Kansas City Teacher Joseph Schmidt
Teaching compassion in the classroom starts with accepting yourself
Joseph's road to coming out, finding community and building a confident career
June 25th, 2018

The freedom of coming out

My whole life, I’ve known I’m gay. One of my fondest memories as a kid was dressing up in a Princess Belle gown, makeup and all, and being the hit of one of my neighbor’s birthday parties (sorry, not sorry, for stealing your thunder). Of course, as time went on, I would become completely embarrassed that this ever happened in our heteronormative culture. 

At school, I would try and hide any part of my personality that is feminine for fear that someone may see who I really was. 

Through years of being called girly or a "fag," I was pushed further and further into the closet. I would blame my feminine mannerisms on having three older sisters, growing up with neighbors who identified as women, and “even a dog that’s a girl!” I lived in constant fear of being outed for 18 years of my life. I didn’t personally know anyone else who was a part of the LGBTQ+ community, so I never knew that it was okay for me to identify as gay until I went to college and was able to slowly undo years of damage. I was finally fully out of the closet at the age of 20.

Finding community in Kansas City

I have always wanted to make a difference in the lives of people around me. Because I know what it feels like to hide who I am, I enjoy standing up for people and helping those around me who are in need.

My interest in teaching began in high school when I volunteered with an after-school program for students on the autism spectrum. I found a passion in teaching others with compassion and empathy in college extracurriculars and my study in the arts. I channeled this desire through a Studio Art major with a minor in psychology—and, later, by joining Teach for America in Kansas City to begin my career.

As a teacher in a new city, I was able to start fresh and be fully myself as a gay man. I was excited to discover all of the different supports that TFA and Kansas City had to offer to someone like me. Through TFA, I joined an “affinity space” where other educators within the LGBTQ+ community come together and talk about our lives, struggles and opportunities within the classroom. 

My school was extremely supportive, and I have found true friends in my coworkers who care deeply about me and who support my identity. 

I’ve found the city to be welcoming, with various LGBTQ+ community groups. Finally, I began to feel fully accepted for who I am everywhere I went, except for one place.

Being 'out' at school

I wasn’t out to my students as a teacher—and I think that is okay, and I didn’t feel any pressure to be during my first year. I was scared to share that part of my identity with middle schoolers who might say offensive things about people’s identities without even knowing it. I was scared my students would think of me as a lesser person because of my sexuality. As a new teacher, I wasn’t comfortable enough to add that factor to the equation, especially while still learning the basics of teaching, classroom management and curriculum. 

I've reflected on my 18 years of questioning my feelings, how I've interacted with others, of my own existence on this earth.

If I had known just one teacher who I could share that part of my identity with, I know I would have felt a lot less of an outsider.

Our job as educators is to create an inclusive classroom for all students. Teachers all over the world go to the ends of the earth to make sure their students feel loved and accepted in the classroom. Yet, students who identify as a part of the LGBTQ+ community have more difficulty finding educators who share their identity, and therefore do not feel like they belong. 

I felt like it was my duty as an educator part of the LGBTQ+ community to be out to my students—not only for those who might identify as part of that community, but for everyone as an example of a successful and happy gay man. But I haven't come out on the timeline I initially set. I've been scared, worried my students wouldn't think of me in the same way, and disappointed in myself for not owning who I am. I have shared other parts of myself, and in time will share my full self.

The opportunity we have