One more thing we’ve got in common

Having recently completed the Ambition School Leadership: Future Leaders programme, Chris Richards was appointed Deputy Headteacher at Villiers High School in Ealing at Easter, 2017. Chris oversees the quality of teaching and learning and is also raising standards leader for the school line managing all core subjects. Chris trained as a Modern Languages teacher in 2007 at the Swansea Institute for Higher Education and has a Masters degree in Educational Leadership and Management. This is his story: 

Having completed my first five years of teaching in South Essex, I was ready for some diversity and moved to a South London school in 2012. In my previous school, I was “out” to my colleagues, but it wasn’t really something the LGBT+ staff ever discussed with students other than in PSHEE lessons and they certainly didn’t refer to themselves. This was quite different to the experience of many heterosexual colleagues who had photos of their significant other or children on their desks and openly discussed them in class.

I was really happy to find an ethnically diverse student and staff body on arriving in London and really enjoyed getting to know them better. I was initially a little apprehensive about coming out to colleagues, but it soon became apparent I was in good company and there was an active LGBT working party which arranged opportunities for students to march in London gay pride, did outreach work with local primary schools and, most excitingly, celebrated LGBT History Month (www.schools-out.org.uk) A year or so before I’d arrived, they arranged an assembly where a number of colleagues talked about their experiences of being gay. I thought this was incredibly important and, the year I arrived, they decided to repeat the concept and many of us recorded a short interview about our experiences of coming out. Standing in assembly when this was played, I can remember my heart being in my mouth just before my section of the recording and couldn’t look at the students in the audience while I heard my words echoing around the hall. There seemed to be no negative reactions during the whole of the assembly however, and one of the most touching moments in my teaching career was when some of my year 11 boys came to find me afterwards telling me how great it was that I’d done that; that they hadn’t known but, as far as they were concerned, nothing had changed. This was indicative of a really harmonious community despite its ethnic, religious and social diversity. Over the five years at the school, we did several similar assemblies and even recorded a music video on the theme of “I am what I am” for the outgoing Principal as she’d been so accepting of all students and teachers. This didn’t mean that we had eradicated homophobia, however, but regular staff training and working with students who had expressed homophobic attitudes helped ensure the school community was well educated on the issues.

It was with a degree of sadness that I left this job to move on to a school in West London where I’d been appointed deputy head teacher.  Would the staff and students be as accepting? Would the parents be accepting? How would the community react? I made sure to drop “husband” into conversation with staff at regular intervals and remember a conversation early on about “Orange is the new black” with one of the students who expressed how similar I was to one of the male characters and she said “but he’s gay, so…” and I replied “oh, that’s one more thing we’ve got in common then!”. What seemed like hours later (though it was probably milliseconds) she said “Oh, that’s cool!” and we’ve continued to talk about the latest Netflix arrivals since! This certainly gave me a bit of confidence that the students would be accepting.

What the new school lacks currently though is visibility; my old school was plastered in the Stonewall “Some people are gay” posters and teachers had stickers on their desks etc. I decided to take a chance and, at the end of term, charged with the task of talking about the spirit of adventure in an assembly, I mentioned, among other things, getting married to my best friend last year and put up a picture of us on our wedding day. Once again, as I came to the slide, I could feel my heart beating ninety to the dozen, but knew there was no going back. I got to the end of the assembly and received rapturous applause. Students have continued to behave as normal towards me, but the positive comments received from a huge number of staff members have been incredibly encouraging. One staff member, also a parent of a student in the assembly, has said how much it meant to her son to hear that and I guess that’s why I decided to “take the risk”. Whilst inwardly, it may feel like a massive challenge to “bear your soul” to a room full of people, it’s incredibly important to do it. Young people need to see that LGBT+ people exist; they live, love, study and work with them; LGBT+ people contribute; we share a lot in common. I wish I’d had teachers who were “out” when I was growing up; to have seen that it was “okay to be gay” would have meant an awful lot to me as a confused teenager. I’m looking forward to making LGBT+ lives more visible in my current school and feel heartened by the reactions I’ve received so far.

 

Coming out twice

As LGBT+ people, we are permanently coming out – It’s rarely a one-off. Whenever we meet someone new, there is that potentially awkward moment when you don’t know how they will react if you slip it into conversation. Here’s Jacqueline Collins’ positive story of coming out twice at school. 

Teachers don’t have to share their personal life but I am the type of teacher who doesn’t mind sharing parts of my life – therefore hiding an important part of who I am felt like I was somehow cheating the young people I work with. The first time I came out happened through chance more than planning, however.

