Posters on walls in schools don’t cut it – it’s how teachers and school leaders deal with specific incidents that really makes a difference, says Annette Pryce.
Here’s a story: it’s about a teenage girl who was 14 when she came out at school as a lesbian. After months of verbal abuse and no support, a senior teacher caught her truanting.
When he discovered the reason, he asked her how she knew she was gay, asked if she “knew what lesbians did in bed”, then asked her to “describe it for him”, prompting her with details of possible activities that two women would engage in.
It doesn’t end there. He mused about what he would tell her parents if she was physically attacked (as though it was inevitable) and bullied her into telling her parents: “I’ll give you until Friday to tell them or I’ll tell them for you.”
Wind this story forward 18 years.The teacher became a head. The 14-year-old girl went on to become the LGBT executive member for the National Union of Teachers. This is my story.
When I became a teacher, I made it my mission to ensure that history didn’t repeat itself
I needed an ally when I was 14, but there was no one in my corner. When I became a teacher, I made it my mission to ensure that history didn’t repeat itself. Despite this, I spent the first eight years in the closet (to students) as a PE teacher. I then switched subjects, came out and never looked back.
One major element of being an ally in schools, whoever you are, is about challenging negative language. Not all of it has homophobic, biphobic or transphobic intent, but can be just as damaging.
It isn’t all about assemblies and posters on the walls – though these help – it is more about being there in the moment. When it’s just you and 30 students and someone in that class has said something offensive, what will you say?
What will you say on behalf of that student who wants to melt into their chair? What will you say to that student who comes out to you?
There is a confidence gap for most teachers and leaders and some teachers even believe it is a safeguarding issue when a student comes out to them. It isn’t.
Here are five basic principles you should be aware of to be an effective ally:
Understand your privilege: you feel safe, they won’t
Them coming out to you will be the biggest thing they’ll tell you, so don’t trivialise it and don’t make any assumptions. On that note, bisexual students are probably not confused, and trans students are likely to have known for a long time before they take the step of confiding in you.
Listen and do your homework
Don’t expect them to educate you but conversely, don’t explain to them what you think is going on. Accept that you may find yourself challenged, but don’t judge.
Speak up – not over
Don’t ignore negative language when it happens. We always worry that we won’t have enough time to deal with these incidents, but taking the time in the first instance will have a domino effect, and next time it will take less.
You’ll make mistakes
It’s OK to not have all the answers, or to not know exactly what to say. You can only do your best and silence is so much worse. Don’t make them believe that not trying is the way to go through life
Ally is a verb
Don’t give colleagues a free pass. If you care about your students you’ll care about them in other classrooms. Challenging staffroom homophobia/biphobia/transphobia is just as important.
Being an ally isn’t just about being a hero to everyone; sometimes just one is enough. As teachers and leaders we face choices in the classroom and corridors every day, and some days we choose to speak up and help students see beyond bigotry and hatred through to compassion and understanding.
Assemblies, posters on the walls and LGBT history months are great, but it’s those small moments that can make all the difference.
Annette Pryce is the National Union of Teachers LGBT executive equality seat holder