To commemorate Pride Month, Conquer Life is highlighting different members of the LGBTQ community who live their lives openly and inspirationally. I sat down with Chicago educatorMitchel Meighen to talk about what this month means to him, his career as a teacher, and what has changed now since he grew up.
Q: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me! What made you want to teach?
A: So I had a really positive experience growing up through late elementary school and middle school. I connected with my teacher’s in 6th, 7th and 8th grade, and knew by then I wanted to pursue education. So I went to school for education. I wanted to teach middle school, but ended up teaching 11th grade at first. I taught high school for 5 years, and then I transitioned to middle school when I moved to Chicago. I just finished my 8th year of teaching–5 in high school, 3 in middle school.
Q: What subjects have you taught?
A: High school English, SAT prep classes, journalism classes, 6th-8th grade science, and nowI’m a STEM instructional coach–where I work with teachers in their classroom, rather than my own classroom.
Q: And what made you want to teach the middle school age range? Why do you think you connected with teachers at that age?
A: I think it’s those years when kids are figuring things out. They are old enough that they can have real conversations, but young enough that school is still kind of fun for them. It’s easier to build relationships and connect with students.
Q: And where are you from originally?
A: Pittsburgh.Q: With it being Pride Month, what can you say you do in the classrooms you’ve been in to promote inclusivity and tolerance? How do you foster this environment?
A: I’m currently in a K-8 school without a dedicated classroom. When I was in the classroom, I had lots of stuff hanging up–Pride flags, a rainbow name tag I wear. I started a Gay Straight Alliance at my past school–a student run organization for LGBTQ students and their allies. They do advocacy, fundraising and social things together. I started that and I want to support the on eat the school I’m at currently. Outside of that, just advocating across the district. I’m on a leadership committee for all of Chicago Public Schools that basically works on LGBTQ policies and we do focus groups with kids–talking with them to see what they need to feel supported. It's pretty much an all encompassing support group that’s made up of 20 teachers across the district.
Q: What type of LGBTQ discrimination have you noticed in the classrooms you’ve worked in? How can teachers work against discrimination in their classrooms?
A: Honestly, I haven’t seen much of that in CPS. I feel like CPS is really committed to diversity overall, and they really do put a focus on that in terms of education for the kids. Aside from that,I think kids are more connected and understand more about people being different. They are even able to talk about it to each other, way more than I grew up. They are just so much better well versed in LGBT issues, and with tolerance and acceptance and knowing that peers are different. That’s not to say people still don’t get teased for being different, but it’s far different than it used to be. They can talk about pronouns, and why that’s important – they can talk about different parts of queer identities.
Q: What have you noticed has changed, being a member of the LGBT community, since when you grew up?
A: In terms of visibility, a lot of teachers are more connected and looking to create safer spaces, for all terms of identities–but especially queer identities. In terms of posters, or rainbow name tags, I can’t think of one single thing like that when I grew up–from elementary, middle and high school to college. And now at the school I’m at, for pride month there are pride flags everywhere, a rainbow balloon arch in the hallway...teacher’s have things on their doors that kids have made [for Pride]. You can walk everywhere right now and see streamers or informational posters. I think teachers are more committed to making it normalized, with books and discussions, that kind of thing.
Q: What kind of, if any, discrimination did you face growing up in Pittsburgh?
A: Definitely getting teased a lot, getting called derogatory names. That coupled with not having any visibility or having anyone to talk to about it–also having no education about it made it difficult in the area that I grew up in. I grew up in a pretty affluent, predominantly white suburb where everyone was very white picket fence and there wasn’t any diversity whatsoever, in any sense of the term. Definitely some harassment, bullying and teasing.Q: And as a teacher yourself (and being outside of the classroom now), why do you think it’s so important to have LGBTQIA teachers in the classroom for students to see as they grow up?
A: For one, because some parents are just awful and a teacher at school might be the only connection that that student has because their parents aren’t going to be supportive in any capacity if they are identifying with the LGBT community in some way. 2, just because it gives students language and understanding to define certain feelings they are feeling during the years they are developing and coming to terms with all different parts of their identities. For me, I know
the feelings I had growing up, and I had no way to talk about them or know what they were. I think it’s important for kids to talk about it more and understand that part of themselves.
Q: How do you look out for students’ and their mental health in classrooms you’ve been in?
A: For me it was always just connecting with students, talking with them, making them know that my class is just one part of their day. I understand some of them have younger siblings they take care of or they go home and their parents aren’t there because they are working late. One assignment, paper or project is just a part of our class–there is no need to feel overwhelmed. encourage them to stay in touch with me if they are facing problems, if they are having an issue or can’t get something done in class so I can support them in whatever way.
Q: One last question, how are you celebrating Pride this month?
A: I’ve traveled a little bit. I went to Pride in my home town in Pittsburgh. I have friends coming to celebrate here in Chicago. Other than that, some advocacy and fundraising donations. I work at a restaurant that’s a queer space, so they do fundraising as well. Some work with that as well. You can check out Mitchel on Instagram at @mr_meighen.
Conquer Life is a media company and online community established in 2019 with an app that features resources, daily affirmations, talks on mental health, documentaries and much more. Check out conquerlifeco.com for more info.