On a school trip to London, I had bought a watch for my partner and on showing the other teachers, the beady eyes of my S3 girls clocked this and said ‘Aaaw is that for your girlf…..I mean fiancé? In that split second I made the decision to roll with what she was going to say and said ‘yeah, it’s for my girlfriend’ before quickly moving the conversation on. I noticed a few glances between the girls but no issues. I did however begin to worry about what would happen when we got back to school! Back at school there were no issues and two weeks later the girls very sweetly and discreetly asked ‘did she like her watch?’ I said ‘yes she loved it!’ For a straight teacher this would be no big deal I imagine but it was this acceptance from the girls that a year later gave me the courage to embark on a journey that has been both humbling for me and empowering for our LGBT+ pupils.

I decided to start an LGBT+  allies group and the first lunch-time we did this was my second coming out! In conversation I explained what the group was about and told the pupils who had turned up that my reason for starting this is because I want every young person to feel part of our school community… a feeling that I didn’t have as a gay teacher when I first started my career. This subtle coming out meant that I was no longer looking over my shoulder and worried that a pupil would find out and somehow use my sexuality against me. I owned it and I was proud! From this, I could not be prouder of the pupils and staff at my school! Our LGBT+ pupils feel more accepted and we have empowered our allies to know that they have a significant role to play in this journey. Our LGBT+ allies group run campaigns, fundraise and play a vital role in promoting and celebrating equality and diversity within our school.

Jumping the final hurdle in my own gay journey was scary and not without its challenges. I can honestly say however that my experience has been a positive one. Being able to fully be myself has made me a better teacher and losing that final little bit of ‘gay shame’ has given me the confidence to lead change within my school.

We can never underestimate the power of acceptance but we must never lose sight of the difficulties LGBT+ teachers face. Fear and shame are powerful and at times debilitating emotions that are hard to lose. Without the the support of both the staff and pupils at my school I would not have had the courage to come out. I feel lucky to work where I do because many teachers do not feel able to take this step due to a lack of support. It has taken me a long time but I am proud to be a gay teacher and I am proud to be a role model for young people.

As they navigate the many difficulties in life and through the minefield that is adolescence, it is my hope that they can believe that being LGBT+ is an important part of who they are. But sexuality and gender need not define them and it certainly does not need to hold them back in any way. I teach all young people to be respectful, be proud, be ambitious and be the very best version of themselves that they possibly can be. Doing this with rainbows, I believe, just makes everybody’s world a little more colourful!

Are you a lesbian, Miss?

In today’s story, Sue Sanders from SchoolsOut – founders of LGBT History Month – shares a published piece from many years ago on why it’s so important to have ‘out’ LGBT role models in schools, words that still resonate so much today. 

The Soft Subject

Chris Woodley tells of his experiences as a gay teenager at school and as an openly gay teacher at work in his new self-penned Edinburgh Fringe Festival play. 

 

I came out at fourteen years old. Having been blessed with forward thinking parents, my greatest battle was at school. I was educated in Bromley during the eighties and nineties when homosexuality was banned from discussion in schools. This was due to Margaret Thatcher introducing Section 28, which prevented teachers promoting homosexuality as something equal to a heterosexual relationship. This left me with a constant battle. The battle was daily. It was school. Five years in an all-boys school. Possibly the worst five years of my life. I was spat at, sworn at, shoved around, belittled, bullied and abused on a regular basis, like so many others. The school did very little.

 

Having studied theatre and then education, in 2005, two years after Section 28 was repealed, I went back to Bromley to work as a Drama Teacher in a secondary school. This time I was to be the teacher in the classroom, not the student. I was the only openly gay teacher at my school. Within a year, I witnessed the impact being out made to my life and also that of the students. More gay students came out in school, I directed plays on sexuality, I challenged homophobic bullying – I felt empowered. The road was not always easy but I knew it was about visibility and promoting dialogue. Theatre prompted discussion; discussion prompted change.

 

The idea of writing Next Lesson came to me in 2009 when working as a teacher in Cambridge, where I was itching to write and act again. I was fascinated by how much had changed for gay students in schools since I was a teenager and I questioned how comfortable teachers in schools today are when discussing sexuality, following Section 28.

 

I felt so strongly that in 2012 I quit my job and moved back to London to write my first full length play Next Lesson. The play explores the all too human consequences that Section 28 had for a South London school community – its staff, its students and their parents. The show has since gone on to have a sold out run in London and a staged reading in New York.

