Education Visionaries in Edmonton is a series of articles highlighting educators whose passion for their work, dedication to their students, and desire for innovation are invaluable to the growth of Edmontonians and our city as a whole. By conveying multiple perspectives from leaders in a diverse array of educational fields, The Wanderer hopes to illustrate the intrinsically valuable nature of learning, and celebrate the admirable art of teaching.
Melinda McNie is an education facilitator for the Institute of Sexual Minority Studies and Services (ISMSS). She has a Bachelor of Physical Education Degree and Master’s Degree in Educational Psychology from the University of Alberta. After teaching and counselling in schools for over 30 years, she started working with the ISMSS fYrefly in Schools program, a peer-to-peer educational workshop aimed at reducing homophobic and transphobic discrimination in schools and communities. LGBTQ* and allied student peers lead activity-based and student-centred workshops in junior high and high school classrooms with the support of teachers, community leaders and educators. During our interview, Melinda explained, “In all ways, fYrefly in Schools is promoting leadership, both with the students who come and present, and also the students in the classrooms we visit…I get to witness that. I believe in these kids.” The opportunity to celebrate Melinda’s work as a warrior for LGBTQ* rights in the public education system is an honour and privilege.
Claire: Why did you become a teacher?
Melinda: I’ve always been teaching. You could say I started teaching when I was five. I had kids in my basement and we would pretend to be in school. I have a younger sister and I always wanted her to be the principal because I thought they didn’t do anything. I said, “You can lick stamps and sit in your office but I want to teach.” I’ve been teaching a long time; it’s my calling. It’s the best job.
Claire: Can you talk about your approach to teaching?
Melinda: Whenever possible as a teacher I’ve tried to be a guide-on-the-side rather than a sage-on-the-stage. You can guide youth to where they want to learn and then the rest looks after itself. For phys ed, so many of the classes I taught were with girls who didn’t want to be there. Being in phys ed meant being judged for how good you were, and that’s an awkward time of your life, when you’re changing and everything. I wanted to help them find what they enjoyed doing to stay somewhat fit and take care of their bodies.
Claire: When did you first want to start a GSA?
Melinda: I first tried to start a GSA when I was teaching at Centre High School. When I was there, I had a student teacher approach me who identified as gay. I was counseling at the time, and he asked, “Do you think I should come out to my students?” I asked him why he would want to do that. He said “That’s part of who I am. I want to come out.” As a student teacher, you’re already being judged. I wondered, would that work against him in any way? He asked if we could start a Gay-Straight Alliance. And we couldn’t. In the 1990s it wasn’t an open time, particularly for teachers. Many of them might have lost their jobs, even if it wasn’t said publicly that was the reason why. And at the time they weren’t allowing clubs or sports of any kind at Centre High. That was when I first really wanted to start one…but it wasn’t the right time.
I remember my very first teaching assignment at Victoria School. When I was coaching, one of the youth came out to me. I was invited to the home of this particular student for dinner. We were chatting, and I said to her “It must be hard for you to choose this lifestyle.” She was so angry with me. She said “Melinda, how could you say that? I didn’t choose this.” For me it was my first opportunity to really be taught something I didn’t know or understand. I’ll always remember that.
I grew up in Medicine Hat and I didn’t know anyone who was gay. There weren’t really minorities of any kind. I didn’t know anyone who was LGBTQ*. All I had heard about growing up was what my father said. Jokes at the dinner table. We never even thought about anybody that might not be heterosexual; it just never crossed my mind. This student, at her age of 18, and for me at 22…it was like somebody had pulled a veil aside. She said, “I am not making the choice to have my family distance themselves from me. To be disowned. To have people spit on me. That’s not a choice.” That was huge a turning point.
When I took my master’s, one of the first courses I wrote a paper for was an ethics class. I really wanted to understand what it was about counselling LGBTQ* youth that was special or different. How could I best work with this invisible minority in my school? How could I get them to come talk to me?
What I discovered was that it’s not very different. It’s about building relationships. My colleagues would ask, “Why do you get all the gay kids?” And I didn’t know. But I realized that when somebody trusts you, they’re more willing to open up. It’s about an awareness that you are non-judgemental. Moving into the counseling field, I recognized what a hard life these kids had. The youth that were harming themselves. I thought about how horrible it was for someone to feel such self-hate. I had the chance then to keep learning from youth as they taught me. When they came and spoke to me, their issue wasn’t “being gay.” They were coming to see me because they were struggling with their relationship with their parents. They were coming to see me because they were unsure about their future. They came to talk to me about how to care for themselves. Were they even worth caring about? Sometimes they were thinking about suicide.
In 2003 when I was working at W.P. Wagner, the Alberta Teacher’s Association was working with a program called Safe and Caring Schools. They put a call out for teachers who were interested in starting Gay-Straight Alliances. They did focus groups with the youth at Wagner. My youth did a project where they invited a random selection of different students and teachers and asked them questions like, “Do you believe there is homophobia in our school?”…hard questions. They pulled together all the data and presented it at a provincial conference. That was so powerful for these kids.
