am excited to be speaking with Beck Watt and Alex O'Leary, two Master of Education students at Queen's University. With June being a celebration of Pride Month here in Canada, we wanted to speak with these two educators about being part of the 2SLGBTQ+ community and how to be an ally in your classroom and beyond. In Canada, the first pride demonstrations took place in Ottawa and Vancouver in 1971. By 1973, pride events were held in several Canadian cities, including Montreal, Ottawa, Saskatoon, Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. Now, after 50 years of celebrating the 2SLGBTQ+ community, Toronto's Pride Weekend in June is among the largest pride events in North America, expecting to attract over 2 million people for the weekend celebrations. Even though there are many amazing pride events and activities that are happening in schools across the country, particularly in the month of June, many media sources are reporting on pride flag flying controversies and hate crimes both in the Catholic and public school boards right across Canada.

CC: This May, police were called to a meeting at York Catholic District School Board after public delegations for and against various 2SLGBTQ+ activities led to confrontation. In light of the growing controversy at the York Catholic Board in his own writing. Education Minister Stephen Lecce said flying the pride flag is a signal of respect that is welcome in all publicly funded schools. As most Canadian provinces mark Pride Month in June and others in August, the pride flag and versions of it have been at the centre of recent debates surrounding 2SLGBTQ+ inclusion in schools. Students in those communities say flying the flag is a gesture of support that makes them feel safe, and that flying the flag means inclusiveness, equity and feeling welcomed in schools. To talk about some of these issues and help teachers find a role in the solutions, I would like to introduce my two guests, Beck Watt and Alex O'Leary. Welcome to the podcast to both of you. Beck, I will start with you and ask you to give us a little intro about yourself and about the research you are doing through your master's program.

BW: Thanks, Chris. So I am currently located in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where I am a music teacher in Winnipeg's inner city. I work with grades 7 through grade 12 and I'm currently in the process of writing my master's thesis, which is looking at how gender non-conforming and or transgender musicians are negotiating the gender binary in Western classical music. So looking specifically at instrumentalists who play things like flutes and clarinets and trombones and euphoniums. All of those typical wind band instruments that you would see in the in a pretty traditional band classroom in the grade 7 through grade 12 age range.

CC: That is amazing. And I think I remember you saying that you also play the flute.

BW: Yes. Correct.

CC: And are you in a band or anything?

BW: So I currently am the seating sectional leader for the Winnipeg Wind Ensemble. And so we were very lucky to be back in session this year and performed three regular season concerts. And we're just on leave now until August, we'll kick the season back up again.

CC: Oh, that is exciting. Thank you and welcome. Alex, can you please tell our listeners audience about your journey as well? Please?

AO: Yeah. Thanks for having us on, Chris. I'm currently an educator in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and I'm teaching grade 7/8 doing resource support right now. And my research is looking at the friendships between Indigenous and settler educators. So inviting them to come into a couple conversations together as friends to talk about how their relationship in the workplace might be playing a role in the work that we're doing with Indigenous student initiatives or decolonizing work that's happening in public education in Canada.

CC: I'm always amazed when people tell me about their master's programs and what they're studying or researching, and it never ceases to amaze me how incredible the research is done, and I'm looking forward to hearing some of the results from those. We'll get right into some of the questions because we want to sort of delve into this very hot topic right now. As a teacher myself, I see a lot of news feeds and read colleague posts about many amazing events and activities that are happening in our schools to celebrate inclusiveness and particularly Pride Month. There are many great teacher websites that help us with ideas and activities to promote Pride Month. The main message seems to always be the importance to begin any Pride Month activity with conversation about pride by opening up the floor for respectful and age-appropriate discussions where students have an opportunity to learn, understand, and emphasize with different perspectives and experiences. Engaging in Pride Month Conversations activities allows students to explore the significance of this commemoration for the 2SLGBTQ+ community. It creates a safe and inclusive space for students to ask questions and share their thoughts. They'll also gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and triumphs faced by this community. And to me, as a teacher, that is so important for all students to experience, and not just for the month of June. So our first question for both of you is, from your experience, what is the best way teachers can be an ally in their classrooms and beyond? So, Alex, could we start with you with your thoughts on that?

AO: Sure. I think if we're talking about in general, how teachers can best be allies right now, it's not just kind of standing up for a child when something wrong is said in class. It's actually just building in more queer and trans representation in your curriculum and using your opportunities to show those stories and celebrate those stories and consider the intersectionality of the queer community with race. And think about celebrating pride with acknowledging where it started and who started it. And when we're representing those stories that students can see themselves in it and that sometimes it's not just about pride. It can just be something like a short story where there's a queer character or a queer scientist when we're in different subjects. So I think those are ways that we can subtly embed queer representation in the classroom and find ways that aren't necessarily just this is why we're talking about this this month, to make sure that students feel that these are always going to be parts of the conversations we're having in a classroom. And not just because it's a celebratory month. And then we're going to kind of push it aside for the rest of the year.

CC: I love that, Alex, because one you started off with we're just we're not just standing up for a student when something goes wrong. This is an ongoing thing. So it's not just a Band-Aid solution. And I always talk about representation in stories that they're hearing. So seeing themselves in those stories so two great ways that we can be an ally. Beck, could you add to that?

