When A Gay Teacher Received A Surprise Bouquet, A Parent Complained. His Community Defended Him.

"We teach our students to be themselves — it should be the same for all teachers."

For elementary school teacher Nathan Etter, organically occurring "teachable moments" about kindness and tolerance may not be officially a part of his classroom curriculum, but they're no less important. 

On Valentine's Day, Etter's husband, Philip, sent a bouquet of flowers to the 30-year-old music teacher, prompting his first grade class to inquire as to their origins. Had Etter had a wife, and not a husband,  it seems reasonable to imagine that no parent would have complained about his receipt of Valentine's Day flowers, a gesture that is so common that there is an entire industry dedicated to encouraging it. But Nathan Etter's V-Day bouquet was from his husband, and he told A Plus that when he shared this information with his students and used the moment to encourage tolerance,  a parent complained. That complaint led to a meeting with Etter's principal, a school board meeting, and a community rally staged in Etter's defense.

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Etter has been teaching for seven years, but recently moved from the city of Chicago to the northwest suburbs. It's his first year working at Prairie View Grade School, and in an email interview with A Plus, he noted that the series of events that followed his receipt of the bouquet marked the first time he ever had any trouble being his authentic self in the workplace.

The bouquet that sparked the controversy. Courtesy Nathan Etter.

He told A Plus that his students were excited when the flowers arrived, and proceeded to ask him a bunch of questions, including whether they were from his wife. When Etter explained that no, the flowers were from his husband, he said a couple of the students responded with words like "eww" and "gross."

"As an experienced educator, I immediately used these responses as an opportunity for a teachable moment," Etter told A Plus.  "'No, friends,' I replied, 'We are not going to make 'ew' noises because that is not showing respect.'  I went on to tell the students how 'many of us in our classroom or school might have a mom and a dad, or perhaps some of us have just one mom or just one dad.  Some of us might have two dads or two moms.'"

The teachable moment, he said, came next: " 'Friends, just because something is different than what we are used to seeing or hearing, should we make fun of it or call it gross?' " 

In Etter's description of the interaction, the students said "no" in unison, and went on with their music lesson.

"That was it," Etter told A Plus. "This opportunity to reinforce a message of respect and tolerance took no more than 30 seconds, and we moved on."

Etter with his students at their winter concert. Courtesy Nathan Etter.

But one of the students' parents reached out to the school administration to complain, and the principal at Prairie View, Daniel Shuth, emailed Etter on Feb. 21. to schedule a meeting. During the meeting, Etter said he and Shuth discussed the complaint, which Etter described as suggesting that he had used "Valentine's Day as a means to celebrate my lifestyle choices." Etter said he doesn't believe that Shuth was at fault for the meeting, but was instead told to convey the message.

"I truly feel that the directive 'stick with the curriculum' was the district's roundabout way of telling me to not talk about being gay or the fact that I have a husband," Etter told A Plus.

In an email sent three weeks later to members of the local teachers' union, Dave Chapman, the union's vice president, described the series of events as "unacceptable" and "discriminatory," and echoed Etter's allegation that the school administration had told Etter to "stick to the curriculum." The meeting, he said, had caused Etter to question his job security.

Shuth characterized his meeting with Etter differently in an email to A Plus.

"While I expect teachers to focus their classroom conversations on the designated grade level curriculum, I did not see a problem with what the teacher told me was the nature of the discussion," he told A Plus. "I was asked what I thought was an appropriate response and so provided some different examples of scenarios of how other potential situations might be handled."

The meeting, and Chapman's email, propelled Etter's community to rally in his defense prior to an April 16 school board meeting, a move that filled the teacher with hope and pride.

"The amount of support from the community has been incredible," Etter told A Plus. "There was a movement that started on the Friday before the rally among many of our district parents and students to show their support and solidarity ...  I have bus duty in the mornings, and when many of the students arrived on that Friday I was greeted by an abundance of flowers and notes of encouragement from so many at the school.  My hands were so full of flowers and notes that I had to have students help me take them to my classroom."

One parent, he said, gave him a beautiful designer blanket along with a note that said "we got you covered" and that he should "go cuddle up with my husband." A first-grader penned him a note that said, "It shouldn't matter who you love, just be the best you can be."

Courtesy Nathan Etter.

And, as reported by The Chicago Tribune, about 100 parents and teachers held a "rally for equality" prior to the board meeting, holding signs aloft with messages such as, "We support Mr. Etter." 

"There is nothing to protest here. We are with you," the school board president said, per The Tribune, emphasizing that Etter was not treated unjustlyHe did then add that school administrators "can always learn and improve."

For his part, Etter maintains that his meeting with the principal would never have occurred if his significant other was a woman, and pointed to a recent bridal shower thrown for a teacher by students and parents as evidence.

"Straight educators don't even realize how often they mention their significant others when teaching to connect with the students or to help teach a particular concept.  I feel like there is this underlined expectation for LGBT educators to portray ourselves as asexual to our students," he told A Plus. He also pointed out that there  are same-sex parents within the school district. "Do we discourage those students [from talking] about their two moms or two dads?  Absolutely not."

In his email to A Plus, Etter vowed to continue incorporating "teachable moments" into his classroom.

"We teach our students to be themselves — it should be the same for all teachers," he wrote. "We do an injustice to our students when we hide who we are or when we act ashamed of who we are.  I want my students to know exactly who I am.  I am the Mr. Etter that cares about them, teaches them, and is a role-model for them ... and ... I happen to be gay, and that's OK."

This story has been updated to include Shuth's comment.

Cover image via Nathan Etter.

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