It’s the start of a new school year, which means reuniting with old friends, adjusting to new classrooms, and everyone’s favorite – homework! Prepping to go back to school isn’t just something that students have to do though; parents and teachers have a lot to do too. Just like students have to get ready for classes, parents and teachers have to get ready to support students!
At Break the Cycle, we know that one of the most important aspects of settling back into school is finding community. Feeling safe, secure, and celebrated is an important part of getting, and providing, a strong education. When students feel accepted, they thrive socially and academically. However, when students feel unsupported, targeted, or invisible, the quality of their education is affected. This includes our students who identify as LGBTQ*. In this article you'll see we use the acronym LGBTQ*; We understand that identities are not limited to the terms represented by the letters in this acronym and through its usage aim to be representative of the entirety of identities across the queer spectrum.
So how can these safe and inclusive communities be established? Great question!
To celebrate our newly released LGBTQ* Inclusivity Tip Sheet Series, we sat down with a few people to hear why they think creating an LGBTQ* inclusive educational environment is important. Together, they share their experiences with inclusive and unwelcoming campus atmospheres, and also highlight some tips and strategies for establishing and enhancing inclusive learning environments.
What does an LGBTQ(+) inclusive learning community look like?
Rebecca Kijek, High School Teacher (Chicago, IL): I see this type of learning community as open. It’s a community where youth success is the central objective. Not just academic success, but social and emotional success as well.
Ginger Isenberg, College Senior (Grand Rapids, MI): I think of inclusivity all around; a comfortable place for everyone to be honest about who they are, regardless of their differences.
How do you feel anti-LGBTQ* incidents affect students in an educational community (school, workshops, teach-ins, etc.)?
Ginger: I really think they have a negative impact on the community as a whole, and there is definitely an impact on learning. You can’t go to school and pay attention when people are constantly berating you.
Knowing the impact that incidents targeting LGBTQ* students (like bullying or a lack of representation in course materials) can have, what do you do to be LGBTQ* inclusive?
Kijek: I do not pull away from having difficult conversations with students. This comes with varying levels of push back, but a classroom norm of mine is to explore controversial ideas while still being respectful and open. For example, I do not simply give students a list of words they are not allowed to use in my classroom, but also explain to them why these things are inappropriate and what a pejorative [a word expressing contempt] is.
Ginger: When I’m training, I don’t really use pronouns. No one seems to notice. I always use “they”*
Kijek: My classes focus on providing my students with heroes they can relate to; my classroom is decorated wall-to-wall in posters representing a variety of individuals and events. (EX: Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, Assata Shakur, Madres de Plaza de Mayo, Audre Lorde, Grace Lee and Jimmy Boggs, Act-Up Philadelphia, etc.).
What challenges have you run into when working to create LGBTQ* inclusive spaces or programming?
Kijek: Within my classroom challenges have varied. Each school I have taught in has been in vastly different communities. At the most diverse building, creating an LGBTQ* inclusive space was much easier due to the variety of different cultures and a norm of being exposed to diversity. The most challenging school was due to a largely hyper masculine society/community. Aside from developing LGBTQ* inclusive spaces in my classroom, I haven’t seen many initiatives in the school I have worked in develop those spaces. It really just seems like it's done on an individual basis within certain teachers’ classrooms.
What kind of advice would you give to someone who is struggling with being LGBTQ* inclusive?
Kijek: Many of my students have strong prejudices because of how culturally isolated they have been growing up and sometimes do not realize the weight of their words or actions. When these issues arise, I have a discussion with the student or whole class about the implications of their remarks and possible causes of that prejudice. It is important that I do not dismiss students who may say prejudiced things. If I do not provide a space for difficult conversations simply because they are difficult, I am doing my students an injustice.
Ginger: A lot of people aren’t inclusive because they’re scared; they’re afraid of what they don’t know. You don’t have to distance yourself. Try talking to non-LGBTQ*, but inclusive folks. Learning will help [you] gain a better understanding. Try to find things you have in common to learn that you aren’t so different.
Kijek: I think the best advice is to be open with your students about what you want to do and if you don’t know how to get there ask them what they need from you. Even if a student cannot articulate what they need, they at least know you are open to helping them and are trying to make a difference. So often our students are faced with adults who are not honest with them. Be real with your students; make your ignorance, faults, and honest intentions clear to them, and they will respect you and trust you as you work towards creating the best space possible for them.
*Curious about what Ginger means when she says pronouns? Check out Break the Cycle’s LGBTQ* Inclusivity in Education Trainings Tip Sheet!
Rebecca Kijek is an Economics and Sociology teacher at Kennedy High School is Chicago, IL.
Ginger Isenberg is a Senior at Grand Valley State University with a background in community education.