What You Can Do to Be a Teacher Ally to LGBTQ+ Students

Sam Berlin and Tammy Berlin

Earlier this month we shared with you one educator’s story about his experience being a teacher who is out of the closet in Kentucky.  Today my kiddo and I would like to share some tips with you for making sure that your school and your classroom give LGBTQ+ students the support they need to learn, grow, and thrive.  

Why is it important to be an ally to LGBTQ+ students?  

As educators, we want the best for our students.  We spend countless hours planning engaging learning experiences, individualizing instruction, and designing interventions to make sure that every student will be successful.  But for many LGBTQ+ students, the secret sauce that helps them grow and thrive isn’t in how well the teacher plans and delivers instruction, it’s in a school environment that respects them and values their identity, and in the caring and supportive relationships they have with teachers and their peers in their school community.  According to the most recent National School Climate Survey, we as educators have plenty of opportunities to improve school climate and become more supportive of our LGBTQ+ students.   

Recent data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey show that LGBTQ+ students are more than twice as likely as their peers to experience bullying at school and online.  Bullying puts students at increased risk for mental illness, suicidal ideation, drug and alcohol abuse, risky sexual behavior, and decreased academic success.  Students who are bullied at school are 10% more likely to miss school because of safety concerns, and may be at increased risk of becoming enmeshed in the juvenile justice system.  

How can we make the school community a safe environment for our LGBTQ+ students?

Even though our LGBTQ+ students face a number of threats at school, we as educators have the power to make a difference for them.   Here are a few steps you can take in your classroom, your school, and your district.

Enact policies at the local level to make school a safe and respectful learning environment for all students.  

Make sure your district and school have policies for gender-neutral facilities usage and equal access to school activities and events.  The courts have upheld a student’s right to use the restroom for the gender that they identify with.  In addition, more and more schools and districts are enacting policies that allow trans students to participate on sports teams that correspond to their identified gender.  Some schools have instituted policies ensuring that students are able to participate in proms and other school functions with their same-sex partners. In order to ensure that your school and your district is fully inclusive of all students, it is important to pass policies that protect LGBTQ+ students’ rights to fully utilize the school campus and participate in school functions in a way that is inclusive to their gender identity and sexual orientation. You can find model policy language for schools and districts on the GLSEN website.

Make sure your students have access to a Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club at school.  

According to the National School Climate Survey, LGBTQ+ students who have a GSA in their school report hearing fewer homophobic remarks at school, experience less harassment and assault because of their gender expression, are more likely to report harassment and assault when it occurs, are less likely to feel unsafe because of their gender expression or sexual orientation, are less likely to miss school because of safety concerns, and feel a greater sense of belonging to their school community.  

“Flag” yourself as a supportive educator.  

Students feel safer at school and are more successful overall when they have trusted adults who support them.  Identify yourself as an ally by displaying a pride flag or an ally sticker on your door, or you can signal to students in your class by sharing your pronouns with them and inviting them to share their preferred pronouns with you.  

Call your students by their correct names and pronouns.  

Speaking of pronouns, it is important to honor your students’ identities by using their correct pronouns and their correct name.  Trans students may have a name that they prefer to be called that reflects the gender that they identify with. When people call them by their “dead name” instead of their correct name, it can perpetuate trauma that they may be experiencing due to people not acknowledging them for who they are. Mistakes can happen and if you slip up, apologize to the student as soon as possible. Don’t try to excuse the mistake, just promise to be better.  

Be aware of students who are in distress.  

School can be overwhelming for students who are bullied or who are marginalized because of their gender or sexual identity.  In addition, many of these students face additional problems and trauma at home and outside of school. These students may act out or seem withdrawn or unengaged at school due to the stress that they are under.  It is important for teachers to notice these students and direct them to help when needed.

Let students see themselves in the curriculum.

It’s important for students to see themselves in the curriculum.  Integrating LGBTQ+ history, literature, and art into your curriculum boosts students self-esteem, and increases positive interactions between LGBTQ+ students and their peers.   

You can find other information and ideas to help you and your colleagues be LBGTQ+ allies at the GLSEN Safe Space Tool Kit.

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