It’s Time for Some Schools to Come Out

Yesterday was National Coming Out Day and this prompted me to think about the position that many young people find themselves in today. In many respects, days like this can demonstrate how far we have come as a Global Community. However, they also reflect how much further we need to go in order for many young people to feel comfortable about their identities. As a teacher, and as a father, I see many sides of this.

So how far have we come? Well, from a personal perspective, I was proud a few weeks ago when my teenage daughter had the courage to casually inform the family that she identifies as being bi-sexual. A long discussion took place exploring her feelings and talking about embracing her identity and being true to herself. My son who has several friends who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community has also been an outspoken advocate of their rights, even in the face of being bullied by many of his peers for his views. He’s the straightest teenager to be called a “fag”, I’m sure!

Many schools have come a long, long way. I worked in a school where a young, popular and extremely effective teacher (TB – you know who you are!!) became a spokesperson for Stonewall and led the school in developing a curriculum which was sensitive and informative about LGBTQ+ issues. The result was that the culture of the school became much more open-minded and students were more willing to embrace their identities in an environment which was secure. In short, they had an advocate and a member of staff who supported them openly.

It is clear that attitudes are changing. There is more dialogue in most schools. More discussion is encouraged by staff, which allows students to explore the issues they face. Sex and Health education programmes often include more open-minded communication – after all, understanding something in more depth can only be a good thing. Young people now have more role models in society who are more willing to discuss their feelings in public and the growing acceptance of gay marriage in many Western countries is beginning to send out a clear message of tolerance.

But we also have a long way to go. Often, role models are limited to certain industries, and it remains shocking to me that there are apparently no gay footballers in the English Premier League, a statistic which defies all odds. Despite other sports fielding their handful of gay participants, the issues seem to be muted within the confines of the world’s most popular sport. What message does this send out to young people?

But high schools are the most important institutions in dealing with identity issues because it is here where young people make the greatest developmental strides. Therefore, it is vital that schools get it right and I have seen many instances where this is sadly not the case. Within the last two years, I have taught in New Zealand… a country which prides itself on open-mindedness and moral thinking (they were, after all, the first Western Country to give women the right to vote). However, when it comes to dealing with LGBTQ+ issues, it seems that many schools are falling well short of the mark.

Homophobic bullying is commonplace in many schools. I have experienced this first hand and also worked in an environment, by contrast to the UK, where students are deeply uncomfortable in coming out or discussing their feelings openly. In some cases, staff have been so poorly equipped, trained or experienced to deal with these issues, I have been able, through observation, to compile a list of WHAT NOT TO DO WHEN A STUDENT WISHES TO DISCUSS THEIR SEXUALITY:

  1. Do not immediately refer them to a counselor, unless there is an issue of bullying or the student specifically requests this. They are not mentally ill if they think they’re not straight!!
  2. Do not suggest to them that this is just a phase and they’ll get over it!!
  3. Do not immediately call their parents.
  4. Do not make attempts to have “child protection” discussions with senior members of staff – unless there is an obvious child protection issue at stake!! (Being gay in it itself if NOT a child protection issue!)
  5. Do not tell them to go away. They obviously, for some bizarre reason, have chosen you to divulge this information to!!

Just being open-minded and listening goes a long way. You don’t need to do a 15 week course for that.

Furthermore, another worrying trend in the youth culture of Kiwis is the overuse of the term “GAY” as a way of describing something which is rubbish. It is so entrenched in the language of Kiwi teens, that I have seen teachers actually challenge students who have spoken out against this with, “Oh, its just a saying” and “it doesn’t mean what you think.” One teacher even made the point of saying, “Gay means happy, not what you think it means” to a student who challenged the use of the term as an insult. Really? Happy? This particular teacher doesn’t just need to get back to the 21st Century, but should probably come of of the 18th Century because I think the last time “Gay” meant “Happy” was when George III was King of England!! However, before we blame teachers for not doing enough to change the culture of acceptance, it might prove difficult when we consider that teachers have actually been dismissed for standing up for LGBTQ+ Rights.

But the fight has started. More groups are challenging existing cultures and progress is being made but there is a long way to go.

Finally, the more we provide a platform for young people to voice and explore their identity issues, the more openness we encourage within all cultures. A wonderful article by Professor Matthew H. Birkhold discusses the challenges of coming out and suggests that this prevents non-straight people from being “normalised”. While I agree with this argument to some extent, I do believe that coming out, as a teenager, is an important issue because it is their opportunity to gain a platform to be vocal and express their identity publicly, with the scope to promote open exploration of this. This may not be as important for a middle-aged, married man, but for a teenager, this platform which allows public acceptance can make all the difference in how they see themselves in the world.