 

This August I will be taking my second show The Soft Subject (A Love Story) to The Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The show is an autobiographical love story about teaching drama, heartbreak and The Little Mermaid. As part of the show I teach a lesson about falling in love, my experiences of working as an out and openly gay teacher. Think chick-flick meets stand-up comedy meets Disney with a Spice Girls soundtrack. As always, I will continue to be an out and proud teacher.

 

The Soft Subject (A Love Story) will be on at Assembly Hall, Baillie Room, Mound Place, Edinburgh, EH1 2LU at 4.25pm 3rd – 28th August. Please find more details at https://www.assemblyfestival.com/whats-on/the-soft-subject-a-love-story/book-now @HyphenTC @AssemblyFest @ImChrisWoodley #TheSoftSubject

 

Please visit our friends at Schools Out

Our friends at Schools Out (founders of LGBT History Month) do amazing work!

This includes providing both a formal and informal support network for all people who want to raise the issue of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and heterosexism in education; campaigning on lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans issues as they affect education; researching, debating and stimulating curriculum development on LGBT issues; working towards unison between teacher and lecturer unions and other professional stakeholders in education, and promoting equality, safety and visibility in education for LGBT people and all the protected characteristics.

Once you’ve finished here, please check out their pages:

http://www.schools-out.org.uk

http://the-classroom.org.uk/

The Careful Poet: My experience as a transgender pre-service teacher

Being a pre-service teacher is rewarding but never easy; being a transgender pre-service teacher adds another dimension to the challenge. While the students can stare in confusion and be understood, it’s the cooperating teacher who can show blatant disrespect and discrimination without any repercussions. This video shares the story of my first time teaching as an out transmasculine person, and how that experience has affected my confidence as an education student and my attitude toward how teachers should be protecting their LGBTQ+ students.

When it becomes just ordinary

I’m not the first out teacher at my school, and I’m unlikely to be the last, but on this sweltering

classroom day in June something profound happened that was so small that it bowled me over with

hope and happiness.

 

I’ve been teaching for 7 years now and I always wanted to help students realise

that they aren’t ‘wired’ or ‘freaks’ when it came to their sexual orientation. I made a promise to

myself that I wouldn’t go in all parade floats and glitter cannons, although the latter is always a good

announcer, but I would not lie if a student out right asked me if I was gay, or married to a man.

 

Let’s set the scene. Geography individual projects on the Middle East. Starting the lesson with a

recap on how to structure an investigative report to my Year 9 class. General side track conversation

at the end of the starter refresh on the classes weekend and mine. Was asked about mine and I was

answering when one of the students piped up,

“You’re married sir?”

How he’s noticed only now after 2 years of teaching him I don’t know, but I answered.

“Yes, I am.”

“So, there’s a Mrs’?”

Without missing a beat, I reply “Nope.”

Another student replies, along with many of the students nodding, “Oh can we meet him?”

“Maybe.” I reply, releasing that I’ve just come out to my class and they just deemed it as nothing out

of the ordinary and that being married can be to either gender and it’s nothing ‘strange’ in that.

That moment gave me in that small passing conversation, the hope that this world, that can

sometimes dwell on the negative, has made progress and that we don’t always see that till it

becomes ordinary.

 

Jonny Dobbs-Grove

Why, after nine years, I finally came out to my students.

This article tells the story of Daniel Gray, a teacher from South London in the UK, who came out to all of his students. Follow Daniel on Twitter at @thatgayteacher

I’ve done it. After nine years of teaching, I finally came out to my students. It shouldn’t be a big deal in this day and age but, unfortunately, it still is.

When I was a pupil myself, at a secondary school in Basingstoke in the Nineties, I had a horrible time. I was subjected to the most horrendous bullying on an almost-daily basis, from knuckle-scraping Neanderthal boys. This was before I even knew I was gay – they all seemed to know something I didn’t, and delighted in making my life hell. When it was raised with a teacher, during the time of Clause 28, I was told that, “it’s just something we have to put up with”.

I decided to become a teacher to right a few wrongs, to give young people the opportunities I didn’t have; to make them feel safe, respected and secure.

It took a long time, however, to be fully honest about who I am – partly because I was warned categorically in my training year never to come out.

“Don’t give the pupils any ammunition,” I was told. In hindsight, isn’t this kind of comment doing young people a disservice?

When a new head teacher arrived at my current school, I decided to broach the idea of commemorating LGBT History Month. He was all for it.

