Winter 2021 • Jose Soto He/Him
All children and youth can thrive when their multiple, intersecting identities are affirmed by the caring adults in their school communities. Far too often, LGBTQ and gender-expansive students do not see their identities and experiences mirrored back to them in their schools. Many reports, including those from the HRC Foundation, strongly indicate that LGBTQ and gender-expansive students have reduced rates of depression and suicidality when their school communities implement policies and practices to support and affirm their identities. We know that educators often have not been given professional development with the skills they need to foster LGBTQ and gender-inclusive school climates, especially during remote learning.
“When I ask staff what the greatest thing about Welcoming Schools is, by far, they will say we wanted to do this work but we didn't know how,” said Dr. Anu Ebbe, principal at Shorewood Elementary in Madison, Wisconsin. “Welcoming Schools gave us the how.”
HRC Foundation’s Welcoming Schools helps educators and youth-serving professionals through professional development trainings, lesson plans, booklists and resources. In order for LGBTQ students to feel supported and empowered to express their identities and interests at school, educators must create affirming climates that help children explore and reach their full potential free of cis-heteronormativity, gender norms and gender stereotypes. Through Welcoming Schools trainings, schools across the U.S. have successfully implemented noticeable changes to nurture students’ academic and personal success.
“HRC Foundation’s Welcoming Schools is the most comprehensive bias-based bullying prevention program in the nation,” said Cheryl Greene, director of Welcoming Schools. “Through an intersectional approach to policies and practices, we help schools across the country use critical tools to help the entire school community understand the importance of inclusive classroom settings, particularly for LGBTQ and gender-expansive students.”
Virtual learning presents many unique challenges. Our research indicates that 67% of LGBTQ students hear their families make negative comments about LGBTQ people, while only 24% report feeling like they can “definitely” be themselves at home. It is crucial that LGBTQ and gender-inclusive classrooms are fostered in virtual environments as well. HRC has developed a comprehensive checklist to help you support and affirm LGBTQ youth during virtual learning. Safety efforts continue even in a virtual environment. It is critical that all students be able to use the name and pronouns that they want to be called virtually. This may require school districts to put in extra measures to ensure that student’s names are appearing correctly in Google Classrooms and Zoom.
“Educators and youth-serving professionals can provide private spaces for LGBTQ students to brainstorm self-care strategies when they live in a non-affirming home or have not yet come out to their families,” said Greene. “Educators can also set a virtual space for one-on-ones with LGBTQ and gender-expansive students to allow them to share and address any concerns they may have.”
In the world of virtual learning, Welcoming Schools’ partner Madison Metropolitan School District has developed a few best practices to continue supporting LGBTQ and gender inclusivity in virtual settings, including creating virtual classroom designs that clearly show LGBTQ allyship.
Teachers can create bitmojis of themselves with a pride shirt, for example, or design a virtual background with gender-inclusive images or phrases. Welcoming Schools also encourages educators to set their screens to include their pronouns.
“Throughout my life, I’ve struggled to focus in class whenever I felt unsafe or invisible,” said Ashton Mota, a young high-school student and HRC Youth Ambassador. “As a Black Dominican-American transgender teen, learning in an online environment that is visibly welcoming and validating has greatly improved my ability to focus during class time. I wish all educators would create an inclusive virtual background to help all students feel affirmed and supported in their online classrooms.”
Welcoming Schools works with educators to practice embracing teachable moments and ways to interrupt teasing and bullying that is based on gender norms. Welcoming Schools helps school communities also understand how harassment and bullying can have a devastating impact on children, particularly children with marginalized identities, and how to implement practices that both address and prevent bullying behaviors.
One way schools can celebrate gender diversity and LGBTQ people is by introducing high-quality children’s literature to classrooms or school libraries. Welcoming Schools has many highly regarded children’s booklists, such as Diverse Children’s Books to Support Transgender and Non-Binary Youth and to Understand Gender and LGBTQ Inclusive Books For Your School.
A foundational strand of the Welcoming Schools program is our focus on embracing all families. We offer professional development, comprehensive lesson plans and booklists that celebrate many different family structures and caring communities, including LGBTQ and gender-expansive families with transgender and non-binary loved ones.
Welcoming Schools gives educators many tips and tools to create gender-inclusive school environments. One foundational practice is to end the practice of sorting and addressing students by “boys” and “girls” and instead to address students as “artists,” “scholars” or “writers.” Another important practice is to teach children not to assume someone’s gender identity or what pronouns they might use based on how they look, otherwise known as gender expression.
Additionally, educators can also teach about role models, such as Sarah McBride, the nation’s first-ever out transgender state senator. Even simply including a picture of a high-profile LGBTQ and non-binary person in the classroom, even a virtual one, can have a positive impact. Welcoming Schools has an extensive booklist on LGBTQ history and accompanying lesson plans to get you started.
What is of utmost importance is working diligently to create safe, affirming schools for LGBTQ and gender-expansive students. Our findings with GLSEN shows that over 80% of young transgender and non-binary students report feeling unsafe at school and over 30% have been verbally assaulted. Welcoming Schools trains educators and school staff to disrupt both in-person and online bullying behavior and harassment and provide comprehensive strategies to proactively address negative behaviors so they are less likely to occur. We help to cultivate a community of allyship amongst students, families and staff with skills through our Preventing Bias Based Bullying training and resources.
Regardless of whether in-person schooling returns or virtual learning continues, all schools should highly consider receiving and implementing Welcoming Schools’ professional development trainings. All children, youth and families deserve schools that help their children achieve their full potential in affirming, caring environments.
For more information, visit welcomingschools.org.