BW: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think that trying to find ways that are authentic to the teacher and the subject is really important. So I'm glad that you brought that up, Alex, because I know, I know, initially when I was working in schools a lot of teachers would be like, well, this doesn't fit my curriculum. And so finding ways to show people that, yes, these topics do fit your curriculum. It can be more obvious in some subjects rather than others. But there's always ways to kind of input these narratives and these lived experiences into curriculum. It just requires a bit of work and so I think that that's always, not always, but sometimes the hard sell when you're asking people like, hey, why don't you redo this assessment piece that you have just to reword it, thinking more about gendered language? That can be a really simple way to edit things. Like even thinking about word problems in mathematics, like we don't have to use, we can get creative with names, we can get creative with pronouns and just making that very normalized and like, not a big deal. I think allows that conversation to be opened in a way that doesn't have to put a focus on, “We are talking about queer issues”. It just like I always like to say, like small adjustments in language will be seen by those who need to see it and will not be noticed by those who don't think they need it. And yeah, it just like it's one of those things that I keep, like I keep reminding myself and my peers who are questioning what they need to do. And it's I'm always asking them to reflect on themselves, reflect on how they connect with these topics, especially thinking about identity.

BW: I think that's a lot of like, cis white folks don't think about identity. They're just like, I get to live and exist, and that's cool. And it's like, well, you do actually have identity. You do actually connect with a lot of the ideas that we talk about when we're looking at developing a sense of identity, whether that's a queer one or not. And so I've often encouraged a lot of my colleagues to take that step, to start reflecting themselves on what makes them unique and different. And how that in itself can be a conversation starter or a way to connect with someone. Even if your identity is not queer. Yeah, I think about it like a lot of my female colleagues who don't do feminine in the way that like we expect feminine to be done and they don't see that as anything. They're just like, well, I'm just doing what I want to do. It's like, no, but you're actively doing something. You're actively disrupting a norm. And so being able to like kind of reflect on that and take ownership of that part of your identity, I think, helps them connect with their students who may be struggling or exploring with their identity. And whether that's a queer identity or not. I think that just taking that step to reflect yourself and have a narrative that you can, you can express, and you can share and to help foster those dialogues or at least help connect with peers that are looking for that, that kind of conversation and connection.

CC: I love that you. You both talked about authenticity and identity, which I think is so important. And your comment, I like your comment about it doesn't need to be forced into the curriculum. There's so many, like you said, small changes that can be made intelligent and purposeful changes that will provide that inclusivity. And that's what we're supposed to be doing anyways. So it's just a natural process of teaching. Thank you very much. That was great. My second question is, how do you create a safe space for queer youth in your classroom when the news is full of difficult stories like banning of gender affirming care for minors in different places in the United States and Beck could we start with you on that one?

BW: For sure. I think that this one has been a tough one. And I think every year that I've been teaching, I've run into some different struggles with this. And I think specifically like as a queer and trans teacher, I think people see me and be like, well, you just do that because you're just there. And while sometimes I think that's true, like obviously being visible in my job, I think is very important and I think does help create my classroom as an almost default safe space. But also, I've had to think really hard about how I talk with students who come to me and have questions and have issues and have things that they need to relate to me on. Because oftentimes I've found that I'm too close to these problems in order to, like, effectively help my students. And sometimes it's been hard to know when you can be honest and when you need to just kind of put your teacher face on and have to kind of create some distance between yourself and the student in front of you with a problem. And sometimes that means like being very supportive and then moving them on to a guidance counselor that can maybe support in supporting that student. If I'm not in a place where I'm able to do the most effective job, I think but yeah, I think this is a really tough one.

BW: We're really struggling in Winnipeg. We've had a lot of issues with queer teachers who are facing a lot of really difficult working environments for varieties of reasons. And I think, like, you see this like the amount of queer youth that are trying to support their queer teachers is like a very interesting, it's a very interesting relationship that's happening. And I think that's great. But also, I think it's complicated because in education, we, we do sort of set in stone these hierarchies of like teacher, student and then when we are both faced with issues that both people are finding issues with because like the gender affirming thing is not just affecting youth, it's affecting adults in Manitoba right now because of our health care crisis. And so, yeah, this is a really hard one. And I don't have an answer especially right now because I've just I've watched a lot of really hard things happen this year across my province and across my city. And that's where I really lean on, like, allies to start doing some work. And yeah, that's been really, really important.

CC: I loved your phrase default safe space. And I think that's something that more teachers would love to be able to classify themselves as a default safe space. I also like the fact that you don't express that you don't have to know everything. You are also a conduit to other resources, whether that's people or places or websites or books or whatever it is. So we don't have to know everything. But it's very important that we provide support for people that are looking for that safe space as well. That is awesome. Alex again. So how do we create a safe space for queer youth in our classrooms when all of this other stuff is coming down on them?

