From preschool to high school, teachers have a magical opportunity to make life safer and less scary for the students who enter their classroom each school year. Many teachers take pride in the responsibility of tough moments with a student. They help students navigate the logistics of their day while trying to meet needs that stem from different socioeconomic, religious, and racial backgrounds.
Many of these differences are right on the surface and hard to ignore—at least hard not to notice. But for LGBTQIA+ students and families, layers of compassion, sensitivity, and acts of allyship need to be added to the margin notes of curriculum lessons.
According to Human Rights Campaign’s 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report, only 26% of LGBTQ youth always feel safe in the classroom. Most LGBTQ youth do not feel safe. These numbers can be changed with an informed and mindful teacher who is willing to make their classroom affirming and inclusive for LGBTQIA+ students.
To be fair to the teachers, it is up to the school’s administration, principals, and community leaders to be sure teachers have access to thorough, consistent, and reoccurring training on gender, sexuality, and gender expression. Teachers, like their students, need the tools to make them successful in the classroom. A teacher’s success when it comes to understanding LGBTQIA+ topics can be translated into the decreased amount of depression, anxiety, and self-harm queer student experiences while in their classroom. Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center proves that bullied LGBTQ students, if they identify one supportive adult in the school they trust, they are less likely to face adverse consequences. A teacher can be that one supportive adult.
Whether you know that you have a student who identifies as LGBTQIA+ or not (assume that you do) and no matter if you have been given the appropriate training (demand it!) on these topics, you can create an inclusive classroom with a few easy-to-implement changes.
1. Pronoun Use
Adding your pronouns to name tags, stating pronouns during introductions, and starting lessons with your pronouns are great ways to establish respect for all identities in your classroom. It can be as simple as this:
“Hi, my name is Ms./Mrs. Smith. I use she/her pronouns.” (Female identity.)
“Hi, my name is Mr. Smith. I use he/him pronouns.” (Male identity.)
“Hi, my name is Mx. Smith. I use they/them pronouns.” (Nonbinary, neither male or female identity.)
Stating your pronouns lets students know how you identify and gives them the space to do the same. It also acknowledges that someone may not identify with an assumed gender based on their gender expression. It opens the door for conversations around gender-neutral pronouns, gender fluidity (it’s not binary!), and the power of asking someone who they are and how they want to be seen. And for those of you still stuck on the fact that “they” is a plural pronoun only—here is a handy reminder from The American Heritage Dictionary that the greatest in literature have been using the word “they” as a singular pronoun for hundreds of years.
Get in the habit of saying your pronouns and be sure to ask students what pronouns they use. Respect is a two-way street.
2. Visible Signs of Allyship
Add Pride flags to the pencil cup on your desk. Put Safe Space stickers and posters from GLSEN and Welcoming Schools to show you have a zero tolerance policy for bullying, specifically against LGBTQ students. Add a rainbow button or ally sticker to your badge or lanyard. Only 13% of youth hear positive messages about being LGBTQ in school. You can change that by showing your support because actions can be really loud, especially for those kids who need to see and hear signs of acceptance. I always breathe a little easier when I see a rainbow or transgender flag in medical offices or places of business. Your students will relax a little too.
3. Talk About Queer People
By incorporating LGBTQ history and queer history makers into curriculum already in place you are normalizing diversity of sexuality and gender identity. Instead of victimizing or shaming queer folks, you are shining positive light on the brave, smart, and innovative LGBTQ history makers who deserve as much credit as the heterosexual and cisgender folks who made their marks at the same time. Representation matters. Everyday conversations that include identities outside of the heteronormative narrative help LGBTQIA+ students feel less alone. You are also providing a service to the student allies you want to create and encourage. Talking about LGBTQIA+ folks in a positive way provides a layer of respect for what some students have never been exposed to and fights against ignorance and bigotry a student may experience at home.
4. Use Inclusive Language
Start (or continue!) to make forms, lesson plans, and everyday conversations inclusive for all genders and family types—kids will practice what they hear. There is no need to welcome or group kids by gender, nor should you assume gender can only be male or female. And be sure to expand roles of folks beyond gender stereotypes. For example, women and nonbinary folks can fight fires too, so stop saying fireman and say firefighter instead.
Eliminate saying, “Hi boys and girls!” and try “Hi friends/students/learners/3rd graders/etc.”
And when talking about caregivers, eliminate the assumption a child lives with a mom and dad or a mom or dad at all. Asking a child about the “adult” or “guardian” at home allows them to provide details about their family in an open way without shame or having to go along with an assumption because of fear. Inclusive language reduces a student’s emotional labor of having to correct and explain your ignorance, even if it is accidental.
I recognize all of this will take practice. And I know people will make mistakes. But keep trying and keep asking your school district to provide LGBTQIA+ training so you are more informed and comfortable. I promise that all of these changes are great conversation starters and provide ongoing discussions throughout the school year.
From my closeted elementary-aged self to the closeted and scared kid not sure who they can trust, thank you for being that person. I wish I had you when I was in school.