Peter Wohlgemut wins one of the 2014 Canadian Teachers’ Federation Special Recognition Awards

By Kate Hawkins

Peter Wohlgemut is a dedicated teacher with a passion for kilts, quilting and gender equality that has gotten him into some trouble.

“That’s how it all began I would say… by being a bit tenacious,” he said.

Although originally studying urban planning, Wohlgemut got his bachelor of education from the University of Winnipeg and began teaching in 1992. Shortly afterwards he became involved with the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), and was a provincial executive member and a society representative on the minister’s teacher education and certification committee, amongst other involvement.

According to Wohlgemut, when a close friend of his came out about 14 years ago he became more serious about learning about gender expression.

“Until that time I hadn’t really given the issue much thought, but I tend to be quite loyal to my friends. When he came out I knew I would have to wrap my head around understanding this,” he said.

A former student of his, who worked at the Rainbow Resource Centre in Winnipeg, suggested that he take “ally training” through the centre, a program she felt would train participants to more effectively support sexual and gender minority students.

Wohlgemut organized a training session at the centre for himself and other teachers from the school division. Upon completing the training, each participant earned an “ally card” which Wohlgemut put up in his grade five classroom.

The card featured a rainbow with the word “ally” on it, above the text “As an Ally, I support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, intersex, queer and questioning individuals, families and communities.”

“It’s a small card, just 4x6 inches… it’s kind of a declaration of what you believe and what you’re working towards,” he said.

The small, largely Mennonite community of Alcona where Wohlgemut teaches was not so accepting of the sign, and several parents asked him to take it down. He refused until the Borderland school division requested that he take down the words on the sign but allowed him to keep up the rainbow.

Wohlgemut says he is still trying to encourage gender acceptance in his classroom, despite the diverse mix of students he teaches who often have conflicting opinions.

“In my classroom where I have direct control, we never make groups based on gender… and generally I try to challenge some of the stereotypes that the kids hold,” he said.

“It’s important to say ‘Ok, you need to respect different beliefs and understandings. In this classroom we respect everyone and the stereotypes or even the roles that hold in your family may not hold here, and you have to be ok with that,’” he continued.

Wohlgemut said that part of what helps bring acceptance into his classroom is how he presents himself to his students.

“The kids know I belong to our local quilting guild and I’ve told them that I cook and bake at home… I love wearing kilts, so I wear a kilt to school now and then. There are always a few kids who are thrown off by that, but once they’re there for a while it becomes normal. So part of it is just normalizing that different people live and think differently, and that’s ok.”

In the months to come, Wohlgemut is looking forward to getting school books in his classroom that reflect gender diversity. Earlier this year, at his request, the school bought books that include Aboriginal perspectives and teach students about the history of Aboriginal people in Canada.

Peter Wohlgemut was nominated for the Special Recognition Award by MTS for the leadership role he has taken with the society, as well as for his relentless work to consolidate equality for students regardless of sexual orientation.

(Kate Hawkins is a journalism student who has worked as a communications officer with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation during the summer of 2014)