AO: Yeah. I mean, like Beck mentioned it's a really hard time to be, being inundated with this news every single day, coming from the States and also in Canada, there's lots of different issues happening, and maybe it seems a bit more of an undercurrent. But that's where it's scary is it's an undercurrent that's building and it's about to surface. And it has in a lot of ways as well, if you're paying attention. But I do think that. This news is difficult, but similar to topics that we've been really trying to address in the classrooms are hard conversations. They need to be addressed, they need to be acknowledged. Again, going back to kind of our last topic of being an ally to our students, if we're not talking about what's going on for one group in society, but we're talking about other groups, then they notice that. And I think finding ways to build empathy and starting where your class is at. So if you're in a, you know, if you feel like your class is in a good position to jump into this conversation in, like a respectful or like conjugal way, then for sure, go for it. I know not everyone is in that position, and I certainly am not where I teach. And I think bringing it into kind of perspective for the students first, like what injustice looks like, what that might look like for different groups in society. And because gender and sexuality have somehow become more contested in the past 5 to 10 years than they were before. I would say maybe even closer to the last, like five. I think this has become like a harder topic to talk about than it used to be. Like, I think we were getting somewhere for a while, and now it's almost used as a way to just cause controversy with no like sound reasoning behind it. So I think starting where your class is important. And then, you know, once we get to a point of, okay, they understand that, you know, this aspect of social justice is important. Now, let's just shift the group that we're talking about. How do you think that feels for them? And do you know, then you have open conversation about it or you have like smaller group conversations about it depending on the students. But I often find that exposing students to perspectives they're comfortable with before and building on, like the concept of empathy or understanding what other people are going through, or trying to understand what other people are going through is more helpful as a foundation when you're going into topics that some of them will identify with, but a lot of them won't.

AO: And I think that also creates a safer space for those queer and trans youth in your class if you're kind of building it up with a bit of a buffer. But, I mean like Beck said, it's a really hard time, and I think part of it is just acknowledging that it's hard and just encouraging students to hold space for their peers. And I think the other thing I wanted to kind of mention, in addition to what Beck was saying, is that when we're expected to do this work as queer educators. They're right, like, we really do need to be leaning on our allies. And when I think about my topic of research, which is friendship, that's why I think. Like working. Friendships are so important because you need those allies in the workplace. And yes, teaching is a pretty independent job and you're running your own classroom. But I have 100% needed to be able to rely on those people. And if I didn't have those people, I don't think I'd be in a school this year. So those friendships and those connections are really important, and making sure that leadership in schools are creating that tone with their staff is really, really crucial to teacher well-being as well.

CC: That's amazing. And you're even though we're answering these questions separately, we're coming up with very similar commentary and the messages that open lines of communication, those hard conversations. It's building empathy and talking about injustices and social injustices. And those are things that we're supposed to be teaching anyways at all the different grade levels. So by bringing in representation from many different groups, we will accomplish that in so many different ways. And I and I really like Alex, the fact that you talked about working relationships or working friendships and building those allies, because that is even though I know I've been teaching for 20 some odd years, teaching can be a solitary sport, but you need those colleagues. You need those friendships to really build yourself and continue on in the career. So thank you so much for bringing up those points. For some teachers, this topic is not in their comfort zone, but they want to provide opportunities for student discussion and conversation. So we have one final tradition on our podcast to have an exit question. So here it is. One final tip from both of you, and we want you to try to answer it in two sentences or less. Just a quick one. What advice would you give to a teacher who wants to be that important 2SLGBTQ+ ally for both students and colleagues, just the first step. What can we do? Beck, I'm going to let you start.

BW: I think the most important thing is do your research. You don't have to know anything or everything because you can't. But right now, we're in a position where there's lots of good research and lots of good information being disseminated by a lot of the school boards or by the provinces on the, on these topics and what you can do. And so doing your own research, I think, is a really good place to start.

CC: Awesome. And I'm going to break that down into two sentences, Beck and do your research. You don't need to know everything. Awesome. Alex, what do you got for us?

AO: And I would turn it the other way inward and say, really think about what privilege you might have in these settings and where you might have more space or capacity to be having hard conversations with colleagues and students.

CC: Love it, so pushing it also more towards the colleagues than just the students. We need those allies. Thank you so much both. This was absolutely amazing. I appreciate you sharing your expertise, your experience, and obviously your passion with us today. It's such an important topic and one that teachers want to learn more about so that they feel comfortable supporting their students and having these important and sometimes hard conversations in their classroom. So thank you, Beck, Thank you, Alex, for taking the time to be with us today.

AO: Thanks for having us. I really appreciate it.

BW: Yeah, thanks so much.

CC: That does it for another episode of Popular Pedagogy. Again, thank you to our amazing guests Beck Watt and Alex O'Leary. Josh, as always, where can our listeners subscribe to make sure they don't miss any of our Popular Podagogy podcasts?

Outro: Yeah, you can find this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the Faculty of Education website, and pretty much any other place you get your podcasts.

CC: Please don't forget to check out our Queen's Faculty of Education website and search for Popular Podagogy for additional resources and information on this important topic. Well, that's it from myself, Chris Carlton, and our incredibly talented and resourceful podcast team of Josh Vine and Erin York. Stay healthy, stay safe, and stay connected, and we will see you next time for another episode of Popular Podagogy.