The Teachers’ Teacher

As the GLBTQ Resource Teacher for the Madison School District, Bonnie Augusta is empowering GLBTQ students while educating faculty and staff on how to support the needs of queer youth.

As the GLBTQ Resource Teacher for the Madison School District, Bonnie Augusta* is empowering GLBTQ students while educating faculty and staff on how to support the needs of queer youth.

When I arrive at Café Zoma, Bonnie Augusta is sitting with a cup of plain, black coffee. Unassuming and casual, she wears a fleece over a long-sleeved T-shirt. Her Madison Schools nametag hangs around her neck. Bonnie is much like her cup of coffee: no frills, gets the job done and leaves a sustained buzz long afterwards.

Since 2001 Bonnie has been the GLBTQ Resource Teacher for the Madison School District. Bonnie scales a range of responsibilities: training educators and support staff at the district level; leading anti-discrimination and anti-harassment workshops in the schools; and being on hand when a student is in crisis. Of her job, she beams, “I’m never bored!”

Madison is one of six school districts in the country to have a designated and funded GLBTQ staff person. GLBTQ kids go through the same kinds of developmental and academic challenges that all kids face. But gaining social acceptance as a GLBTQ youth can not only be difficult, it can be devastating. Add the possibility of abuse (which can be physical, sexual or in the form of harassment at home or in school) and family rejection, and you have a recipe for low self-esteem. Thus, academic learning, physical and mental health, and identity formation are all affected.

Bonnie makes no bones about what students should do if they experience something that gets in the way of their learning or makes them feel unsafe. “Tell someone. Tell a teacher, a support staff, tell me. Keep telling someone until you get a response.”

Bonnie is the hub. She connects students, teachers and parents with the resources they need. It could be a school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), a counselor, or area groups such as Teens Like Us. Through phone calls and emails, Bonnie points people in the right direction. And if you contact her, you will get an answer, usually within the same day. I ask her how she recharges, given that she makes herself so available. She recounts a recent visit to a GSA meeting. One particular student who had been having some trouble was there. She says, “I saw this student glowing, thriving. That lets me know I’m on the right track.”

Madison is lucky, not only to have such a position, but also to have Bonnie in it. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the early 1970s and began what would become a 30-year career as a special education teacher. I haven’t seen her in action, but I get the sense that she glides effortlessly between getting administrator buy-in to comforting students to telling her own coming-out story to student groups.

When Bonnie works with a school having harassment or discrimination issues, she drives home three key points: 1) Everyone has the right to an opinion. 2) No one has the right to harass. 3) When you see harassment, interrupt it. She warns that after her visit, it may seem like more harassment is occurring. It’s not that the number of cases increases, but that the reporting increases. “And that’s a good thing,” she says. “It means that kids trust that something will be done.”

Bonnie is instrumental in making Madison schools a safe environment, but it is not a one-woman job. In district training sessions, she teaches other educators, support staff and administrators to recognize a student’s need, respond to it, and get everyone who can help involved. When she makes a school visit for a student in crisis, as she helps the student, she is also training the support staff involved so the next time, he or she can see the situation through solo. Bonnie relies on these folks to be her “eyes and ears,” keeping her aware of particular students and situations.

Bonnie is rather pleased, rightly so, with what Madison is able to provide to all of its students. She is adamant when she says, “Working in the intersection of oppressions helps to alleviate any oppression.” It benefits all students, but there is still more to do. She refers to the Wisconsin statute on pupil nondiscrimination, part of which reads:

[No person may be] denied the benefits of or be discriminated against in any curricular, extracurricular, pupil services, recreational or other program or activity because of the person’s sex, race, religion, national origin, ancestry, creed, pregnancy, marital or parental status, sexual orientation or physical, mental, emotional or learning disability.

It’s that part about “curricular” that Bonnie latches on to. She would like to ensure that curricula are non-discriminatory and inclusive. She isn’t aware of a district with a curriculum that includes a GLBTQ component, but if she has her say, Madison could become the first.  She says unabashedly, “There’s very little that stops me!”

At the end of our interview, her cup of coffee untouched, she says wistfully, “I wish more people would take the time to stop and listen to young people, to their experience of school, that it is very different from ours. These kids are amazingly wise about what their experience is and we need to listen.” Bonnie is an advocate in the truest sense of the word. When she says, “It is the responsibility of adults to do something if kids are not safe,” it sounds, not like a personal belief, but a covenant she keeps, and one she hopes others abide by as well.

Area LGBTQ Resource Organizations

ACLU of Wisconsin’s Youth & Civil Liberties Council, Articles, law library and Q&A on civil liberties topics related to youth. aclu-wi.org/youth/rights/rights.html

Youth SOS (includes Briarpatch Homeless and Runaway Youth Program), Service organization dedicated to strengthening and improving lives of youth. youthsos.org

Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools (GSAFE), Public awareness, youth leadership development, skill development for GSA advisors and other secondary school educators. gsaforsafeschools.org

Madison Public Library Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, Bibliography of books and web resources on LGBTQ topics. madisonpubliclibrary.org/calendar/june/gaypride.html

OutReach LGBT Coomunity Center, Madison organization for building LGBTQ community. lgbtoutreach.org

Project Q, Youth Program of the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center. wprojectq.org

Proud Theater, Theater group in Madison for LBGTQ youth or youth of LGBTQ parents. proudtheater.org

Rainbow Alliance for Youth of Wisconsin, Provides education, social justice and community organizing reources to LGBTQ youth groups in Wisconsin. diverseandresilient.org/youth

Teens Like Us, LGBTQ youth community. myspace.com/teenslikeus

Children of GLBTQ Parents, Community building and social justice organization for children of LGBTQ parents. colage.org

PFLAG-Madison Chapter, Support and advocacy group dedicated to making life better for GLBT persons, their families and friends. pflag-madison.org

My Family Playgroup, Playgroup for children of LGBT parents as well as socializing and networking for the parents. myfamilyplaygroup.com

Same Sex Parenting Group, Facilitied parenting group held at Happy Bambino. happybambino.com

* Editor’s note: Liz Lusk is now the LGBTQ Specialist for the Madison Metropolitan School District; Bonnie Augusta was her predecessor.