The great majority of Canadian teachers support LGBTQ+ education. Considerably fewer have actually addressed LGBTQ+ issues in their classrooms. The authors explore what is holding teachers back, and what will help them move forward.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, Two-Spirit, queer, questioning and other sexual and gender minority (LGBTQ2+) youth are steadily gaining visibility in schools. For years, the prevailing wisdom encouraged silence on topics of sexual and gender diversity, but a profound cultural shift is underway that helps to ensure LGBTQ2+ youth receive the support they need to flourish in schools. The silence has broken and there is reason to be hopeful.
We now have good advice and resources about how to help LGBTQ2+ youth. For instance, in his EdCan Network Fact Sheet1 from October 2018, Dr. Kristopher Wells identifies four key factors that can make a positive difference for LGBTQ2+ students: inclusive curriculum, supportive teachers and school staff, comprehensive policies, and increasing visibility and inclusion across school communities.
We’ve come a long way in the ten years since the First National Climate Survey2 found little evidence of LGBTQ2+ education in Canadian schools, but there is still a lot to be done. Even with strong advocates providing research-based evidence and resources that embody best practices about providing safe and accepting schools for LGBTQ2+ students, we find educators are sometimes still hesitant to engage in LGBTQ2+-inclusive practices in schools.
When we surveyed 3,400 K-12 educators for the Every Teacher Project on LGBTQ-Inclusive Education in Canadian Schools in 2013,3 we found that the majority showed strong support personally and professionally for LGBTQ2+ topics and education, but that fewer were actually engaging with them in their classrooms. (See Figure 1.)
The question is why? Why the difference between educators’ values and their practices?
Every Teacher Project participants identified five main types of barriers that kept them from including LGBTQ2+ related content at all, or integrating it more fully into their teaching practice. By naming the misconceptions and fears educators identify, we want to validate that these feelings and thoughts do exist for many of us and are very real barriers inhibiting our practice. Some fears and apprehensions are well founded. In talking through the fears that educators have expressed, we also have an opportunity to develop a way to move forward.
BARRIER 1: Perceived need for more training, information and/or resources
Fearing that they lacked appropriate training, information, or resources was the most common reason educators provided (33% indicated this held them back from addressing LGBTQ2+ issues). In many ways, this is good news, as it is a barrier that can be readily addressed. With administrative support and prioritization, professional development (PD) training opportunities can be provided, curriculum can be adapted to include LGBTQ2+ content, and resources can be developed and integrated into course materials and school culture. Stakeholders from across the school system, from teacher education programs to departments/ministries and teacher organizations, can all take a role in providing training opportunities and resources. Further, administration can support LGBTQ2+-inclusive education by ensuring that all educators and all staff members in their districts/divisions, schools or regions are provided with training.
Providing training, information and resources also clearly communicates to educators and staff that LGBTQ2+-inclusive education is important. This has the potential to address any concerns educators may have that their administration or school community does not support LGBTQ2+-inclusive education – which we discuss in further detail below.
BARRIER 2: Fear of impact on students
One in three educators (31%) identified student-based reasons for not addressing LGBTQ2+ topics, such as “my students are too young” (20%) and “I don’t want to embarrass LGBTQ2+ students” (10%). Again, this is a concern that can be readily addressed through training, information and resources. There is age-appropriate content at all levels, from discussions of different kinds of families in early years to discussions of healthy sexuality and sex education in upper years. Again, PD training opportunities and curriculum resources can clearly address these apprehensions and communicate support for LGBTQ2+-inclusive education.
BARRIER 3: Fear of parent/guardian, community or religious opposition
Many teachers and educators have heard stories about parent/guardian, community, or religious groups staging protests or objecting vocally and publicly about LGBTQ2+ inclusion. While we do not want to deny that these complaints or moments of opposition occur, we do want to provide some perspective. Looking to the research, we see that of those educators who have included LGBTQ2+ content, only one in five (19%) received any complaints, and of those who did receive complaints, 72% reported that they had been supported by their principal or administration. Only about one in 20 educators who included LGBTQ2+ content had received a complaint without experiencing the support of school officials.
Religious school contexts make the situation more challenging, but not dramatically so: educators in Catholic schools were only slightly more likely to receive complaints than those in non-religious schools (22% Catholic vs. 18% secular), and educators were only slightly less likely to support LGBTQ2+-inclusive education (83% Catholic vs. 85% secular). However, educators in Catholic schools were much more likely to report that a lack of training prevented them from practicing LGBTQ2+-inclusive education (29% Catholic vs. 17% secular).
Community opposition can be a very real barrier, and “reading” one’s community climate is important. But there are also supportive individuals, both within the school and outside it. There are allies among students, parents/guardians, community members, colleagues and administration – particularly when backed by legislation, policy, training or clearly communicated messages of support from your school or district/division.
BARRIER 4: Fear of career repercussions
One in five educators (21%) agreed with the statement, “Discussing LGBTQ issues with my students would jeopardize my job.” (This was exacerbated for LGBTQ2+ educators, with 34% agreeing their job would be in jeopardy). Job status also affected educators’ readiness to address LGBTQ2+ topics (e.g. 28% of those on term contracts reported that their lack of a permanent contract prevented them). Fear of career repercussions can be a very real barrier, but it is one that principals, superintendents and policy-makers or legislators can address by clearly communicating support for LGBTQ2+-inclusive education throughout the school system.
