Learning to Train Surf
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I always knew I’d be a kindergarten teacher. While feeling “called” to be a teacher isn’t a new phenomenon, it was unusual for a boy like me when less than 3 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers are male (BLS 2022). Although I eventually left the classroom to become a teacher educator, my 10 years as a kindergarten teacher in Boston shaped who I am in ways I’m still realizing. In this essay, I share how my perceptions of my students’ capabilities—and my own—were deeply influenced by my identity as a White, gay, cis male from a rural college town. I believe stories like this can inspire others to unpack their own identities, challenge deficit perspectives, and learn to see young children’ capabilities.
Before Becoming a Teacher
I grew up in Storrs, Connecticut. For those unfamiliar with Storrs, “rural college town” is the best way to describe it. It’s home to The University of Connecticut, which is home to more than 200 cows (UConn Department of Animal Science, n.d.). If you’re driving through town and turn in any direction, you’ll soon be winding through heavily wooded areas scattered with centuries-old stone walls and open fields with farm animals grazing in the sunlight.
In elementary school, my classmates and I took frequent field trips to local destinations like the town dam, the newspaper, and various state parks. We were shuttled there effortlessly by bus. Like me, most of my classmates and their families were White. They were also accepting—while most rural communities in the United States tend to be conservative when it comes to issues of identity and sexual orientation (Parker et al. 2018), I felt (for the most part) very accepted when I came out as gay in high school.
I moved to Massachusetts for college to pursue a teaching degree. After several field placements in Brockton, Massachusetts, during my teacher education program, it became clearer to me where I wanted to eventually teach. Brockton is considered “urban” and predominantly serves children of color (USCB 2022), with most households qualifying for affordable housing (Metropolitan Area Planning Council, n.d.). Brockton felt very different from Storrs, but the students’ eagerness and their teachers’ and families’ commitment to their success were the same. My love for Brockton led me to my dream job teaching kindergarten in Boston after I graduated from college.
The school that hired me is near many of Boston’s amenities (museums, public transportation, world-class hospitals), and like Brockton, serves a diverse demographic of children in terms of race, language, abilities, and socioeconomic status. Though I felt my field experiences and lifelong commitment to being a kindergarten teacher prepared me to be successful, there were frequently moments in which I felt inadequate.
Navigating First-Year Challenges and Fears
I’d been teaching less than three months when all of Boston’s kindergarten classes got a free field trip to the New England Aquarium. At our grade level meeting, I asked about coordinating buses. My colleagues, looking puzzled, said, “Dave, we’re taking the train. It’s free for kids. Buses are expensive.” My heart sank. How would I transport 22 kindergartners between school and the aquarium safely? Growing up in a town without public transportation, every experience I had with field trips included buses. To me, a bus was the only safe mode of transportation for field trips. Without one, we’d have to cross busy streets, take escalators, mind the gap between the platform and the train, transfer to the train that stops at the aquarium, then do it all in reverse on the return trip. The layers of my identity made me feel I had to prove to other adults that I was a safe and capable kindergarten teacher. My perception of their lack of confidence in me got in my head and made me terrified I would lose a student or that someone would interrogate me on the train. I didn’t sleep the night before the field trip.
I think most teachers feel overwhelmed during their first year of teaching. I was no exception. A lot of my feelings stemmed from typical first-year experiences: I still had so much to learn! I felt challenged by classroom management, tentative about connecting with families, and unsure about how to lead 22 5-year-olds from one part of the school to another without losing anyone. I was terrified of field trips.
My identity and its layers brought nuance to all of these challenges. For example, an administrator encouraged me to take my earrings out. At the time, I believed they wanted to protect me from being perceived negatively by families. Looking back, I realize that being perceived negatively meant being perceived as gay. I always asked my female colleagues to watch me help my kindergartners button their pants when they came out of the bathroom (something kindergarten teachers need to do constantly) while my female colleagues never asked anyone to watch them. The extra precautions I felt compelled to take were directly linked to my identity as a gay man. Being male made me feel that I was perceived as “abnormal” for wanting to work with young children, and being gay made me feel I would be seen as “unsafe.”
These are not uncommon concerns among LGBTQIA+ teachers. Survey data from 2007 to 2011, my first four years of teaching, revealed that “over half [of LGBTQIA+ educators] felt their jobs were at risk if they were out to students” (Wright, n.d.). Additionally, I was concerned that being White and from Storrs would deepen people’s negative perceptions of me by minimizing my lifelong dream of being a kindergarten teacher to nothing more than a “White savior” complex.
As a brand-new teacher, it was hard to disprove these perceptions with any semblance of confidence. As a way to cope, I convinced myself that other people’s negative perceptions of me could help me better understand my students’ marginalization. I know now that this is quite naïve, particularly because many aspects of my identity (White, cis male) grant me effortless privilege that most of the children in my class did not have. Further, I failed to see how my own experiences as a kindergartner in Storrs influenced my beliefs about my students’ capabilities. Though with time I was able to prove I was a safe and good teacher to myself and others, these additional hurdles related to my identity complicated my induction.
