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Graduate Student Spotlight: Zach Stumbo

The 2016 elections left many wondering how their lives might change with a new administration in the White House. For Zach Stumbo, a graduate student in theory and practice in teacher education, it meant accelerating his plans to get married. Stumbo and his partner feared a potential reversal or challenge to the Supreme Court ruling that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples.

After 10 years of working in rural schools, Stumbo entered UT’s cultural studies in educational foundations program. As part of the Theory and Practice in Teacher Education program, Stumbo was able to combine his experience in the classroom with his social justice and equity interests. He discovered a lack of research on the experiences of married LGBT teachers in the US, and the foundation for his own research began to take shape.

Obergefell v. Hodges can be seen as a bookend to the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling requiring the US government to provide federal benefits to same-sex couples in states where such unions are legal. However, to receive those benefits, individuals have to legally disclose their marital status—and therefore their partners and sexual orientation—to their employers. This can effectively out those who, for a variety of reasons, would otherwise not have disclosed that information.

“Teachers are viewed by the community as moral exemplars for children,” says Stumbo. “But in many conservative areas, there are not statewide statutory protections for LGBT employees. This can then lead to a fear of being fired, of being reassigned to a different context, workplace bullying, and intimidation.”

As part of his research, Stumbo finds volunteers willing to talk about their experiences as an LGBT teacher, focusing on those in urban and rural Appalachia in areas where there are no legal protections for LGBT employees. Using qualitative software, he identifies broad themes present in each interview. He also collects forms and policies and examines photos of teachers’ personal belongings in their classrooms, noting what is and isn’t made visible. From these individual experiences he identifies commonalities and makes note of how teachers express or conceal their behaviors or information in their work space, and the broader picture of an LGBT teacher’s experience begins to take shape.

“These interviews examine the entire community’s effect on an LGBT teacher’s experience, from the parents, other teachers, and administration to even the students,” says Stumbo.

His research adds to the greater picture of research on married LGBT teacher identity in the US. Each interview, each person’s experience, forms an instrumental case study of an LGBT teacher working in a rural area without legal protections. Stumbo currently has four participants but hopes to collect several more accounts before changing his focus to teachers in areas with legal protections. He intends to include diverse voices from geographic areas besides Appalachia to create a complete picture of individual experiences, which can also affect how the study is later used.

“This research can inform policy decisions at the national, state, and school district levels,” says Stumbo. “It can inform policies that protect and retain teachers. At a state and national level, it can inform ways to remedy legal employment vulnerabilities experienced by LGBT employees.”

Stumbo is particularly interested in the role identity plays in teacher preparation. His research touches on that issue, and he hopes that the body of information he and his colleagues have collected can help inform the training and education teachers go through.

“All preservice teachers—not just LGBT—need training in the hardships faced by LGBT teachers,” says Stumbo. “They also need training in the best ways to respond to student questions about sensitive subjects.”

When an individual’s experience functions as a data point in a broader collective, it is important to capture as wide a view as possible to ensure accurate representation. Stumbo admits this is an area in his research that could be improved.

“So far, I have had trouble finding racially diverse participants as well as trans participants. Another interesting limitation is that I haven’t found gay male participants with children or lesbian participants without children.”

Currently he is working to identify and connect with potential national and international collaborators collecting similar data and intends for the project to eventually lead to a dissertation. Ever the teacher, he continues to present his findings at research and teacher practitioner conferences as he refines his study designs and methodologies.

Stumbo received his bachelor’s in elementary education and a master’s in teacher leadership from Morehead State University. He currently serves as a graduate teaching associate in urban multicultural education and cultural studies.

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CONTACT:

Raphael Rosalin (865-974-2152, rrosalin@utk.edu)