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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 1, September 2006

Is your classroom in the closet?

by Joan Merrifield and James Chamberlain

"I hope this workshop about queers is not for us!" exclaimed one teacher.

Has this thought ever crossed your mind?

When you first started your career did you ever envision yourself teaching about lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) issues? Probably not! The BCTF first began its anti-homophobia work in 1997. Ten years later the average classroom teacher continues to struggle in dealing with homophobic name-calling and curricular integration of LGBT issues for a variety of reasons. This article examines the barriers and our common fears in teaching anti-homophobia education in schools.

What is your reaction to gay issues in schools?
When colleagues try to broach the topic of LGBT issues and support for same-gender families in schools, do you oppose them or work together for positive change?

Our challenge as educators is to check any moral, religious, or cultural objections to homosexuality at the classroom door and focus on our professional responsibilities to children. Namely, we must provide a safe, supportive welcoming school environment, where children can learn to their full potential. To do so, every child must see their life mirrored and positively reflected back to them through the curriculum.

Curricular change is coming. The Ministry of Education recently announced a complete review of the K—12 curriculum as a result of a resolution to the human rights complaint by Coquitlam teacher, Murray Corren. This review is specific to issues of race, ethnicity, gender, family structure and sexual orientation. Just as we examine our personal attitudes on other social justice issues, so too must we begin to think about homosexuality, homophobia and our classroom practices.

Nanaimo teacher Joan Merrifield conducted a survey for her master’s thesis on the effectiveness of the BCTF’s antihomophobia workshops. She polled teachers from across BC who had participated in these workshops as part of their professional development training. The results provide insight into what we think and how our profession has begun to deal with LGBT issues. Some common themes emerged:

  • Personal apathy, ignorance and/or discomfort
  • Resistance from colleagues and administrators
  • Fear of parent and community reactions
  • Lack of skills and strategies in dealing with LGBT issues.

How do our personal attitudes hinder inclusive teaching?
Clearly as professionals, we need to examine our own attitudes toward LGBT people and think about how our actions impact the school climate. Where do our ideas come from? What accurate information did we learn as students about LGBT issues? How do our present day attitudes toward LGBT people play themselves out in a school setting?

Merrifield’s research found that the most pressing matter for us, as educators, was dealing with our colleague’s negative attitudes. Educators wrote about hearing homophobic jokes and slurs in the staffroom and how this was difficult to deal with. One educator said that it was challenging to create a climate of acceptance and inclusion when dealing with rudeness and put-downs from colleagues. A counselor said that the hardest part was being perceived by angry colleagues, "of having a personal agenda and being accused of being a lesbian for supporting a transgender student."

After attending a BCTF workshop another educator commented on the negative reaction she received from staff at her school when she tried to bring up LGBT issues. She said in her survey, "I felt so angry and frustrated that I was in tears. I suddenly realized that LGBT people live with this intolerance everyday."

Contrary to the scenarios, more and more educators are willing to examine these issues as well as, their classroom practices. What they need most is support from colleagues, administrators and allies. One respondent commented "attending a workshop made my taking action easier because the administrator and staff were there together. Policy decisions gave us the back-up we needed to deal with homophobic behaviour."

Does teaching about homosexuality and homophobia make you nervous or uncomfortable?
Some of your colleagues say it does. Common survey comments centred on teacher awkwardness in discussing LGBT issues. Some were reticent to even begin a dialogue while others saw the topic as "unimportant." The reluctance of colleagues to consider gay bashing and homophobia as serious issues helps perpetuate this "code of silence" within our profession. Just as bullying is perpetuated through a similar code of silence, so too is ignorance about LGBT issues. One workshop participant stated it had "called me on my moral laziness." Several commented on their own complicity with homophobia and heterosexism through their silence. It is natural to feel some level of personal discomfort when dealing with social justice issues in schools. However, it is our responsibility to step up to the plate and have these difficult conversations. As one educator said, "support from colleagues gives staffs the opportunity to freely and openly ask questions and make comments in a safe environment."

Are you concerned or worried about parents’ reactions to anti-homophobia education?
Many of us naturally are. We want to protect our professional reputations as caring, trusted individuals. At the same time, we don’t want to become immobilized by fear. One respondent stated, "I am scared of parents’ homophobic beliefs. I’m scared of being accused of being a lesbian." This comment signifies the need for us all to challenge the negative stereotype that only LGBT teachers care or would be concerned about equality and the human rights of sexual minority students.

Always remember we have a collective responsibility to be inclusive of everyone in our classroom and our community. We need to teach all children to grow up to be respectful and responsible citizens. Even in communities that are considered "machismo" or socially conservative, support exists. When you take the time, to explain your curriculum to parents without engaging in moral or religious debates, you will find many natural allies. When parents know you as a caring teacher, they will stand by you. Also many parents care deeply about social justice issues and are depending on educators to take leadership here.

Has your school broached this topic yet?
Teachers and administration have a key role to play in this area.

Merrifield’s master’s survey identified curricular change as a significant challenge for teachers. Over 95% of survey respondents acknowledged a lack of teaching strategies and skills for dealing with LGBT topics. Her research also showed the positive impact and benefits of BCTF antihomophobia workshops. One participant, stated "It was empowering to see straight allies take up the challenge of doing anti-homophobia work. Attending a BCTF workshop on this topic gave our staff permission to break the silence on LGBT issues."

The BCTF currently offers two antihomophobia workshops free to teachers. One is called "Breaking the Silence on LGBT Issues." The other is called "That’s So Gay! Is Not Okay." These free workshops help participants to examine their own attitudes, disrupt homophobic slurs and learn concrete strategies for integrating LGBT issues into existing curriculum. The BCTF also has a web page devoted to antihomophobia education at bctf.ca/SocialJustice.aspx?id=6106. Gay and Lesbian Educators of B.C., www.galebc.org, also has a plethora of teaching resources on LGBT issues including practical lesson plans for Kindergarten to Grade 12.

With the current Ministry of Education review of the K–12 curriculum in all subject areas, now is the time for your school to consider action. Additionally, once the BC Safe Schools Act passes in the legislature, school districts will be expected to protect LGBT students and their families from harassment and discrimination.

Changes are imminent, so it’s time for all of us to break out of our classroom closets.

The percentage of teenagers in BC who have attempted suicide and their sexual orientation

  • 3.3% heterosexual boys
  • 8.8 % homosexual boys
  • 2.8% bisexual boys
  • 8.2% heterosexual girls
  • 38.0% lesbian girls
  • 30.4% bisexual girls

Source: 2003 McCreary Centre Society Survey

The results were from a new analysis of a 2003 survey of 30,000 students between Grades 7 and 12 done by the BC-based McCreary Centre Society, which asked students if they had attempted suicide in the previous year.

Joan Merrifield teaches Grades 5/6 on Gabriola Island and James Chamberlain teaches Grade 3 in Surrey.

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