Staley, Sara, and Bethy Leonardi. “Leaning In to Discomfort: Preparing Literacy Teachers for Gender and Sexual Diversity.” Research in the Teaching of English 51.2 (2016): 209-29. Print.
Sara Staley and Bethy Leonardi present the results of a literacy methods course for preservice English language arts teacher in which practices for supporting LGBTQ students were foregrounded. The authors argue that the “disturbing number of lives lost in recent years among youth who identified or were perceived to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning” demands attention from educators who have failed to address “the resounding silence around gender and sexual diversity (GSD) . . . that has long pervaded teacher education” (209). The authors contend that LGBTQ students often report feeling that “school was often an unsafe place” (209). Staley and Leonardi discuss the results of a curriculum designed to help novice teachers make their classrooms more welcoming to such students.
The course was piloted in Fall 2012 and the study conducted during the Spring 2013 semester at a large public university in the Mountain West (214). Students in the course were about to commence student teaching (215). Primary data consisted of transcripts of
“two whole-class fishbowl conversations” conducted during weeks 4 and 16, and a blog that students began working with in week 4 (216). The researchers provided specific prompts for the blog. Of the seventeen students in the course, sixteen agreed to participate; three were eliminated as data sources because they contributed only minimally in the assigned venues, so eleven who self-identified as female and two who self-identified as male participated (215).
The researchers, both doctoral students, co-designed the course and the study (215). Staley was the “lead instructor” and Leonardi a “participant observer in three class sessions” as well as a facilitator of various components of the course (215).
The analytic framework for the course and study involved a “queer theoretical perspective on the problem of heteronormativity in schools” that urges teachers to disrupt dominant assumptions that sexuality functions as a binary in which heterosexuality is normal and other forms of sexual identification are deviant (211). The authors contend that such an approach is preferable to standard anti-bullying programs that “locate the problem in individuals, rather than in institutional practices that encourage bullying and oppress on the basis of sex, gender, and sexuality” (212). Staley and Leonardi combine this approach with that of Kevin K. Kumashiro, who casts anti-oppression education in terms of “desire, resistance, and crisis” (213, italics original) and of Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, who encourages “leaning in” as a way of overcoming the resistance that can derail the process of “unlearning” long-held views about topics like sexuality (222; italics original). The authors define “leaning in” as “a moving toward discomfort, rather than away from it, and inquiry into what can be learned from such energetic responses as emotional pain, fear, and discomfort” (223).
These analytical perspectives led Staley and Leonardi to focus on manifestations of emotion in their data, as well as reactions to the course’s emphasis on the role of teachers in disrupting heteronormativity (217). They identified emotional responses as “discomfort,” “desire to disrupt,” and “desire to resist.” A recurrent theme in students’ responses involved “how” to further GSD-inclusive curricula; this marker was labeled “wrestling with praxis.” As a result of this coding, students were categorized as “dedicated disrupters,” “discomforted,” and “resistors” (217; italics original). The discussion centers on the “discomforted” because this group of eight students exhibited significant changes during the course (218).
The emotional shifts experienced by the discomforted students began with “shock,” “incredulity,” and “disbelief” as they confronted claims in the course readings that school environments were not uniformly progressive and that teachers were often not protected when they attempted to incorporate anti-oppressive curricula on GSD issues (218-19). The students became aware of their own lack of knowledge about responses to LGBTQ concerns in schools and the failure of their own educations as preservice teachers to address these concerns (219). The beginning teachers’ own experiences in grappling with classroom incidents in which they did not know how to disrupt heteronormative oppression led to a shift to “wrestling with praxis” as they began to search for viable tools to protect students (220).
Staley and Leonardi report that these searches and discussions led to positive results as discomforted students in their class began to be able to articulate “specific examples of actionable steps that literacy teachers could take to disrupt heteronormativity,” including recognizing the need to move beyond simply including LGBTQ-themed literature in the classroom (221). The authors note, however, that this increasing practical grounding did not alleviate the students’ sense that there were no simple solutions or “path[s]” they could consistently follow but rather that learning to address oppressive behavior in the classroom was a matter of “ongoing labor” (Kumashiro, qtd. in Staley and Leonardi 222).
The authors provide two examples of students who responded to the emotional crisis generated by unlearning familiar assumptions by “leaning In” to their discomfort. These two students “each began to frame their discomfort as generative and necessary—not as something to be resolved, once and for all” (222). These two responses emphasized the importance of considering mistakes as ways to move forward and of recognizing fear in challenging situations as a necessary component of acting in circumstances where there will never be clear answers (223-24).
Noting that language-arts teachers are especially well-positioned to bring GSD concerns into curricula, the authors call for a deliberate focus on these concerns in teacher education (224), so that teachers have tools that allow them to “move beyond inclusion” to active resistance to heteronormative agendas (224). They note that their own curriculum might have productively incorporated awareness of the necessary emotional journey in their course framework, recognizing and “celebrat[ing]” early “glimmers of leaning in” (225; emphasis original). Student teachers, they argue, will benefit from learning a greater “tolerance for discomfort, uncertainty, and ambiguity” (225). Further, they encourage efforts to engage prospective teachers whose cultural values, for example religious views, make grappling with GSD issues even more problematic than for others (225). The authors endorse the concept of leaning in to discomfort as a way to draw preservice teachers into the “ongoing labor” of anti-oppressive education.