Gender and Schooling

Ending bullying and harassment, and promoting sexual diversity in schools.

Teaching sexuality: How much can we expect from classroom teachers?

Should teachers be prepared to discuss gender and sexuality issues?

Recently, there have been many stories in the news about revisions to schools' sex ed (MT, ON) programs as well as new anti-bullying laws in New York and Illinois. Usually much of the controversy revolves around attempts to include education and support for children and families who fall somewhere outside of the social norms for heterosexual masculinity and femininity. These policies and curriculum reforms are necessary to protect students from bullying and harassment as well as to reduce discrimination against many targeted groups - particularly bisexual, gay, lesbian, queer, questioning, transgender, and two-spirit people and families. Teachers are the main professionals responsible for implementing these reforms; however most lack the training and knowledge in these areas to do so effectively. What can be done to improve educators' knowledge and awareness of issues related to sexual diversity? Is it worth risking the public controversy to do so? Should teachers be expected to address these issues? What can be done to initiate these changes?

In my new book Gender and Sexual Diversity in Schools (Explorations of Educational Purpose) , I introduce some common myths and misconceptions related to integrating these issues into school life:

  1. When talking about sexual or gender diversity, it really just means teaching about homosexuality.
  2. Learning about gender and sexuality isn't relevant for education professionals and youth workers- particularly those in elementary education.
  3. Teaching about gender and sexual diversity is controversial and should be avoided in schools.
  4. Some religions teach that homosexuality is wrong, so schools shouldn't talk about sexual diversity as it may violate some students' religious or cultural beliefs.

Why teach about gender and sexual diversity?
Issues relating to gender and sexual diversity have always been present in schools. Many aspects of school life are constructed around traditional sex roles: girls and boys would enter the school building from separate doors, girls studied home economics and boys went to wood shop. Teachers were unmarried women and principals and superintendents were men (Blount, 1996, 2005). Although in the 21st century many of these traditions have become less rigid, the lasting impacts of these practices are still felt today.


"I'm Glad I'm a Boy! I'm Glad I'm a Girl"
Schools play a key role in teaching and reinforcing the dominant values of the culture and this holds especially true in areas of gender and sexuality. From the first day they enter pre-school or kindergarten, children are identified by their sex on registration forms, referred to as "boys and girls," and their gender is consistently practiced and reinforced through stories, free play, and interactions with their teachers and their peers (Blaise, 2005; Renold, 2000). Schools are also a popular site for exploring exclusive relationships with "best friends" in primary school and "boyfriends" or "girlfriends" in the later years (Renold, 2003, 2006). It is often where youth develop their first crushes and learn about families, relationships, reproduction, and what society expects them to be. So much of what occurs in school is gendered or sexualized and for this reason it is important that educators have a strong understanding of how systems of sex, gender, and sexuality operate in the K-12 setting.


I have taught about issues related to gender and sexual diversity in schools for the past fifteen years and am used to experiencing resistance from students, parents, and professional educators on the topic. It is common for students to resist discussing topics that make them uncomfortable or for which they have no previous experiences in schools.  It is important for educators to become knowledgeable about these issues for four main reasons: student safety, physical and emotional health, diversity and equity, and student engagement and success. Chapter 1 of my book addresses each of these areas in -depth and is a good starting place for anyone interested in learning more about these topics and how they affect the safety and well-being of all members of a school community.

Impacts of teacher training
The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) recently released a report discussing the outcomes of its collaboration with NYC public schools to offer training to their teachers, counsellors, and administrators on issues related to gender and sexual diversity. In this report, the researchers stated that:


Findings from the Year One evaluation demonstrate that this training program is an effective means for developing the competency of educators to address bias-based bullying and harassment, and to create safer school environments for LGBTQ students. The findings suggest that providing such training to all school staff, including administrators, would result in an even stronger effect on the school environment. Furthermore, ensuring sufficient opportunities for developing educators' skills in intervening in anti- LGBTQ behaviors could enhance the effectiveness of trainings. To maintain the benefits of training, staff should receive continued and advanced professional development opportunities related to supporting LGBTQ students and combating bias-based bullying and harassment. (pg v)


"I'm Glad I'm a Boy! I'm Glad I'm a Girl"
These findings offer compelling evidence that teachers and other education professionals can benefit from more extensive and focused education on issues related to gender and sexual diversity. Most of the participants in this program had never received any training or information on these subjects. This is why it is important for schools of education and programs that work with current and education professionals incorporate these topics into their curriculum. Education professionals must take it upon themselves to continue their own professional development in areas of weakness, but universities, accreditation groups such as NCATE, and teachers' unions need to work together to address these gaps. There are many community resources, films, books, and other curriculum and policy guides available written by experts with extensive experience in the field. Sadly, these resources aren't being widely used and students and families in our public school system suffer.

7 things you can do to improve the gender and sexual diversity climate in your community and/or school

  1. If you are a parent: call your school or school district and ask what sort of training and workshops are provided to educational staff to prepare them to address anti-gay bullying, include and support children of gay and lesbian parents, and promote diversity and acceptance of all children and families. Volunteer to be on a working group to address these issues in your community.
  2. If you are a teacher or school counsellor: use the summertime to plan a curricular unit or collaborate with colleagues on a school project that will educate your students and school community on these issues. GLSEN.org and GALE-BC have some excellent ideas for all grade levels.
  3. If you are a student: talk to your family or another trusted adult about what is going on at your school and what you'd like to see changed: more books about gender and sexual diversity in the school or town library? Better enforcement of the school's anti-bullying policy? Starting a Gay-Straight Alliance? Ask for their help and suggestions - start a Facebook group to get your friends involved!
  4. If you are an administrator or member of a governing board: initiate talks to invite an expert to offer a full or half-day training to your school or school board personnel about these issues. Include a plan to have this topic revisited in school-wide in-service days at least every two years.
  5. Extend your own knowledge on these issues by reading books, watching videos, or attending local workshops and events. There is an extensive list of resources proposed in my book Gender, Bullying, and Harassment: Strategies to End Sexism and Homophobia in Schools .
  6. Sign this online petition against reinforcing traditional gender roles through sex-segregated schooling.
  7. Sign this online petition asking your local representative to take action to support the Safe Schools Improvement Act.

References

Blaise, M. (2005). Playing it straight!: Uncovering gender discourses in the early childhood classroom. New York: Routledge Press.

Blount, J. M. (1996). Manly Men and Womanly Women: Deviance, Gender Role Polarization, and the Shift in Women's School Employment, 1900-1976. Harvard Educational Review, v66 n2 p318-38 Sum 1996.

Blount, J. M. (2005). Fit to Teach: Same-sex desire, gender, and school work in the twentieth century. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Meyer, E. J. (2009). Gender, bullying, and harassment: Strategies to end sexism and homophobia in schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Meyer, E. J. (2010). Gender and Sexual Diversity in Schools. New York, NY: Springer.

Renold, E. (2000). 'Coming Out': gender (hetero)sexuality and the primary school. Gender and Education, 12(3), 309-326.

 

 

 

Elizabeth Meyer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California.

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