LGBT+ in the classroom: I am (not) what I am

Written by: Nadine Pittam | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Being a teacher sometimes requires us to forcibly gather our strength to make it through the gates. Gathering strength, gearing up, putting on one’s armour – but must it also include denying one’s self? Nadine Pittam discusses the challenges of being an LGBT+ teacher

I have had a long and successful teaching career and I am proud of the relationships I have built and the differences I have made, but I have crushed part of myself in order to do it. I have always believed that if I am a good enough classroom practitioner, then the issue of me being queer will not raise its head.

And, to be fair, it has not raised its head in my classroom. Ever. But it has prowled around me as I have walked the corridors and done my break duties; it has even (almost literally) smacked me in the face during a cover lesson.

This has meant that, to protect myself over the 18 years of my career, I have oscillated between being myself and disguising myself.

Those of us who have tried to deny our feelings about anything at any point in our lives will know that this kind of incongruent living is soul-sucking. But the alternative – to be one’s self – is hardly a walk in the park either.

There is something about being a teacher that often makes the out-of-classroom behaviour-related conversations we have with young people unsatisfying, especially if the incident is personally offensive. Perhaps it is the fact that these conversations occur in the corridor when we do not have time or space to deal with the student.

Or maybe it is that we have to keep facing the students, day after day, so not only must we challenge everything – “what we ignore is what we allow” – but we must also be professional, even when under personal attack.

If someone levelled homophobic abuse at me in the street I could react adult to adult. That is not an option in a school, and rightly so – there is a degree of containment that needs to happen.

It is not as simple as: the attack is personal and I give a personal response. As a teacher, I must instantly calculate exactly how much more of my personal self I am needing to bring to this situation to resolve it satisfactorily – for the student’s social and moral development, but also for myself and – ahem – even a little for “my people”!

What do you look like?

Teenagers are so often frightened of difference. Any trait which puts us in the minority, whether that is race, gender, age, size, liking wearing crimplene skirts (the list is inexhaustible) will leave us at the mercy of this fearful demographic.

I have been speaking with colleagues (indeed much of the comment in this article comes from them) and it seems that students’ chosen bullying arena is largely focused on appearance. Some students struggle when we do not fit their narrow Instagram-led criteria about what it is “acceptable” to look like (acceptable to that teenager, safely ensconced in the dominant demographic in their school and community). In order to make themselves feel more included, teenagers project onto others their fears about being excluded – of course, that is the essence of bullying.

The law

When I qualified, Section 28 was still written into law: “A local authority shall not (a) promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality; (b) promote ... the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

Back then, the likes of former prime minister Theresa May spoke out in support of Section 28. She said: “Most parents want the comfort of knowing Section 28 is there.”

I feared I could have been prosecuted for mentioning I had a female partner.

Since then, the legalisation of gay marriage has delivered an incredibly powerful message to society, and now sexual orientation is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act. But not all society has caught up. Research has shown that if, for example, a person mentions on their CV that they had done past voluntary work with an LGBT+ organisation, that person would be less likely to be invited to interview (Drydakis, 2015).

What can schools do?

I spoke with a series of senior leaders, an Ofsted inspector, an RSE liaison worker, a consultant and a headteacher. Essentially, the message is the same: schools need to create an environment of tolerance and respect. How that environment is created entails more than simply stating in glossy brochures that “we do not tolerate bullying”. So what can we do?

Face it head on

  • If a student is trying to intimidate, bully or offend a member of staff, talk to the student. The head must have some stability in their mind about the issue: s/he must, for example, not only know the law but must also be able to say the word lesbian without flinching. The Equality Act is there as back-up, as is an educational establishment’s need to promote tolerance as a British value. The Proud Trust run courses – send someone on one.
  • Steer it away from the personal because that is where the pressure (and, potentially, the shame) comes. The picture is more positive than it was even five years ago. When the inspector I spoke with asks students the required questions to assess the integration of the Equalities Act, she says students nearly always give a positive response and are nearly always open, even in faith schools. This rosy picture is tempered, however, by the fact that no-one I spoke to for this article could recall a member of staff who was “out” in a faith school.
  • Create an atmosphere where issues of tolerance and wholesale acceptance are part of the conversation. Punishment is rarely the most effective way of dealing with this kind of issue. Fixed term exclusions might send a message to other students, but what message are they sending to the excluded student?
  • Is the head able to manage a conversation like this? Restorative conversations are incredibly powerful, but they do need to be carefully managed. Do your research. Train a select few members of staff to hold the restorative conversations. Have a fall-back script or form that staff can follow.
  • Restorative conversations can track the events that led up to the moment of abuse. Ask the accused student to: identify the point at which, during the chain of events, they could have behaved differently; think about the impact on involved parties (the student themselves, on their parents, on the teacher). Furthermore, set up a mediated meeting to rebuild something in that space. Encourage both parties to make steps to rebuild what has been broken.

Restorative conversations

Imagine a teacher has been assaulted or seriously harassed. It might not seem easy for that teacher to have to face the student, even if it is in a controlled and safe restorative meeting. But how much better that the student is encouraged to look into the teacher’s eyes, to see the harm they have caused, than the teacher spend the rest of term in fear of encountering that student in a pack on the corridor? Surely then education would be doing its job.

Don’t make it the teachers’ responsibility every time

While I understand that many LGBT+ teachers are “out” and open (in an appropriately professional way) with their students, more than half are not (SecEd, 2018). I am aware that shame grows where there is secrecy and silence, and that openness removes a bully’s power, but secrets are such for a reason – teachers need to be human, yes, but they also need private lives.

In fact, being private about personal relationships is no doubt a prudent and appropriate step for any teacher, but, every single gay person I have ever spoken to has danced around with pronouns at some point in their lives. If you are in a heterosexual relationship, just try to avoid mentioning the gender of your partner, even for a week...

Educate or punish?

Educational establishments have an obligation to educate. Some leaders might think that if the student is intentionally intimidating, maybe that is when the school needs to think about punishment as well as education. It is for each head to decide, of course. What is certain, though, is that students must be supported to see staff as human beings first: humanising the teacher is key, because in the vast majority of cases the student’s abusive comment is just a weapon, not their moral code.

Conclusion

My gay teacher friends and I do not necessarily want to deliver a sensational coming out speech in a whole-school assembly, but if we are not supported by whole-school policies and values then we must deny who we are on a daily basis just to get through the school gates. And that is enough to drive us back out of the car park and out of teaching.

  • Nadine Pittam has been “closeted” for almost all of her 18 years in teaching. She has just decided to step out of the closet and out of teaching and is now a counsellor working with teachers.

Further information & resources


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