Learning to Train Surf
The morning of the trip arrived, and with a giant bag of snacks, juice boxes, hand sanitizer, Epi-pens, and inhalers, I walked my students to the train station. We made it across the street, down the escalator, and onto the train. I stood holding a pole and facing the front of the train so I could watch the children in their seats. Every time the train stopped, I flailed back and forth like an inflatable tube-man at a used car dealership—my giant bag hindering my balance.
After a couple of stops and near tumbles, one of the children said, “Mr. Barry, you gotta train surf.” He stood up as the train moved. I started to stop him, fearing he’d fall and provide “evidence” to everyone on the train who might believe I couldn’t keep children safe. But before I could say anything, he turned his body toward the train doors and held the pole with me, shifting his weight left and right with the movements of the train. I turned my stance from facing the front of the train to face the doors just like he showed me. “Train surfing” allowed me stand and ride the train without stumbling because I could shift my weight from side to side with the train’s movements. All I had to do to see my students was turn my head to the side. I remember looking around and seeing all of the children sitting safely with their friends. We made it to and from the aquarium and had a wonderful trip.
This experience taught me that I’d been completely wrong about my children’s abilities to navigate the city safely. My deficit thinking came from my own experiences as a child in Storrs who always took a bus for field trips. Unlike me, my kindergartners had been riding the train their whole lives and knew exactly what to do. Further, I proved to myself that I, a gay White male from Storrs, was a safe and capable teacher despite whatever perceptions others might have had of me. Over the years, I was blessed with many more opportunities to be amazed by children’s capabilities and to disprove the negative perceptions I had been so afraid of about LGBTQIA+ teachers.
When I tell this story in my teacher education courses, I connect it to Moll and colleagues’ funds of knowledge, which “refer to [the] historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being” (1992, 133). My kindergartners grew up developing the skills to navigate Boston in ways I hadn’t. This led to a real “aha” moment about the importance of learning to seek children’s funds of knowledge to avoid deficit perspectives. I have my college students help me brainstorm questions I could have asked about my kindergartners’ abilities rather than making deficit assumptions. For example, leading up to the field trip, I could have asked:
- Has anyone ever taken the train before?
- If you’ve been to the aquarium before, how did you get there?
- How do people ride trains safely?
Our identity is inextricably tied to how we see and experience the world. It is therefore inevitable that our identities are also tied to the teacher we become and how we respond to our students. As such, I encourage preservice teachers to reflect on how their identities and schooling experiences influence what they believe about the capabilities of the children they teach. Did they grow up in a rural college town like me and now teach in a city? Or did they grow up in a city and now teach in the suburbs? Is this their first experience working cross-culturally? Questions like these ultimately matter a great deal when preparing developing teachers for entering classrooms and communities that are different from those they experienced.
Looking back, I wonder if my first year of teaching would have been different if I’d been less concerned about how others perceived me. For this reason, I encourage the preservice teachers I work with now to reject negative perceptions of their identities; it’s already hard enough to develop confidence as a new teacher. Perhaps I would have changed some people’s perceptions about LGBTQIA+ teachers if I’d taught others to see my own funds of knowledge, just like my kindergartners taught me to see theirs when they taught me to train surf.
Photographs © Getty Images
Copyright © 2023 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
BLS (US Bureau of Labor Statistics). 2022. “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey.” https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat11.htm.
Metropolitan Area Planning Council. n.d. “Basic Housing Needs Assessment for Brockton, MA.” Accessed July 26, 2023. housing.ma/brockton/report.
Moll, L., C. Amanti, D. Neff, & N. Gonzalez. 1992. “Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using a Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Classrooms.” Theory Into Practice XXXI (2): 132–41.
Parker, K., J.M. Horowitz, A. Brown, R. Fry, D. Cohn, et al. 2018. “Urban, Suburban, and Rural Residents’ Views on Key Social and Political Issues.” Pew Research Center. pewresearch.org/social-trends/2018/05/22/urban-suburban-and-rural-residents-views-on-key-social-and-political-issues
UConn Department of Animal Science. n.d. “Visit the UConn Animal Barns.” Accessed July 26, 2023. animalscience.cahnr.uconn.edu/animal-barns.
USCB (US Census Bureau). 2022. “QuickFacts: Storrs CDP, Connecticut.” census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/storrscdpconnecticut/AGE295222.
Wright, T. n.d. “LGBTQ Educators: What We Know and What They Need.” GLSEN. Accessed July 26, 2023. glsen.org/blog/lgbtq-educators-what-we-know-and-what-they-need.
David P. Barry, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Early and Middle Grades Education at West Chester University. David has taught pre-K and kindergarten and has served as a teaching fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He would like to thank Dr. Maleka Donaldson for her support on this piece.