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We Can Learn Something from the Fascists…

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In light of recent events in the UK Government this week, particularly Theresa May’s speech and the issue of fracking in Lancashire, there are two groups of people I feel the most sorry for.

First, my grandparents’ generation because they sacrificed so much in fighting fascists in Europe now only to find themselves in a country that is showing early signs of following the very policies that created totalitarian states in the early 20th Century. Secondly, I feel sorry for my children’s generation who have inherited a world not of their making. A world created by the narrow mindedness, bigotry and lack of intelligence shown by my generation.
If you don’t believe me or think I am overreacting, consider this. Nazism flourished through a process of demonizing outsiders through propaganda, restricting their rights within Germany,  then forcing them to be identified as something different. Nazism was made more powerful by shutting down local governments and moving to a more centralised model so it could control all policies. It changed its school curriculum to reflect it’s own values. It shut down workers who wanted better pay and conditions.
Have I mentioned anything here that the current Tory Government are NOT doing right now?
The most alarming part of this is the fact that the Nazi government took power because a large bunch of people supported them,  but an equally large bunch of people did nothing to stop them.
That’s how dictatorships evolve. Not through evil people taking control of a country by force, but through a slow erosion of the principles we used to hold up as valuable while people stand by and watch and just say “Oh, well, that’s just the way it is.”
If we can learn anything from the Nazis it is this… IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. THIS IS NOT THE WAY IT IS.

Should we teach “Compassion” as a new subject in our schools?

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“You look like a sex offender.”

“You 12 Year Old Faggot.”

“You should drink bleach and kill yourself.”

“I hope you get cancer.”

These are some of the comments left on a teenager’s YouTube channel after posting a series of short clips. As an adult, let alone a teacher, I was shocked to find comments like these in abundance. These comments were sent by other teenagers specifically to criticise the content of a channel. Having looked at other social media, the trend is very similar, particularly on Instagram.

I don’t want to get into a debate about how we teach internet safety to our kids. In my opinion, its a no-brainer that we should be teaching kids to be more intelligent and “streetwise” when it comes to the internet. However, to me, comments like these do not simply originate from a lack of understanding of how to use social media, but grow out of a total lack of compassion for other peoples’ feelings. Worryingly, as a teacher, it seems I am seeing more examples of this complete lack of understanding of how the actions of our students impact on their wider world.

Before I start suggesting that things are worse than they have ever been, I’d first like to reflect on my own years as a teenager. At times, teenagers can be cruel. Arguably, many lack the empathy we would expect from them as adults. It is easy as a teenager to get drawn into unpleasant behaviour due to many factors – peer pressure being a big one. But I would argue that the anonymity afforded by social media has allowed the very worse elements of teenage behaviour to take route, which is more reason why schools and individual teachers need to take more responsibility in supporting their students to make the right choices, maybe to the point of formalising this in the classroom.

Homophobia has been a recent case in point. In many schools, low-level homophobic comments have largely gone under the radar. “Oh, that’s gay!” says one teenager to another when referring to something they dislike. I continue to hear about comments like these unchallenged by teachers in charge of a classroom. On the upside, I have also worked with an amazing colleague who brought this issue to the forefront of her school, becoming a leading member of the Stonewall campaign to raise awareness of the use of this language in schools. The results were outstanding as students began to really understand the impact of their actions. More of this needs to happen.

But as teachers we are facing a battle. How do we teach compassion to our kids when the world around us is becoming increasingly hostile? A case in point was an article in the Guardian today about the wearing of the “Burkini”. I was shocked and dismayed that a supposed democratic, enlightened nation could enact and enforce such prejudicial laws for little purpose other than it “may offend people” on religious grounds, and was not in keeping with a “secular” society. I wonder how many Catholic Nuns were asked to de-frock in Paris today as a result of their religious expression?

After the Brexit vote, race hate crimes in the UK rose by 57% according to some research. Yet in the midst of all this intolerance from our societies, we expect our students to be tolerant, open-minded, non-prejudicial? We are fighting a losing battle!

My point here is that in the climate of intolerance, injustice and prejudice, maybe we need to be clearer to our students on ways in which to avoid this. Maybe we need to specifically teach the values which education SHOULD be about – compassion, understanding, open-mindedness. I know teachers that do this already – they are amazing. Their kids listen to them and learn a great deal about life from them too (and they know who they are!!) But I also know many teachers who avoid tackling these issues head on. That is why I would suggest that there needs to be a more formal approach to teaching these values in school.

At the moment, our societies have a great deal of room for improvement. But if we want to start making those improvements, maybe we need to start with education and the values that this should bring to our young people and start that process in our classrooms.