Unconditional positive regard

The night before I started teaching 7th grade English in a public school for the first time, a professor offered me some advice. She said that teaching is a long game. You have these students with you every day for nine months, and your goal should always be to hold them in “unconditional positive regard,” or else you’re going to have a long year.

Eleven years later, that value still guides my teaching.

“Unconditional positive regard” is not always easy when teaching middle school, as anyone who has spent time with a middle school student can tell you. While tweens and teens are often reduced to the simple term, “HORMONES,” I believe it’s something more: Students are exploring their identity in the world, and doing so while lacking long-term life experience.

That which appears small to adults with context for heartbreak, friendship and struggle, can seem enormous to teens experiencing it for the first time. They are loving and vulnerable while on the verge of thinking that every adult is an idiot, but they also sneak hugs and show me their art, and are some of the most delightful humans I have ever known.

This school year, my goal of holding students in unconditional positive regard was the hardest yet, due to harassment I faced as a result of my sexuality. Students found out that I was gay when a former student posted a photo of me and my partner online. It became fodder for campus conversation. Memes were made and posts were written online, and like every bit of hot gossip for teens, it spread like wildfire. In November 2017, I started getting comments on the YouTube channel I had to make for my Master’s Degree work. The behavior escalated to in-person comments and whispers that made doing my job exceptionally challenging.

Though it was tempting to dig and find exactly what was being said, I took the advice of my professor and did my best to be able to continue to hold my students in unconditional positive regard. I asked for help from my administrators.

That support did not come. At first I was surprised, but then again, these were the administrators who had not permitted me to hang a GLSEN “Safe Space” poster up in my classroom because it made my principal “uncomfortable” because of what conservative parents might think.

How sad is it that we are now in a place where acknowledging the humanity of others and their need for safety is less important than people feeling “comfortable” with what that might mean?

It speaks to a larger, deeper issue with society. We have lost our unconditional positive regard for one another. The humanity of seeing others as worth our time and efforts to keep them in a positive light is gone. Rather, we cling to and claw at our differences.

My experience has been referred to as “bullying,” but let’s call it what it is: workplace harassment.

I have no anger toward students. Teenagers need to be taught right from wrong and guided to do better. What I am frustrated by is the lack of support from adults tasked with doing that guiding.

A wall decoration in Amy Estes’s classroom. [Photo by Amy Estes.]

We have all undoubtedly heard that teachers need to be paid more. As an educator for the past 11 years, what I can tell you is that, perhaps more than money, we need respect and trust. Teachers have been reduced to caricatures. For every teacher hailed for positive actions like creating special handshakes with each kid, and for every predator who uses their power to violate students’ rights, there are millions of educators who do their best every day. They show up early and stay late, quietly reply to emails late into the night so math homework can be done and essays can be written, spend their money on markers and faithfully deliver curriculum to kids, day in and day out.

The pressure most educators feel is astronomical. We are damned if we assign homework and damned if we don’t advance children quickly enough for test scores to demonstrate growth. My credential, my years of schooling, my experience and my master’s degree are all subject to scrutiny by people who have spent zero hours in a classroom.

I don’t believe all teachers behave perfectly, but I do know that 99 percent of my colleagues are kind, decent people who got into this profession because they love kids. In recent years, the expectations have skyrocketed, and now we are expected to protect students in case of a serious emergency, with no regard for the family, friends and lives that we would be leaving behind.

Where is the unconditional positive regard for the people entrusted with protecting and loving our nation’s kids every single day?

One criticism of me in this experience is the assertion that I “pushed [my] views on students.” This speaks to the experience I’ve described. Where is the trust in me as a professional that I am aware of my role and what is appropriate? I never made the choice to come out to my students. I watched in silence as my heterosexual co-workers celebrated marriages and shared photos of their spouses and children, knowing that the risk I would be taking by sharing my own life was too great.

