Challenging assumptions in the classroom

Jay Fox, a transgender primary trainee, discusses fostering an accepting and open culture in your classroom.

One of the most crucial steps you can take towards making your classroom an LGBTQIA+ inclusive environment is to challenge your own preconceptions, and that includes heteronormativity and cisnormativity. In a society where the values that are transmitted to us all of our life very much reinforce an ideology which assumes straight-and-cis-as-default, it is almost certain that we will have picked up some of these ideas. Even if you yourself are an LGBTQIA+ individual, we live in a world that still often ignores our existence, and we’re all bound to have internalised a bit of that. This isn’t merely a case of helping children who are LGBTQIA+ feel safe and accepted, but also about teaching your pupils about acceptance by example: in modelling an attitude that doesn’t assume default heterosexuality, you are helping your children become more open and accepting themselves.

As my experience is of Primary education, this post will largely focus on aspects directly related to Primary teaching, but many of these ideas should be applicable across the board. These are just a few ways you can work to foster an accepting and open culture in your classroom.

1.   Don’t act as though LGBTQIA+ people are an abstract, hypothetical idea. Even children in Reception could be questioning their sexuality and gender identity: don’t assume that nobody in your classroom could be LGBTQIA+. No matter how young they may be, chances are that some of them are – even if they don’t realise it yet. At some point you will almost certainly teach a child who is – or will one day identify as – gay, transgender, bisexual, etc. It can be incredibly isolating to feel like you are the only one who isn’t ‘normal’ because you don’t fit the status quo.

2.  Don’t use cis/heterocentric language. For example, if talking about families, the phrase “mummies and daddies” can reinforce ideas that families have one mother and one father. As well as excluding children with single parents or Looked After children, this suggests that sexuality and gender work in very particular ways. Equally, phrases like “boys and girls” should be avoided, since they reinforce a binary view of gender. Wherever possible, neutral terms such as “children,” “year three” and “everybody” are probably going to be more appropriate.

3.  Don’t make assumptions about the sexuality of your pupils. Many adults make jokes about, for example, small boys being ‘heartbreakers’ when they’re older, or tease them for having a ‘crush’ on another child. As well as being generally shaming behaviour which could embarrass a child or make them feel that relationships and sexuality are a humiliating experience, this also heavily relies on a notion of compulsory heterosexuality – and indeed compulsory sexuality full stop, as asexuality is also an option. (So replacing the phrase “he’s going to be popular with the girls” to “he’s going to be popular with girls or boys” is not actually as inclusive as some may think- it is better to just steer clear of those assumptions altogether.) Don’t engage in this kind of gossip in the staffroom, about pupils or parent or actually anybody, whether in work or outside school.

4.  Provide positive role models and diverse representation. There are plenty of opportunities where teachers create characters to aid in learning, and this is an ideal place for representation. Books in the reading corner should provide wide representation, preferably including those which feature LGBTQIA+ characters as both the heroes and as normalised as part of everyday life, so LGBTQIA+ children can see themselves in the characters and so that other children can learn that we exist, as real people, not as abstract ideas or as jokes.

Younger children will have toys in the classroom and these can also be used for representation, for example in a dolls’ house. However, well-meaning attempts at representation may often fail, as children come to school with many ideas already formed about people, and may therefore project those onto new experiences even if you feel that you are giving them freedom of choice. Therefore they are likely to assign three completely identical and non-descript dolls the labels “mummy, daddy and baby”. Attempts at representation may need to be more overt.

5.  Teach children to be critical. Yes, this can even be done with four year olds. It isn’t enough to give children another set of facts and values for them to swallow, memorise, but not actually think about. This shouldn’t be too daunting, providing that you’re already working under the philosophy that questioning, enquiry and investigation are positive skills that should be implemented in education. If a child assigns an arbitrary gender, encourage them to explore why they did that. The goal here is not to suggest a child is wrong for calling a pink bunny “she”, nor to reinforce these values, but to discuss a range of interpretations and to help them appreciate that these things are not that clear cut.

It can be difficult to find a balance with promoting LGBTQIA+ issues in the classroom. On one hand, since children are already bombarded with images and ideas from the media they consume and the talk they hear, I feel that you cannot actually have too much LGBTQIA+ representation. It may be the only alternative view many children are experiencing. However, this unfortunately might put you in danger, particularly with openly LGBTQIA+ teachers who might be seen as ‘pushing’ an agenda. While this is obviously not an actual counter argument, remember to take care to keep yourself safe, especially when our jobs are under constant scrutiny.

But taking steps to amend your language and assumptions is one thing you can do to challenge your own internalised prejudices and to encourage positive attitudes as well as to reduce the alienation felt by young LGBTQIA+ people. This should be something you are doing not only when in the classroom but in every aspect of your life, just as you’re hopefully intending children to not only implement inclusive values in school but to set them up with critical tools and positive attitudes they can use for the rest of their lives.