Monday, August 15, 2011

Volusia County Public Schools host YES Institute Workshops

by Joseph Zolobczuk

“You’re going where to do training on transgender children–Volusia? Well...I wish you luck,” quipped a pediatrician after wrapping up a training for medical providers last week. Florida’s geography has its own unique logic, where the farther North you travel, the more Southern you find yourself. “I hope you all make it back alright,” she said to us half jokingly, and to my vexation, half frankly. 

Our team from YES Institute traversed the flat-pan Turnpike landscape the afternoon prior to our arrival, our journey interrupted by periodic tropical storm bands and lightning. I pondered if the squalls were a portent of the clashes about to come. Arriving in Volusia as the sun started to set, we drove past the Daytona International Speedway, along with ammunition shops wedged between churches, fast food restaurants and abandoned storefronts. I said to myself, “Most certainly Toto, we’re not in Miami anymore.”

Teachers and counselors in Volusia County.

The first day of our two-day visit began with the YES Institute Communication Solutions™ course, conducted at Mainland High School. The stereotypes and notions I was told or imagined about the people of Volusia quickly disintegrated. Over 65 teachers, guidance counselors, university students, professors and therapists from across the community welcomed us and began the day eager to engage.

During the introductions, I was inspired about what was possible with such a committed group of teachers and education professionals. Several said they had been in the school system for over 25 years or more. Many started to open up about gay and transgender students - not only in their schools, but in their own families. This was a conversation whose time had clearly come for their community.

Role playing exercises during Communication Solutions™ Course.

In addition to their earnestness, hesitation and fears were also expressed. One principal asked, “Why do I need to have this conversation at my elementary school?” Other teachers inquired, “What exactly are we allowed to teach about in public education? I’m afraid I’ll be accused of saying the wrong thing and lose my job.” Their questions and concerns made clear the need to begin with the YES Institute model of communication, where divergent points of view can be included when authentically working toward a purpose of safety and well-being for all students.

Principal Mary Cool sharing about participating in YES courses in Miami.

On the second day, the Gender Continuum course created some “ah-hah” moments for the faculty and counselors. Many expressed revelations about gender–not only about their students–but for themselves. All of us bump up against expectations of femininity and masculinity in our society, and the impact on our psyches is most often unexamined because, “that’s just the way it is.”
“This course was incredibly interesting. I learned so much that has impacted my view on the world and will have an impact on my role as an educator.” –Volusia teacher
“I have gained so much knowledge that I don’t even know where to begin. My opinions before this workshop were so misinformed that I really didn’t understand gender issues.” –Volusia teacher
Ashley courageously shared her journey with gender.

Four courageous speakers, Jennifer and her husband, their daughter Ashley, and a college student also named Ashley, movingly shared about their experiences with gender and brought misty eyes to some of the faculty. Jennifer, a mother with three children in Volusia County schools said to me, “I used to feel like it was an uphill battle with the school system. After these two days, I now feel like I have a whole team of friends who are supporting my family and children.”

An education reporter from the local Daytona Beach News-Journal attended the later half of the second day. A reprint from the story is currently available here.

Two days prior, I wasn't sure how our visit to Volusia schools would all turn out. After Jennifer's comment and all the feedback we received at the end of the second day, my own expectations were well exceeded. It is an honor to be a part of bringing this education beyond Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
“I cannot begin to explain all that I have learned! I can say that this information has changed my life. I feel that I have gained knowledge that will make me a better parent. I am going  to go home, hug my son, and assure him that I love him unconditionally!” –Volusia teacher.
 A new day dawns on Volusia County. Main entrance to Daytona Beach, Florida.

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