For example, legislation exists in some provinces/territories and ministry/department of education policy exists in others that provides guidelines about what is expected of educators regarding LGBTQ2+ protections and inclusions. However, legislation and policy may not be enough to assuage the fears or anxieties of all employees. There is a clear need for school system administration to articulate and endorse LGBTQ2+ inclusion to create a culture of support throughout the system. With the backing of integrated supports, such as clear policies, PD opportunities, and availability of resources, administration can dispel fears that educators may be disciplined for engaging in LGBTQ2+-inclusive practices.
BARRIER 5: Fear of opposition from within the school community
A barrier reported by a smaller number of participants was opposition from within their school community (14%), such as opposition from school administration (6%), school trustees (4%) and/or colleagues (4%). The easiest way for educators and administrators to address these apprehensions among their colleagues is to find opportunities to make their own support for LGBTQ2+ people and LGBTQ2+-inclusive education clear. Some school districts/divisions and some teacher organizations have organized GSA-style support networks or groups for educators. Teacher organizations offer support for all teachers in many ways – from PD opportunities and training to resources and employment protections – not least of which is informational. They can certainly tell educators what legislative supports exist in their province/territory and what policies are in place (either at the local level of your school board/district/division or at the provincial/territorial level), and can offer advice about resources or LGBTQ2+ practices.
Although these fears are sometimes groundless, whether well-founded or not they can act as real barriers to providing the supports that LGBTQ2+ students need. But it is worth reminding ourselves that virtually all LGBTQ2+ youth experience apprehension and fear when they think about coming out or when they enter unsafe spaces: they aren’t sure how their friends, families, classmates and communities will react or how disclosing their identity might change their lives. Despite their fears, many LGBTQ2+ youth make that leap – and we need to support their courage by summoning it in ourselves.
Educators should know that there is more support for this work than they may think. The long history of silence surrounding gender and sexual diversity in schools leaves the impression that many people do not support LGBTQ2+ inclusion in schools. In fact, the actual support for LGBTQ2+-inclusive education is higher than is often assumed. For instance, when asked about how confident they were that colleagues would support them if they wanted to address LGBTQ topics in the classroom, 67% of educators felt their colleagues would support them; comparatively, 85% of educators approved of LGBTQ2+-inclusive education. It is, of course, true that some people do not support it and will object, but they are in the minority. This is also true among students; in the First National Climate Survey, 58% of non-LGBTQ2+ students reported that they too were distressed when they witnessed homophobic harassment.5 These and other findings from our research suggest that there is unrealized and untapped support within the school community, among both colleagues and students.
There are some relatively low-risk ways for educators and school officials to build a culture of support for LGBTQ2+-inclusive education.
- Find or create opportunities to find support for and discuss LGBTQ2+-inclusive practices and visibility in schools. Establishing dialogue and finding ways to identify allies who are supportive of LGBTQ2+-inclusive education is an important step and can establish useful connections. Whether these are formal events or informal staff-room conversations, the result can be the same: finding supportive people and those who are interested in developing LGBTQ2+ practices in schools.
- Provide professional development. PD opportunities are vital not only for developing capacity and confidence in LGBTQ2+-inclusive education, practices and advocacy, but to provide opportunities to clearly communicate support. Through PD opportunities, administration and educators working throughout the school system have an opportunity to establish themselves as allies and to identify LGBTQ2+-inclusive education as a priority in their schools. PD provides useful information, but more than this it communicates that LGBTQ2+ inclusion is a priority, authorizing educators to take action on these issues.
- Listen to educators. When asked about what was needed in schools to help them do this work, teachers indicated a range of interventions would be helpful to them – from establishing safe spaces in their schools and identifying allies for LGBTQ2+ students, to having actively supportive administrators, access to training, and strategies for respectful inclusion of LGBTQ2+ topics and persons in curriculum and in school events/activities. (See Figure 3.) Looking back over the barriers that educators identified, we can see that this wish list of supports aligns with teachers’ fears and misconceptions and provides useful paths forward.
- Use the available research. Research helps to tell us about what climate is like in schools and ways to engage effectively in LGBTQ2+-inclusive education. It is extremely helpful to find ways to support research on both a national level – such as in Egale Canada’s Second National Student Climate Survey on Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (currently in preparation; see https://egale.ca for more details) – and at a local level, such as within one’s own school district/division. Research from students and teachers provides clear evidence that can support advocacy efforts, policy development and legislation, and resource development.
AS LGBTQ2+ STUDENTS gain visibility in schools, educators are increasingly recognizing the importance of providing safe, respectful and accepting schools and classrooms. The Every Teacher Project was conducted with the active support of every teacher organization in the publicly-funded school systems of Canada, which led to participation by thousands of teachers and made it the largest study on teachers’ perspectives on LGBTQ2+-inclusive education to date worldwide. While many teachers expressed apprehensions about how best to do this work, educators clearly support LGBTQ2+-inclusive education and they have identified what they need from their colleagues and administrators to do it well: support for those who are engaged in the work, encouragement through PD and capacity-building training, resources that support LGBTQ2+ inclusion, and clearly communicated support for the work at all levels of the school system.
Photo: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, May 2019
2 C. Taylor, T. Peter, T., et al., Every Class in Every School: The first national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools. Final report (Toronto, ON: Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, 2011). www.uwinnipeg.ca/rise
3 C. Taylor, T. Peter, C. Campbell, E. Meyer, J. Ristock, and D. Short, D. The Every Teacher Project on LGBTQ Inclusive Education in Canada’s K-12 Schools: Final report (Winnipeg, MB: Manitoba Teachers’ Society, 2015). www.uwinnipeg.ca/rise
4 While LGBTQ2+ is Education Canada’s “house style,” LGBTQ was used in the survey.
5 Every Class in Every School: The first national climate survey, 2011.