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 [amazon 9048185580], I introduce some common myths and misconceptions related to integrating these issues into school life:
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.
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)
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
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.