Equitable access to learning for LGBTI students

This training will give teachers and support staff the knowledge, skills and tools to be able to recognise the support LGBTI young people and their families need to feel part of the school community.

In Term 1, IEU asked Darby Carr and Mary Flaskas of Inclusivity Consultants to develop three courses on the topic of inclusivity for LGBTI students.

Sexuality and Gender Diversity, Understanding and Supporting Gender Diversity and Challenging and Interrupting Homophobic and Transphobic Behaviour supported members in gaining and reinforcing their knowledge as well as offering constructive and useful strategies to use immediately as teachers and support staff. The three courses are being repeated in Term 3 and are offered online for all IEU members.

Access to education is a human right that is protected for all students in Australia. The statistics of disengagement by sexuality and gender diverse students are startling to any teacher who wants to ensure that all students have equitable access to learning experiences.

We sat down with the presenters and asked them about the courses and the skills they hoped participants would gain.

IEU: Why do you feel it’s important that teachers and support staff update their knowledge about sexuality and gender diversity?

Mary and Darby: Sexuality and gender diverse students and/or their families are present in all schools, whether it is immediately obvious or not. In fact, when schools say they don’t have this sort of diversity within their school cohort, it rings alarm bells because it indicates that it is not a safe environment for students to be open about their sexuality or gender identity.

This is not to say that all students need to ‘come out’ or be overt about their expression but they need to know that the school recognises their existence and makes efforts to be inclusive, via school policy and curriculum, via genuine efforts by staff to listen and understand their personal struggles and by being willing to work towards creating an environment that makes everyone feel that they belong and that their contributions are valued.

We know teachers can feel unsure about what this support entails. In an ever changing world, teachers can feel left out around the language and experience of LGBTI students.

Teachers often express confusion around the difference between sex, gender and sexuality and this conflation can mean that they are unaware of what it is that their students are trying to express about these very integral aspects of their being. Being invisible and unacknowledged means that these students are often isolated and are subject to the very real consequences of discrimination.

Research and anecdotal experiences consistently show the ongoing impacts of bullying and abuse, of discrimination and isolation because of ‘difference’ from societal norms. These impacts manifest in the form of anxiety, depression and disengagement from learning and can continue to have impacts in later life.

Young people are particularly vulnerable, (for many reasons), and struggling with sexuality and gender identity, particularly when there is no support from family and friends, compounds this vulnerability.

It is important that these students (and their families) have the same opportunities as other students to engage with their learning and be able to participate in all school activities without being subjected to the fear of abuse or bullying, which, unfortunately, is still a reality for many LGBTI students.

On the flip side, it is heartening to know that many students acknowledge the beneficial influences of school support, with many saying that knowing they have supportive teachers has made all the difference to their mental health, their sense of safety and their ability to participate with their learning.

This training will give teachers and support staff the knowledge, skills and tools to be able to recognise the support LGBTI young people and their families need to feel part of the school community.

A supportive environment

IEU: What’s important for a school working towards creating a supportive environment for all students?

Mary and Darby: Schools have a duty of care towards their students, ensuring their wellbeing and creating safe and supportive environments for them to learn and participate as citizens. Teachers and support staff must be willing to talk openly and without judgement, be alert to warning signs of disengagement and be aware of referral pathways for students during times of need.

It is every teacher’s responsibility, not just the school counsellor’s – if a young person has sought you out for advice and guidance it is because they trust you.

Likewise, learning about human relationships and respecting diversity, is not just up to the staff in the PDHPE Department. Being inclusive is something that can be embedded in daily teaching practice and examples can be found in all subject areas in the NSW curriculum.

Schools need to be welcoming, expressing their commitment through proactive school policy, through posters that reflect the diversity of their cohort, through library resources that cover a broad range of subject areas and provide examples that young people can relate to because it acknowledges their reality and that of their friends and families.

It is also important for all staff to understand and acknowledge unacceptable behavior, in the form of discrimination and homophobic or transphobic bullying. This training will help school staff to develop strategies to tackle unacceptable behavior and be consistent and cohesive in their approach to tackling ‘culture’ that is not in keeping with an open, enlightened and respectful community.

Wealth of experience

IEU: Why did you choose this line of work?

Mary and Darby: Both Darby and I have a wealth of experience in teaching and training and are passionate about the role of education – we understand this to be a fundamental human right. We recognise that being afforded opportunities to learn greatly enhances peoples’ personal development and provides choices in later life.

When we started working in this area we met many young people who were appreciative that somebody had come to fill this very vital and important need – educating their schools about the need to be inclusive, to take steps to counter discrimination and be actively supportive of the diversity within the school community. We met adults who consistently said ‘I wish this had been available to our teachers when we were growing up – it would’ve made all the difference to my experience of school’. We have such positive responses from teaching staff; they appreciate that they are able to have discussions and ask questions in a non confrontational way.

As a result, we have developed a high degree of competency in teaching about inclusive practice, specifically within the school setting. We have worked with countless schools over the years, throughout metropolitan and regional NSW and met passionate young people, supportive families and committed teaching staff, all willing to work together to create safe and supportive school communities.

We’re passionate and energetic and we’re here to solve a problem. There is still much work to be done.

We want to support teachers to do the best job they can – we want to know that they have the backing of their colleagues and executive staff – so that they can work towards ensuring the wellbeing of all of their cohort.

We want to bridge the gap so schools can provide individual support, quality education and prepare the generations of the future.

To find out when these courses are running again, visit www.ieu.asn.au.

Amy Cotton
Professional Officer