I wanted to increase visibility of LGBT+ people and issues in our school and “normalise” it. So now, all subjects being taught to all pupils will include LGBT+ issues for one lesson this month. In geography, students are being taught about LGBT+ safe spaces and why some cities have a higher queer population than others. In languages, students are being taught about Polari, while in maths they are learning about Alan Turing and his struggles and how these led to his suicide.

As part of this range of events, I thought it would be a good idea to come out to pupils in an assembly. It’s something I have wanted to do for some time — the final frontier, perhaps.

I hoped it would build an open and positive relationship with students. If we are going to increase visibility and acceptance of the LGBT+ community, then we must start with ourselves as role models.

I thought about how it would have helped me to have an LGBT+ figure to look up to and decided to go for it. While discussing all the things we are doing, I said: “As a gay man, I know how important it is to have positive role models.” No drama, no jazz hands. Done.

At first, most people didn’t react at all. Some shrugged, others smiled. I had felt nervous, anxious and sweaty beforehand, but so relieved afterwards. A few minutes later, one student, who I have never taught, came up to me and said, “Sir, your assembly just changed my life.” Then they walked away, not wanting to cause a scene.

That’s why I did it, right there. I know now I’ve probably made a difference to at least one life for ever and we can’t put a price on that. No amount of backlash – which so far has been minimal – can take that way.

Having taken nine years to pluck up the courage, I understand why most LGBT teachers don’t come out. But I would encourage all of them to do it for the sake of all those young people who need us. Maybe then it’ll stop being a big deal and will no longer make the news. It’ll finally just be accepted as part of life.

Here’s the link to the original BBC News article by Jennifer Scott: click

 

“Miss, are you gay?”

This blog was originally posted on http://thegutsygay.com/ in two parts – one and two. Follow TheGustyGay on twitter, instagram and Facebook. This article was also posted on TES.

The title of this blog is a question I dreaded being asked as a 22 year old teacher at the beginning of my career.  I was worried that being open about my sexuality would be frowned upon by other staff members or that being honest with students may lead to them not respecting me.  I had thought about what I would say if the question arose; “I would rather not talk about my private life”, “I am not sure how this is relevant to the lesson” or simply “no”.  Surely not “no”; that would be denying who I was, suggesting a sense of shame.  At this stage in my career I gave very little thought to discussing my sexuality with students, it wasn’t on my radar.  I lacked confidence, I needed to establish myself and I wanted nothing to jeopardise my credibility.

One day the dreaded question was asked: “Miss, I’ve heard a rumour you are gay”.  I panicked, I didn’t think, words just came out of my mouth, “I don’t know where you heard that, it isn’t true”.  Instantly I regretted it, it felt wrong.  Why had I denied it?  Who was I trying to protect?  Myself?  What was I so scared of?   My response to this question has regularly played on my mind since.  Seven years on, I still think of how I responded and I regret it wholeheartedly.  Young people deserve honesty and they require role models who are proud of who they are. I do not advocate teachers sharing too much with students about their private lives as there have to be clear boundaries.  However, my lie and denial did not send the correct message; it suggested a lack of pride in who I am.

In the four and a half years that I have been with my wife she has always been open regarding her relationship with me.  Previously, she had only been in relationships with men and, in every circumstance, has tackled questions about her ‘partner’ head on.  This is something I truly admire; her response normalises our relationship rather than hides it.  Not once has her honesty been met with anything other than support and acceptance.  Seeing her approach showed me that honesty was the best way to tackle questions regarding sexuality.  This was something I knew before but was not confident enough to follow through with. Whilst I have never been directly asked the exact question since, there have been opportunities for me to discuss my sexual orientation which I have not shied away from.

I did not deal with this question well in the early stages of my career.  Actually, I dealt with it appallingly.  I denied my sexuality and set a precedent for how I may tackle similar questions in the future.

Fast forward a few years and at no other time has a student asked me explicitly about my sexual orientation.  However, there have been circumstances where I have been able to discuss my partner with students, both past and present.  The most notable time was on last year’s ski trip in Italy.  Another teacher and I were talking one night with two students.  My colleague was talking about her boyfriend and one of the students said to me ‘Miss, are you with anybody?’.  I was able to confidently say, “Yes, well actually I am married”.  The conversation continued and I disclosed that I was married to a woman.  It was as though a weight had been lifted off my shoulders; it felt great to talk about my sexuality.  It was exactly how I wanted it to happen: natural and met with complete acceptance, as I should have assumed it would have been.

