(This blog post first appeared on the Prajnya Trust’s Peace Blog. I am a fellow with Prajnya, creating resources to sensitize teachers about LGBTQ identities, experiences and issues.)
“As we search for the latest technological advances to increase our effectiveness in education, we can neglect the fundamental need for a school to be a safe and welcoming place for children to learn and thrive….The most common response among young people who feel unsafe is that they close themselves off from others. In a school setting, this leads to students ‘shutting down’, and not responding to their lessons or any other influences that the adults at school will try to impart to them.”
These words of caution come from a booklet called Creating a Safe and Welcoming School, jointly produced by the International Academy of Education in Brussels and the International Bureau of Education in Geneva in 2007. Written by John E. Mayer, an educator and clinical psychologist, this booklet is filled with practical advice for school teachers.
While the author does not engage with the subject of what safety might mean to students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ), I would like to pick out specific excerpts from the booklet to show how teachers can use some of Mayer’s tips to create safe and welcoming schools for LGBTQ students.
“Consider your students as gifts that come into your life each day. Smile at them, thank them for being at school, and offer a positive greeting,” writes Mayer. This is a beautiful recommendation. Students who do not fit into the idea of ‘normal’ are often spoken of in staff meetings as problems that demand too much attention and time. Mayer offers an important reminder. LGBTQ students bring life experiences, perspectives and questions that enrich the school. They need to be appreciated for who they are.
Mayer points out, “Children pick up feelings of safety from very subtle signals in adults. If a student comes to school physically sick and the teacher just ignores their distress, then the other students in the classroom feel unsafe.” Students can tell when teachers are responding to them from a place of prejudice against LGBTQ students. They avoid approaching such teachers for help when they are in distress. Someone who is seen as biased or bigoted is difficult to trust. Students do not feel emotionally safe while confiding in them or expressing vulnerability.
“A child’s perception of time is unique. The time that elapses in a threatening situation can seem like an eternity in the scared child’s mind. Having clear rules and procedures for responding to aggressive acts in the school allows adults to respond immediately,” remarks Mayer. LGBTQ students are bullied on the school playground, during lunch breaks, in toilets, on the school bus, and in classrooms. Hate speech, physical violence and sexual assault often go unreported because schools fail to communicate that such behaviour is unacceptable. In the absence of rules and procedures, the safety of these students is compromised.
Mayer writes, “In a safe and welcoming environment, an academically or emotionally troubled student needs quick attention -- as much as the physically ill.” It is important for LGBTQ students to be able to access support at school for their emotional troubles, especially if they come from homes that require them to suppress or erase their gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. This support could be provided by a counsellor or a teacher that the student is comfortable with. This needs to be someone who will maintain confidentiality because it is closely linked to the safety, dignity and privacy of the student. Providing timely support is necessary so that emotional troubles do not escalate into deeper trauma or irreparable self-harm. Over time, these students will develop skills to cope with the recurring challenges they are likely to face as gender and sexual minorities.
Mayer writes, “Children learn best when the lessons provided in school are supported at home. Certainly, orientation of parents is critically important in gaining their cooperation. But, a school should not rely on just this as its sole method of communication with parents. Other techniques can be employed to solicit this co-operation. He suggests sending each parent a weekly note with details of what the class has been learning during the week, how students have been responding to those topics, how parents can help children grasp the lessons taught at school, etc.
If a school offers learning modules to sensitize students about LGBTQ identities, experiences and issues, the possibility of resistance from some parents is worth planning for. It is helpful for schools to think about and articulate their rationale for this decision, keeping in mind the contexts and communities the students come from. A smart school leader would carefully link these modules to the school's vision or philosophy, which is already known to students and parents. It might even be a good idea to embed these modules into existing subject classes so that objections about loss of academic time can be ruled out.
It is useful to be prepared for such eventualities but it isn’t wise to assume that parents would create difficulties. They could be open-minded. They might go all out to make the child feel safe, welcome and affirmed. However, in the absence of such a scenario, as Mayer says, “The school can become an island in the lives of students. A safe school conveys to the student a feeling of safety, in spite of what is happening outside the school grounds. The school is then seen as a refuge for students. It becomes a place away from the chaos around them.”