In the current divisive and challenging climate in the United States, many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) people struggle to find their safe spaces, especially in schools. Historically and presently, LGBTQ educators specifically have faced challenges being their authentic selves. My colleagues and I have been studying the experiences of LGBTQ educators for over a decade. Our findings from the first two national surveys (conducted in 2007 and 2011, reported in A Safer Place? LGBTQ Educators, School Climate and Implications for Administrators) have shown that too many LGBTQ teachers feel unsafe in their workplace climates. In fact, one third of these educators felt that their jobs were at risk if they were out to administrators and over half felt their jobs were at risk if they were out to students. Approximately one quarter also reported being harassed at the schools where they work.
Slowly, the support for LGBTQ educators has been increasing since our first two surveys were conducted; however, even today, there are still times when LGBTQ educators do not feel very safe. A colleague of mine and I are currently examining responses from the third and most recent installment of our LGBTQ educators’ survey, conducted in 2017. As we found in our past surveys, we see that LGBTQ educators’ experiences differ depending on where, what, and who they teach. For example, elementary teachers are more worried about being “out” to their students than high school teachers. Elementary teachers also report less LGBTQ inclusion in their schools’ curriculum and fewer LGBTQ-related resources in their schools’ libraries than their high school counterparts. Similar to findings from the general population of teachers reported by GLSEN, we found regional differences in LGBTQ educators’ reports of their school’s policies. LGBTQ educators in the Northwest were more likely than those in the Midwest to have school policies addressing the use of homophobic and transphobic language. Regional differences extended to LGBTQ teachers’ experiences of harassment – with those in the Midwest reporting more harassment than those in the Northeast.
And it’s not only LGBTQ educators who suffer when their school is not LGBTQ-inclusive. We know that inclusive schools are critical for LGBTQ youths’ educational success and personal well-being. Yet, despite the fact that LGBTQ students who are exposed to positive representations of LGBTQ people and history report more positive school experiences and better educational outcomes, GLSEN’s most recent National School Climate Survey found that less than one-fifth of LGBTQ students attend schools with an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum.
In order to provide the best education and support to students, including teaching an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, teachers need to be the best teachers they can be, and they can only do that when they feel safe to be exactly who they are. Clearly, our findings indicate that this is not always the case. So, what can be done? One avenue for change is within the school leadership. School administrators can have a major impact on the overall school climate and workplace climate. In a 2015 Ed Week interview, Kevin Jennings, GLSEN founder and former U.S. Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education, stated the following about educational leaders, “I think if there was one thing that I would like to see happen is it's greater leadership on the part of superintendents and principals.” With greater leadership will come more consistent support and guidance for LGBTQ educators, which will translate to better outcomes of all measures for LGBTQ students. By taking steps to ensure the right policies, resources, and practices are in place, school administrators promote a more positive and inclusive environment for LGBTQ educators and LGBTQ students alike.
In their work with policies, curricula, and hiring, school principals can have a huge impact on LGBTQ student experience by promoting a safe, welcoming, and fair environment for LGBTQ educators in their schools, enabling these LGBTQ educators to be the critical and positive representations LGBTQ students need, in addition to being fantastic educators too!
Dr. Tiffany Wright, Associate Professor
Co-Director, Joint EdD Program in Educational Leadership
Program Coordinator, Leadership for Teaching and Learning
Millersville University of Pennsylvania