Amber Schweitzer is a teacher who makes students feel comfortable. She creates a safe environment and welcomes students to talk to her.
So much so, that in her first year teaching at Castle View High School in Castle Rock, a student followed her …
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So much so, that in her first year teaching at Castle View High School in Castle Rock, a student followed her out to her car after school and came out to her about being gay.
“It made a big difference for him to have a safe adult to talk to about it and know that it's OK,” Schweitzer said, noting that the student has since told friends and family.
This was not an isolated situation.
“In every class I've taught, I've had different students tell me personal stories of coming out or of family members,” Schweitzer said. “I think they talk to me because I'm pretty open-minded. My themes are very self-accepting and accepting of others.”
Schweitzer works to create a safe place for students in her yoga and health classes and as the sponsor of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance, which brings together gay and straight students to support each other, provide a safe place to socialize and create a platform for activism to fight homophobia and transphobia.
That's why GLSEN — Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network — honored Schweitzer with the Educator of the Year Award May 23 at a ceremony in New York.
“We're honoring Amber for her thoughtful, inclusive curriculum, her leadership in building Castle View High School's GSA, and her deep involvement with community organizations,” said Curtis Lahaie, a representative from GLSEN. “The Educator of the Year Award goes to an exemplary educator whose work has helped create a safe and affirming learning environment for all students, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.”
For Schweitzer, the nomination itself came as a shock.
“I feel like the work that I do is just the work that I do,” she said. “The award, it's completely overwhelming. I never expected to be acknowledged.”
But for those who work with her and the students she mentors, the fact that Schweitzer was named GLSEN Educator of the Year is no surprise.
“She's just a good person and has a good heart,” said Dr. Jim Calhoun, outgoing Castle View High principal. “She has a soft-spoken demeanor that makes you feel comfortable.”
In her two years at Castle View, Schweitzer has grown the school's GSA from two students to more than 30 by getting students to talk about the group, invite friends and participate in school activities.
“Teenagers in general are trying to find themselves,” Schweitzer said. “There are students walking down this unknown path. They see things and start questioning themselves, but don't have anywhere to explore it. Having GSA to talk through the issues of social stigma, coming out to parents, being accepted in social circles — we get into some good conversation about different issues we have to deal with in today's society.”
This year, the GSA students built a giant Jenga set and spray painted it in rainbow colors. They brought it to school events and people took notice.
One of those active GSA students is Wesley Ferguson, who said he found acceptance by joining the club.
“I feel like I know that there are more people that are gay or bi at the school and it's not all straight people,” said Ferguson, who just completed his freshman year. “I feel like I can make a difference and try to make other kids more accepting. I can make a positive influence on other people's lives.”
Self-acceptance and acceptance of others are key themes in Schweitzer's classes. In her yoga classes, she focuses on students accepting themselves and, in turn, accepting others for who they are. Acceptance also translates to her health classes where she tackles tough topics like gender and sexuality, suicide prevention, mental health and bullying. The goal is to shed light on a variety of stigmas to increase awareness and acceptance by students.
When speaking about Schweitzer and awarding her the Educator of the Year honor, Dr. Eliza Byard, GLSEN's executive director said, “Amber Schweitzer is an exemplary supportive educator whose inclusive curriculum, leadership and community involvement have had a significant impact on the lives of her students.”
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