Photo of GSA students in a circle

I had a long career of teaching, first in deaf and special education, and then in elementary language arts, but I wasn’t an outspoken ally to LGBTQ youth until my last year in schools, when I served as a GSA advisor. It was through this experience that I learned how to best fulfill my role as an educator in empowering my LGBTQ students to create change in our school. Here are three tips I learned:

1. Step up.

In my last year of teaching elementary language arts, the high school in my district had just started a GSA and had an advisor who retired and they needed another advisor to keep the club running. Through the grapevine, I heard they were having a difficult time finding an advisor and I contacted the president of the group, saying I’d be happy to be their advisor if they wanted me. I was really excited to get to support these students and help them keep the club running.

Shortly after, I was telling a colleague that I was going to be the new GSA advisor and her jaw dropped to the floor as she asked, “Why would you do that?” That really got me thinking—if a teacher reacts that way to this group, what must these LGBTQ students be going through and how can I help?

Especially in a school climate that is less than supportive of LGBTQ students, educators need to do all they can to help facilitate clubs and activities that empower those students. According to GLSEN research, only a little more than a third of educators report being comfortable serving as a GSA advisor. I want educators to know that while not everyone has the capacity to serve in this role, making this offer could truly change the lives of LGBTQ students at your school.

2. Step back.

I coached the students as best as I could into making the organization what they wanted it to be. When you’re a GSA advisor, you want the students to run the organization and become leaders, while you serve as a sort of guide or mentor. Listen closely, offer support, and let the students lead.

3.  Push back.

Unfortunately, the students in my GSA faced some resistance at the high school. We spent a lot of our time trying to come up with ways to combat the resistance we were facing—from adults who weren’t supportive, to other students ripping their signs down. The students worked to put second messages underneath their GSA signs, so if someone ripped one down, they would see the message, “It’s easy to hate.”

Helping the members navigate and fight back against the resistance was critical to ensuring they knew that I was there to support them, no matter what.

As folks head back to school, educators should be supportive of LGBTQ students and amplify the work of young leaders in GSAs. To help out, this year GLSEN is sharing a host of resources for GSAs, including soon-to-be-released GSA videos, including one specifically for GSA advisors. They’re also sharing a number of other resources that any educator can use to make their school inclusive.

How will you be supporting LGBTQ students as you head back to school?

Karen Andrus Tollafield is a retired public school teacher and currently serves as a board member and  GSA Advisor Outreach/Support for GLSEN NEO. Karen recently earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction/Literacy from Kent State University and works with the LGBTQ Student Center on campus.