Lauren Heckathorn's ( pronouns they/them/their ) dream of becoming a special education teacher began at a young age when their third grade class was paired with students with special needs in another third grade class at their public elementary school in Evanston, Illinois.
"We would do a variety of activities together," said Heckathorn. "After that experience, I knew, without a doubt, that I wanted to be able to teach students with special needs."
Heckathorn was also inspired to enter this field by their mom, who is also a special education teacher. They went to Evanston Township High School and received a bachelors degree in special education from Illinois State University.
"I was born and raised in Evanston and had open-minded parents who believed that people deserve love and respect regardless of their identities and circumstances," said Heckathorn. "It was very important to my parents that my younger sister Kira and I were exposed to a wide variety of people of different backgrounds, beliefs and cultures."'
Heckathorn noted that their parent's progressive mindset made it easier for them to come out as transgender.
"I generally use genderqueer to express the non-binary aspect of my trans identity," said Heckathorn.
When Heckathorn finished college they started teaching at North Shore Academy in Highland Park, Illinois, for a year.
Heckathorn has taught Kindergarten through third grade special education students at Park School in Evanston, Illinois for the past three years. Their students have a variety if disabilities including Autism, chromosomal disorders and physical challenges.
"We work on a wide range of skills," said Heckathorn. "Some students are just learning how to read and write and others are learning how to be safe and appropriate around peers, willing to explore different tactile experiences and navigate a school setting. One of my biggest goals is finding a way for all of my students to express themselves and tell me their thoughts, wants and needs. Some of my students use spoken language to communicate, others use pictures to tell us what they want while the other students use communication devices to share their thoughts and feelings. In my classroom, we also work on life skills such as toileting, feeding and washing hands. My work is extremely challenging, but I love it with my whole heart and I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to spend my days with such incredible children."
As for bringing LGBTQ content into their classroom, Heckathorn said they choose books that represent a variety of family structures including children of different gender identities and storylines that fall outside of the stereotypical gender roles and interests. Heckathorn noted that they bring this content to their students in creative ways that meet the students where they are developmentally.
Recently, Heckathorn was featured in an NPR story on transgender educators. Heckathorn explained that they filled out an online survey NPR provided to the teachers and thought the information would be used for statistic purposes only.
"I actually forgot I completed the survey when, several months later, I received a phone call from an NPR employee who read the information I shared and wanted to interview me for a national story," said Heckathorn. "I was surprised, nervous and most of all extremely honored to be a part of their story on transgender educators experiences."
The NPR story included Heckathorn's experiences of being harassed by a co-worker for most of the 2016-2017 school year. Heckathorn explained that this was the first time they have ever been harassed in a blatant way, however, they still experience daily micro aggressions due to their gender identity.
In terms of how Heckathorn's school has responded to them being genderqueer, they said it has been difficult because, as far as they know, this is the first time an openly transgender person has worked in the district.
"There were many things that the school and administration did not have in place to support and protect someone with a non-binary trans identity," said Heckathorn. "I had to fight to get a gender neutral bathroom put in. Yes, there were things that my school could have done better, but for the most part, it was the district administration that did not have proper protocols and procedures in place to protect me. I continue to work with my school community to educate my coworkers on transgender identities including pronouns and physical presentation.
"Many of my co-workers have expressed that as far as they know, I am the first transgender person they have ever met. Some of my coworkers use my pronouns, some try and struggle, and sadly others refuse. I am working hard to hold the district accountable about creating policies necessary to ensure that no other employees have to suffer the way I have due to their gender identity."
When asked what they would tell other LGBTQ teachers, Heckathorn explained that each person has to consider their physical and mental safety before coming out to administrators, fellow teachers, students and parents. If it is safe, Heckathorn said LGBTQ teachers need to declare their gender identities and sexualities so they are not ignored and/or forgotten when it comes to inclusive policies that protect LGBTQ students and educators.
"We must force them to do the work," said Heckathorn. "We must show up everyday proud of who we are and refuse to back down when it is suggested that our identities are something we should hide or keep out of the classrooms. Our students, families and communities need us. They need us in ways we may not be able to see right now but the work we do is paving the way for safer and more inclusive futures."
In terms of activist work, Heckathorn is currently the school district's Gender and Sexuality Educators Alliance co-leader. This alliance is made up of LGBTQ and ally educators who are working on creating more inclusive curriculum and teaching practices and with administrators to enact policies and procedures that protect and support LGBTQ educators.
Heckathorn has also been a speaker at various education-based diversity groups where they share their experiences and provide tools to make classrooms more LGBTQ-inclusive.
When not working or doing activist work, Heckathorn and their girlfriend can be found exploring the city with their two dogsElly and Otto. They also love to paint, take photos, hike and go on road trips.
"I will always choose being outside to being indoors," said Heckathorn.