Brendan Howarth: The Teacher Becomes The Student
Brendan Howarth is a chef by morning, student-teacher by day and father & husband by night. He is a soon to be a teacher who wants to inspire the future generations to be their best selves and create a generation that spreads love and kindness. Brendan performed this story at the first Wollongong Queerstories, supported by Wollongong City Libraries.
*Audience cheers and claps*
“Why can she call you Nicole* but I have to call you Toby*?”
This question changed my life and my outlook and it wasn’t even a question for me!
A few years ago, I was an eager first-year student teacher and I was ready to inspire the future generations, I had my name tag on, my hair done and my lessons planned. I was ready. Or so I thought. This is the story of how a 10-year-old inspired me to be myself.
When you tell people that you want to be a teacher they say ‘oh I can’t see you as a teacher’ or they ask what grade you want to teach, but no one has ever asked me why I wanted to become a teacher. Except uni lecturers. They always want to know!
For me my reason was simple. Harry Potter. Okay, wait, I should really explain that a bit more. My year 4 teacher was obsessed with red shoes, marking work in silver pens and Harry Potter. She read the book to us, she based our class work on it and we even decorated our classroom to look like Diagon Alley. It would have been a Pinterest dream come true if it had existed then!
My teachers love for all things Harry Potter-inspired my own lifelong passion for Harry Potter, right down to the little deathly hallows symbol on my ankle. So, when the moment came for me to decide what I wanted to do with my life post being a chef, I remembered Harry and my Potter obsessed year 4 teacher who left a lasting impression on who I am and I decided that was what I wanted to do, I wanted to inspire and shape the future generations. I was going to be a teacher!
I started studying as a mature age student and before I knew it, I was preparing for my first practical in schools. I went shopping and bought myself my ‘teacher clothes’ and I tried really hard to find an outfit for myself that presented me as female but didn’t make me feel that uncomfortable feeling in my stomach that came about every time I had to look like a girl. I planned my lessons and I was ready to make a difference! Here it was! My first chance to inspire! My first-time teaching students! I was ready to prove to myself and the world that I was here, I was queer and I was going to inspire the heck out of these students!
I was assigned to a local school which happened to be my school when I was a kid, and my teaching mentor just happened to be my year 6 teacher.
And to top it off my class was in my year 4 classroom! Long gone were the Diagon Alley decorations of my year 4 class but the classroom brought everything back. Here I was ready to shape the next generation in the classroom and the school that helped shape me as a child. The universe really does have a perverse sense of humour, let me tell you. The school and the classroom were just as I remembered, albeit a little smaller.
Over the weeks of my prac, I reminisced with my year 6 teacher about what life used to be like, how things change, which ex-students have kids at the school now, and how much I’ve grown, and how no one expected me to be a lesbian, but that was okay because I was happy, I was living life my way. However, that wasn’t entirely true, forced into the binary that exists within the world of teaching where students have to call you Mr or Mrs, I was jarringly and painfully aware of the discomfort caused by what I now know as my gender dysphoria and I knew that I wasn’t being honest or living authentically even if the people around me thought I was. I was terrified of coming out at this stage, how many gay or lesbian teachers do you know? How many trans teachers do you know? The world is a scary place when you don’t fit the norm and boy was I outside the norm! I stayed in the closet because I thought being a teacher and inspiring students was more important than being trans and not being a teacher. How wrong I was.
I met quite a few students during that first prac, students from my own class and students from other classes. Some students came from poverty, some from broken families and for some students succeeding simply meant making it to school each day. I saw little pieces of myself in each student that I met and every time I saw them learning and succeeding in their classwork, I was becoming more and more passionate about becoming a teacher. I was watching them be inspired to learn maths and try new things and to take chances! I finished my first prac with a great result and a confidence in my decision to be a teacher no matter what it cost me.
And then I met the most important student of all. After my prac was completed I was at the local shops with my then fiancé (now wife) and I ran into this young student who I hadn’t had a great deal of interaction with on my prac but enough to know her name and for her to recognise me out of school. As we all did when we were that age and we saw our teachers being real people in the real world, she nervously smiled and said, “Hi Miss Thompson.” So I smiled back and said “Hi Nicole, how are you?” Then before Nicole could respond, her mum turns to her and says, “how come she can call you Nicole but I have to call you Toby?” I was floored, I grabbed Yvette’s hand and glanced at her as we both begin to comprehend the meaning of the question. I looked back at Nicole who looks me dead in the eye but quickly looks away as if ashamed of what is beginning to unfold. Mother and child left the shop and I was left with my mind racing – here was this 10-year-old who was trying to live their best life while I’m out here trying to inspire kids to be their best selves but am I really?
How can I inspire them to be their best selves if I’m not being my best self? I was so caught up in being boxed into the bad influence category because of my transness that I ended up, I ended up putting myself into the unauthentic column. This 10-year-old had no idea but they had just taught me more than any lecture or assignment ever did. It was in this moment at the local shops that I learnt that for me to be an inspiration that I had to show my students something inspirational! If this young student had been aware of my true identity how much more of an inspiration would I have been?
I realised my students don’t need us telling them how to be their best selves, they need us to show them by being our best selves! To be the best teacher I can be, I had to be the best me, and that is not some shy lesbian trying to find a way to squeeze into a box I don’t fit, no! The best version of me is the proud trans male teacher that stands before you, unapologetically who I am and ready to inspire the future generation simply by living my best life. I was inspired when I was 10 by a teacher who lived her way, in her red shoes and her larger than life enthusiasm for the things she loved and then a 10-year-old student inspired me to live life my way, authentically and honestly. My dream is no longer just to be a teacher but to be an inspiration and a light for my students who don’t always fit in the box that society has tried to squeeze us into.
*Audience cheers and claps*
*Names have been changed for privacy