I first started the GSA with three youth and they were so scared. They wanted to meet in a space far away from everyone. They didn’t want people to see them coming and going. For the first year no one knew we were meeting. We put up posters the second year; they called themselves “The Nameless Club.” They would never call it a Gay-Straight Alliance. By the second year, underneath “The Nameless Club” there was a “GSA” in small print. And by the third year, we called ourselves the GSA and got a table at clubs fair. We got funding like the other clubs to do activities. We would talk with teachers, telling them, “We want you to interrupt homophobic language in the language and in your classrooms, because you’re not. You need to address it.” It was the youth actually talking to the staff, so that was amazing.
Claire: You’ve talked a bit about the leadership of the youth who identify as LGBTQ*. That’s something I’ve really noticed about the fYrefly in Schools program. Can you talk more about how the youth themselves influence your work?
Melinda: I mentioned earlier my philosophy about being a guide-on-the-side. I believe that every single person has a voice. But first, it’s not always used. And second, those voices aren’t always heard. And even if that voice is heard, it’s not always understood. So my first step working with youth – LGBTQ* youth especially – is to give them a safe place so they can have a voice. That voice might just be talking to others, building some relationships where they feel safe and comfortable to talk about the issues that matter to them. The voice for the youth, and their leadership, was a direct result of having them find an interest or a passion beyond the piece of them that says they’re gay. It’s the human “be-ing” part of them. They took a leadership role within a safe space, and when they became more confident we could go out and do education and advocacy.
I realized that we could use more adult support. LGBTQ* teachers in my school at that time were not comfortable participating in the Gay-Straight Alliance. They did not feel comfortable enough to be partners. And that did change. My last two years we did have a teacher who stepped up and came to some of the meetings. That was so recent, just in 2010. Before that, that teacher and others were in the building. I knew at least five or six teachers who were out to me but not involved. There was one educational assistant who came to the meetings; he also talked about being bullied by the youth at the school. He was really delighted when I started the Gay-Straight Alliance and put up the posters. He was the first person who came to me and said, “We’ve never had this before.” That was giving him voice. Even though he wasn’t a student, he had support.
Claire: How did you transition from teaching within Edmonton Public to working for ISMSS?
Melinda: I got the opportunity to morph, leaving education and the school in really good shape. We had a GSA for a number of years, seven or eight while I was there. After 35 years of teaching, Kris Wells from ISMSS approached me and said, “We have this really cool program called ‘Fyrefly in Schools.'” And so I was able to help develop the program right from the beginning.
It was the youth that said, “Why aren’t kids talking to kids? Why is it always the talking head, the ‘expert,’ the teacher?” And that’s the leadership component. So being a guide-on-the-side continues in that I make sure the space is safe, and that the students I bring with me are respected, and that we give respect to all the belief systems in the classroom. We’re not there to promote anything other than kindness and respect and safety for all students in the school. We want every student to feel safe and like they belong, because a lot of LGBTQ* youth feel like they don’t fit. It’s another chance for leadership. Youth get the chance to speak on a panel but also, as they become more confident, lead activities. Encouraging those students to stand up against homophobic language. If they can stop using it themselves, that’s great. If they can tell their friend it isn’t cool, even better.
Claire: What do you enjoy most about what you’re doing now?
Melinda: It’s the youth. Everyday I get to do this great job. It could be boring because every day we’re doing the same session. But they’re never the same. And the reason it’s not the same is we never know our audience. It could be junior high to high school; we’ve even had elementary. But the demographics in the classroom, the multicultural mix, is so different. Once we had a group of 23 students and only one of them was born in Canada – and it wasn’t the Caucasian person in the room.
We get to plant a seed. And we nurture it bit by bit, by youth speaking to fellow youth. The youth that are speaking to the other students in the classroom, they are gently watering this very fragile seed. In some places, we get a lot of pushback from very vocal groups. I feel the discomfort…but you plant the seed. We try to nurture that seed. And if that small bit of nurturing in that one class manages to move somebody – if somebody is just opened up a little bit more, and a little more kind to someone, a little more respectful – I get to witness that. I get to be a little bit of an enzyme in that growth. I guess I just believe in these kids. I believe in the kids in the classroom. I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning thinking about hurting somebody. We just need the education. Being an educator just makes sense for what I’ve been able to do.
Claire: You’ve done some really unique work in your field. What would you to say to those considering a career in education?
Melinda: It’s one of the best jobs in the world because there are so many opportunities. Educators become really good leaders. When a teacher leaves teaching, there’s so many things they can do. The world is open.
I’m really humbled that you would even ask me to do this interview. I am so passionate about education, teaching, leadership, learning, and youth. I don’t think we get to express it. As an educator I’m always in my classroom, I’m working with youth, so it’s nice to share it with others. This is a great profession; there’s lot’s to do within it. And if it’s something you think you want to do, go for it. I’ve had a fabulous life. Education has been a huge part of it.
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