Improving the LGBTQI+ school experience

UK Thank A Teacher caught up with History teacher, Hannah Elvidge and English Teacher, Gareth Field to find out about the work they are doing to make life better for LGBTQI+ students at Garforth Academy.

Pride in school

Hannah tells us: “Gareth and I decided to start Garforth Pride to provide a safe space for the kids. And I know that’s a bit of an eye-rolly term, but some of these kids literally don’t feel safe in the dining hall or in corridors because other kids have made fun of them.”

Around 30 students attend the group, which runs once a week, with sessions usually focusing on a current topic.

“There might be something in the news one week about trans rights, for example, so we’ll discuss that and plan some activities. Every half term we do a culture day in school, where in lessons we’ll learn about a different country – for example, we’ve looked at Turkey, and India, and Poland recently. And in our group after that particular culture day we’ll look at the LGBTQI+ rights in that country, which has unfortunately been quite depressing so far.” Hannah explains.

Changing perceptions

Or they might build activities around perceptions and communicating with other members of staff: “One week we sat down with a whole bunch of sugar paper and wrote down all the things kids want staff to know about them. Then we talked about how me might open up discussions.” Hannah tells us.

“We’re trying to normalise queer identities” Gareth adds, “so we’ve installed a series of displays around the school so students can see inspirational queer people in every subject. It helps to reinforce the fact that these are real people out there living their lives, they really exist, and they are doing great things.”

Tuesday 17th May was International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, and Hannah and Gareth ran staff training in the run-up. This was followed by a series of starter activities in all lessons to try and raise awareness and educate the students about the issues faced by LGBTQI+ people.

“The group is really new. We only started this year, so we’re still finding our feet with it, but our aim is to make the school a more LGBTQI+ friendly place.”

Learning from experience

The group has a relaxed attitude to attendance. Students don’t have to attend every week, they can drop in and out as they like. But if Hannah and Gareth haven’t seen a student in a while they might check in with them to see if everything is okay.

The group runs across all year groups, which has been helpful for the younger kids to learn from those who have been through it.

“One week we all sat in a circle and everybody was able to ask any questions they liked and there was an opportunity to provide answers. So, there were six-formers talking to the younger ones about their own experiences and things they had been through.” Says Gareth.

Hannah and Gareth have recently signed up to an organisation called Just Like Us, which provides a lot of resources and training.

“The idea is to move from thinking about being different all the time, to people just automatically accepting those in the LGBTQI+ community. Going forward, we’re aiming to give the kids a lot more responsibility. We’re hoping to have student leaders for each key stage to help to develop the group and share what we’re doing across the school.”

A change for the better

Staff support makes all the difference in changing the culture of a school. Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying is commonplace across the country, but staff at Garforth are doing all they can to combat this.

Hannah tells us: “Staff across the school have been really good in challenging problematic language from students. And it’s got to the point where students are actually self-correcting now. The other day I heard a boy say to another boy ‘What are you gay or something?’ in a disparaging way, but then he said ‘oh no, no, I can’t say that’. That’s got to be a step in the right direction. We’ve not even been doing this a full year yet, but it’s already making an impact.”

And training is key in this respect “Sometimes there can be a bit of uncertainty from staff about how to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic behaviour. They might not be clear themselves on current terminology or about the issues people in these communities can face. So, we’ll be doing more staff training in this area to help support them with this.” Gareth adds.