I wouldn’t say I am openly out with students; it isn’t something I feel the need to declare.  It is not something I feel the need to talk about freely, in the same way I wouldn’t expect any professional teacher to talk openly about their private life.   I have been questioning the need that people in the LGBT community have to come out and tell people about their sexuality, especially since watching the film ‘Jenny’s Wedding’ that I have previously blogged about.  In a truly equal society there should be no greater need for me to announce my sexuality anymore than my heterosexual neighbour.

What do you think about TheGutsyGay’s story? We’d love your comments.

So did you take your wife’s name, or did she take yours?

Picture of Brie Jessen-Vaughanby Brie Jessen-Vaughan (@DanceWellNZ), a middle school teacher from Wellington, New Zealand
It’s the start of lunch and I’m chatting with a group of students. I’m not even sure how we got to this point, but I don’t mind. I’ve been out at school now for 3 years. That’s half my teaching career. (The answer, by the way, is neither; we went for the double-barrelled version).
I got married (well, had a civil union – at the time the only option in New Zealand) the summer before I started teaching. I spent the first couple of years talking about my ‘partner’ and never really confirming or denying any leading questions. I was out to the staff at my school, but I wasn’t openly out to my students. I wasn’t sure how parents might respond, and I justified myself with the fact that it wasn’t really any of the students’ business.
But when my wife became pregnant with our son, I realised that something had to change or I’d be hiding a huge part of my life. To be honest, it’s pretty hard NOT to be out when you’re having a baby, but you are not the one who’s pregnant (also a little confusing for some students). So I told my class, and they were excited, but they didn’t even blink when I mentioned my wife. It was the biggest non-event. And you know what? It IS the biggest non-event, that I’m married to a woman. There are so many different ways to be a family, and we’re just one among many.
You could argue then, well why does it matter to be out at school if it’s a non-event? But it’s kind of like arguing why do we need male teachers when we have plenty of female ones? It’s not a question of necessity, but rather representation. Students need to see diverse role models, of all kinds, different genders, ethnicities, abilities, interests, and sexual orientations. But what they need above all, is to see the person behind a label.
For most of my students, my being out at school doesn’t matter to them personally. But for some students, it might. Maybe not right now, but maybe one day. When I became openly out at school, I showed my students that I trusted them. That I trusted them with a part of who I was and my classroom is richer because of it. Just last week we took a trip to visit parliament, and sitting outside the parliament buildings, we were talking about the different parts of parliament and the roles of the government. We were learning about how laws are passed and I mentioned the marriage equality law. I talked about being able to make a submission to the government, sharing my views on how this would affect me, and explained to my students how that law subsequently did affect me and my family. It was eye-opening for them, but also so much more real to hear a first hand story. They hadn’t realised that less than 4 years ago, I hadn’t been legally allowed to get married to the woman I loved.
Last year we had  a group of students calling things and people ‘gay’ as in dumb. I could have told the students off for using it, but instead I used my own identity to help them understand the effect that it has when you give the word a negative connotation. It was a teachable moment, made all the more real because they suddenly understood what they were saying about someone they actually knew. It’s not all serious though, there have been some hilarious moments, like overhearing a discussion between some students at lunchtime about how they took DNA from me and from my wife to create our son (not yet possible guys!) or when students have realised that I am married to a woman.
brie2
When I mentioned to a colleague that I was writing this article, she pointed out that I don’t look like the typical lesbian and sometimes that challenges students. I hadn’t really thought about it, but she’s right in a lot of ways. Some students do hold a pre-conceived idea of what a lesbian looks like, and I don’t really fit into that mould. And I think that’s a really good thing; too often we hold tightly to stereotypes and try to box people in, and when you meet me, with my long hair, high heels, and love of ballet, you might not pick that I’m married to a woman, and so when you learn that, some people are challenged. But it’s good. We all need a challenge.
Mostly though my students, their parents and staff have been nothing but supportive. I’m a quiet person, but I do believe that I need to set the example. I want my students to feel safe in sharing of themselves and the things that they love, that make them excited about life, so I need to do the same, and my family is such a huge part of who I am. When I talked to my syndicate leader, Louise, about this she said the most important thing about my being out is that “you show care for your partner, and the fact that it’s a wife, not a husband doesn’t even matter. I like how it’s just who you are, not a big deal, and that’s what you share with the kids.” There are so many ways of being in this world, and the more students are exposed to them, the richer their lives will be, and the more open to new experiences they will be.