By Shelby Denhof, High School ELA Teacher in Michigan
The stark reality is that more than 1.8 million LGBTQ+ youth in America seriously consider suicide each year. That means, too, that LGBTQ+ kids are four times as likely to deeply consider, plan for, and attempt suicide than their peers.
As teachers, losing a student is the ultimate nightmare. I lost a student to suicide last year, and that void is still present. There is much we can do, though, to be allies for our students who are a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Our clear support may even save a life.
A recent 2019 study indicates that having just one supportive adult in the life of an LGBTQ+ youth will decrease the likelihood of them attempting suicide by 40 percent. These statistics come from The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ youth.
We can each be that supportive adult.
I am a high school English teacher. I also am the staff facilitator of our school’s GSA (Gender-Sexuality Alliance), a student-led club with more than 4,000 chapters throughout the U.S. Recently, the students of GSA and I have been ruminating on this question: how can we create a more inclusive environment for people of the LGBTQ+ community here at our school? My students’ insights were honest, astute, and — quite frankly — easy to accomplish.
Here are a few easy steps you can take today to show your students that you are in their corner.
1) Recognize that you can be an ally to LGBTQ+ youth without being an expert on all things LGBT.
I understand that even seeing the acronym LGBTQ+ leaves many in the dark. I know, too, that it is often human nature to shy away from things unfamiliar or unknown. Making an effort to educate yourself, though, goes a long way in the eyes of LGBTQ+ youth. If your district is like mine, it’s likely you haven’t had opportunities to learn about LGBTQ+ topics in provided PD. Luckily, there are so many resources online to help you take the first steps in educating yourself on gender and sexuality. A great place to start is Planned Parenthood’s “All About Being LGBTQ” guide.
Even with all of the online resources, you may still find yourself struggling to understand the complexities of gender and sexuality. That’s okay. You can still be supportive of students on their journey to understand themselves even if you yourself haven’t struggled with your identity or have a complete grasp of the terminology. You do not need to have ownership over all the labels people may use to describe themselves, but making an effort to educate yourself is noticed and appreciated by LGBTQ+ youth.
2) Ask your students about their preferred pronouns.
One easy way to show your support for LGBTQ+ youth is to ask your students for their preferred pronouns. I understand that this may seem awkward to many teachers, but it’s actually quite simple. Here’s how I do it: on the first day of a new class, I have already made seating charts and have them on the screen. As students settle in, I say the following:
“Let’s take a moment to make sure we’re all in the right seat. When it’s your turn, please share the following things: your name or nickname, your preferred pronouns, and where you’d go on your dream vacation.”
Each hour, someone always asks me to clarify what a pronoun is. I simply say, “Please let me know if you prefer he/him, she/her, or they/them for yourself.” They then go around the room saying something similar to, “I’m Hunter. He/him. My dream vacation is Australia,” as I check and add notes to my seating chart.
The act of starting off a new class by asking for preferred pronouns immediately sets the tone that you are an ally to LGBTQ+ youth and that your classroom is an inclusive space.
3) Show your support for members of the LGBTQ+ community in your classroom.
When I asked my students about what makes them feel recognized and supported at school, the very first thing they commented on were the overt displays of acceptance. They noted my own classroom, for example, referencing the pride flag I have draped across a cabinet and the “All Are Welcome” sticker just outside my door.
“A sticker might not seem like a big deal,” one student acknowledged, “but it means a great deal to me. It tells me that this teacher cares about me and that I can be myself around them.”
While there are likely supportive folks everywhere, having a clear signal of acceptance eliminates the need for students to make assumptions. Discussing issues with gender and sexuality are hard to initiate, but having explicit signage in support of the LGBTQ+ community makes it clear to students that you are someone who will listen if they are struggling.
I recommend searching online for “All are Welcome” signage that fits the aesthetic of your classroom, but one place to start is GLSEN’s “Safe Space Kit,” in which they provide free, downloadable posters.
4) Diversify your classroom library and talk about books with LGBTQ+ voices.
Having books in your classroom that represent the LGBTQ+ community shows students that you value them and their presence. Most of us don’t have control over what is read in our designated curriculum, but we often do have control of the choice books we have in our classroom. Utilize that power and offer diverse, high-interest books.
If you have access to funds for a classroom library, there are many online resources to point you in the right direction regarding popular, young-adult books that explore issues of gender and sexuality. My students and I worked together to create a list, too, of young-adult books that represent the LGBTQ+ community well. You can find that list here.
If you don’t have funding available, check out Hope in a Box. Hope in a Box is an organization that works with rural schools to help diversify the narratives taught. They provide teachers with LGBTQ+ inclusive books.
While much can be done at each school to address inclusivity, acceptance, and representation at its roots, there is a lot that we can do today as educators to clearly communicate to LGBTQ+ youth that we stand beside them.
Shelby Denhof is a writer and teacher living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Embedded in her teaching is her passion for travel, storytelling, and service. Her reflections on teaching can be found on websites such as Cult of Pedagogy, McGraw-Hill, Edutopia, and Refinery29. Shelby is a National Writing Project fellow, a National Geographic Certified Educator, and a two-time participant in National Endowment for the Humanities institutes at both Stanford University and the University of Utah.
To be reminded why your work is so very important and for more stories and advice, visit our collection of teacher perspectives at The Art of Teaching.
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