Acceptance for members of the LGBTQIA+ community is surface at best. Yes, we have Pride and corporations who make billions on rainbow-themed items. Marriage equality is the law of the land in America. And yet, people refuse to make us wedding cakes and demand that our relationships be “kept out of their face.” They don’t believe that we are qualified to adopt children.

As a white, cisgender woman, I would be remiss to not check my own privilege. Trans women of color are killed at higher rates than any other class of people. Even in a marginalized community, I acknowledge that I am one of the lucky ones. But still, my having a picture of my partner, or mentioning the monotony of our life together — something I never did — has been treated as if I were offering a “how-to” course in the gay lifestyle, rather than just affording me the privilege that is automatically granted to my heterosexual co-workers.

Yes, gay rights have progressed — at least on a basic level. We can get married and most people don’t openly denigrate gay people in mixed company. Unfortunately, the quiet bigotry many cling to is even more incendiary.

It’s the people who are “tolerant” that make me the saddest because they think that just by keeping it quiet, they are being good people. They believe that, just because they aren’t being outwardly unkind, their prejudice doesn’t matter. The old biblical adage of “love the sinner, hate the sin” eloquently sums this up. Sure, you might think I’m okay as a person — save for a fundamental part of the foundation of who I am. That’s not love at all.

Many people hold us at arm’s length, hiding behind a guise of religion or a polite smile that quickly shifts to disgust when pushed, true colors becoming visible the minute they feel slightly uncomfortable at the idea of others living a life that is different than their own.

Again I ask, where is our unconditional positive regard, even when we are uncomfortable? Especially when we are uncomfortable?

I acknowledge my privilege. I have access to health care, medication, and therapy, as well as a strong support system, all of which I used to buoy myself during this time. After watching me break down multiple times about how I no longer felt comfortable in my classroom, a place I once excelled, my therapist pulled me from work so I could heal and regroup.

The months I have spent at home have not been easy. I love being a teacher, and being away from a profession that fuels me, the colleagues I consider friends and a daily routine was a challenge. I found solace in writing, in my pets and in stand-up comedy — creative outlets saved me from my own brain. Turning the darkness I endured to light (or at least some really weird jokes) kept me afloat.

Upon hearing that I was on leave, I’ve been called a professional victim, a snowflake, an immature adult who needs to “get it together” and innumerable insults designed to take aim at the fact that the continued harassment got to me. If being sensitive to others and willing to care for myself makes me those things, I’m willing to take that on.

My primary concern in all of this has been students. The aforementioned insults have been hurled by adults, many of them parents.

What do these students learn when they see this behavior?

I wonder what the students in my classroom, particularly those who are members of the LBGTQIA+ community, or those who love someone who is, thought as they watched this situation. What message do they receive when they see that administration isn’t willing to protect an adult? I doubt that it made them more likely to discuss their own needs and struggles. What about when they hear that tolerating others is enough, or that people with mental health struggles are weak?

Statistics show that teen suicide rates are rising, and according to The Trevor Project, LGBTQIA+ teens are five times more likely to attempt suicide when compared with heterosexual youth.

Most parents I know would do anything for their kids: keep them safe, love them unconditionally, support them through anything. Teenagers are sponges. They are watching you. What messages are they getting when they see this behavior? If you think it’s anything other than a lack of respect for others that could easily be extended to them for their own struggles and weaknesses, then I’m sorry to say that you are wrong.

When teens see this behavior in the adults they admire, they absorb and imitate it, and apply it to themselves.

We must find unconditional positive regard for everyone, or else these years we share together in our country and on our planet are going to be really long.

Are you showing the world unconditional positive regard? If not, can you really say that you’re demonstrating that to teenagers?


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Amy Estes
Amy Estes is a comedian, writer and educator. When she's not on stage telling jokes or teaching, you can find her obsessing over true crime podcasts and TV shows, snuggling with her dogs, drinking coffee or hanging out with her partner in her home of East Sacramento.

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