Every gay teacher should read this article

Written by: Anonymous | Published:
Image: iStock

If you are a teacher who is gay, failing to tackle an incident in which a student targets your sexuality is the worst thing possible to do. The story that follows is one that every gay teacher should read

I am writing this piece anonymously because I wish to protect the identity of my school and students, rather than myself. I hope one day anonymising won’t be necessary.

As a gay member of the senior leadership team, I am often asked to speak with less experienced teachers who are worried that their sexuality will become an issue in the classroom. Sadly, as gay teachers, we often learn to expect the usual slurs and side-glances upon first meeting students.

And it is absolutely wrong. If it were to happen in the street or a professional work place, we would likely file an official complaint and expect things to change as a result.

But in school, the difference is that we are there to educate our students and we accept that they do not arrive on day one as the perfect citizen, open-minded and courteous. I am a qualified English teacher, but if the only thing I actually taught was English I would consider myself a poor educator.

We also teach life-skills, manners, resilience, confidence, self-belief – the list is endless. We are role-models, whether the students want us to be or not. So how do we teach them that being homosexual is of no significance whatsoever? That it makes us no different to anyone else?

On one of my first days in a role, I taught a lesson I thought had been great. At the end, students had to write on a sticky note what they wanted to achieve in the year they had with me.

Among the pile of A*s and “I-want-to-make-myself-prouds” was one written in big purple felt pen which I recognised as that of a 15-year-old girl who had sat swinging on her chair, staring me out for most of the lesson. I will never forget what it said:
“Ur GAY.”

Every scrap of positivity I felt upon teaching a good lesson with my new class suddenly left me. I didn’t know what to do. I can’t exactly tell you why, but I did the absolute wrong thing. I didn’t tell anyone.

I pretended it never happened. If it didn’t happen, it couldn’t keep getting to me. Moreover, I could continue to teach that student without feeling angry every time. I was in denial.

Lessons were tough with her at first. The student had scant regard for the amount of time I put into marking her work or how creative I had tried to be with the teaching material. She sneered each time I tried to help her out.

Over time, I sanctioned her poor attitude and met with her parents on a number of occasions, but I treated the symptoms without addressing the cause because I genuinely wanted for it never to have happened.

Towards the end of the year, the students were preparing for their GCSEs. She had made little progress in my class whereas the rest of the class were doing extremely well. The head of department decided that perhaps it was time for her to move into another teacher’s class in the run up to exams. I agreed that it was probably the fairest thing to do for her and broached the topic with her after the next class. Her response astounded me. She burst into tears.

“Sir,” she said. “But you’re safe!” This usually means you let them get away with murder, but I knew I hadn’t. “I work harder in your class than in anyone else’s,” she said. She begged to stay, told me I was her favourite teacher and she was going to work harder than she had ever worked to get her grades up.

I must have looked completely shocked. She point-blank refused to move classes. What she said to me has been one of the most formative conversations I have ever had.

She told me that she had hated me when she came into my class because I am gay. She said that despite her rudeness and her inappropriate behaviour, I had always treated her like everyone else.

She said that she didn’t try hard enough but she could show me how much she had learnt in my lessons. She apologised for her rudeness, and said that she didn’t care anymore if I was gay or not.

I set her a mock that night as a way of proving herself. She did more than that with an A grade.

I now share what I learnt that day with every new gay teacher starting at our school who is anxious about their sexuality becoming an issue in the classroom.

Don’t worry about what students think. Instead, show them you care by planning brilliant lessons, marking their work diligently, giving honest feedback and accepting and expecting nothing but the absolute best of them.

You only change minds when you win hearts, and you only do that by making sure they know they are valued.

  • The author of this article is an assistant principal from a school in London and a member of the Future Leaders leadership develop programme. A version of this article first appeared on the Future Leaders blog at www.future-leaders.org.uk/insights-blog

Future Leaders

The Future Leaders programme offers leadership development for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools. Applications to join the 2016 cohort of Future Leaders close on Tuesday, April 26. Find out more and apply at http://bit.ly/future-leaders-2016


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