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 LGBT youth. At the event in New York later this month, one of the role models we're recognizing is Amber Schweitzer, a teacher at Castle View High School in Castle Rock, Colo., who is GLSEN's Educator of the Year.
We spoke with Amber, who teaches yoga, adventure, dance and health, about what motivates her as an educator and what suggestions she has for for creating an inclusive curriculum, leading a new GSA and using GLSEN resources. Check out what our Educator of the Year has to say!
1. Why did you decide to become an educator?
I haven't been asked this question since I started teaching 18 years ago! My WHY: I have always wanted to make an impact. I have never wanted fame, but I do want to be "that one teacher" who sparks the passion inside of students and creates the desire to discover things about themselves and to be comfortable with who they are. Looking back at my very first "Teacher Philosophy," I wanted to make a difference in the health and mental well-being of students who can benefit from guidance.
2. What do you love most about being an educator?
I love a lot of things about being an educator. But what I love most is reaching those students who seem unreachable.
That boy who failed my class last year because he only showed up five times...well, he's back. This time, he is two days out of juvenile detention center. He is refusing to participate, but I tell him I'm glad to see him every day he comes to class. Then, I sit and talk with him during class for nearly 45 minutes. I listened to what he experienced, asked a few questions and told him how amazing I think he is for having such a mature perspective.
Now, that boy who failed is the boy who asks me about my kids and hugs me every time he leaves class. Everyone told me, "Good luck with him!" Well, I reached him. I found that spark and created that connection, and I know I'm "that teacher" for him.
I find that I usually have a couple of students like this in each class, and I love making that connection! These connections drive me to spring out of bed in the morning, so I can be with my students.
3. How do you incorporate lessons of respect in your curriculum?
Respect is the foundation of every lesson I teach.
My primary responsibility at Castle View is to teach and develop the yoga program. Each yoga workout is themed, and the title of each workout sets a cue for each student's intention. The themes are rooted in respect and self-empowerment. For example, the very first workout is "Perfect, Just the Way You Are." During the warm-up, I affirm that each person is perfect just the way they are, encourage them to give themselves permission to be perfect just the way they are, and respect that every individual around them is also perfect just the way they are.
Then, as we move into the workout, the music also supports the theme: P!nk's "Perfect," Nirvana's "Come as You Are," and Boyce Avenue's cover of "Just the Way You Are." The music seems to empower and inspire the theme while opening the students up to the vulnerable state of accepting themselves and others. After final relaxation, which, of course, matches the theme, the students leave class with a little more respect for themselves and for everyone else in their life.
4. What is the number one lesson you hope students take away from your classes?
The most important lesson I hope my students learn in my class is acceptance of self. I would love to expand that to acceptance of others, and for many students, it comes naturally when they learn to accept themselves. I am so fortunate to have the class load to present this self-acceptance curriculum.
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 am fortunate to be at a school that celebrates individuality. However, even in an inclusive environment, we do struggle with finding equality. Castle View is currently in the beginning stages of introducing unisex restrooms. As a physical education teacher, I deal with the issue of appropriate locker room use for our transgender and gender non-conforming students. We do offer a safe, non-gender-specific restroom for students who do not feel comfortable selecting a locker room to use while dressing out for physical education classes
6. What advice do you have for educators trying to build their schools’ GSAs?
As an educator who is only a couple of years into building a GSA, I am also open to any suggestions! My experience with building a GSA included finding a couple of passionate students who recruited friends, starting several social media platforms to let the school know we are here, and gaining the support of our administration. Now, it's just a matter of being visible and listening to the GSA members to set goals, advocate, socialize, and educate. We are just starting to grow—from the two members we had last year to over 30 members this year. And we have hopes of reaching even more!
We strive to value all genders and sexualities in our group, so every member knows that they are important to us as an individual, regardless of their gender or sexuality. What we have in common brought us together, and our individual strengths make us great!
7. What tips do you have for educators trying to create an inclusive curriculum?
I challenge each and every educator to begin with the practice of opening their minds and spending a few moments in their students' shoes. It is only from multiple perspectives that we can truly embrace each student. Post affirming messages around your teaching area that create an expectation of equality and inclusivity. And, most importantly, put a stop to any bullying you witness. The common belief among students is that teachers need to be the first to step in with their expectations of respect for each individual.
8. What GLSEN resources have you used, and how have you used them?
GLSEN is an endless resource! We have used several GLSEN resources and have plans to involve more. Our GSA is currently developing a Local School Climate Survey to analyze the needs of our student population. Our GSA is registered with GLSEN, and we use their regular GSA emails to find inspiration for projects and events and to make a connection to the greater LGBTQ community that thrives all over our country.
This year, our greatest impact came from our participation in GLSEN's Day of Silence. We had 216 students and two teachers take vows of silence! We also posted over 100 selfies for silence on social media with a very interactive lunchtime activity that was promoted by our GSA and administration.
Also, I recently joined the GLSEN Educator Network and have already been inspired by so many of the topics and ideas that are shared.