Saturday, April 7, 2012

Teaching Understanding

School violence and the social climate of the public school system in the U.S. are often sensationalized and news-worthy topics.  Daily I work with drug addicted women who are slightly older than this age category, but the climate of judgement and bullying continue to exist.  This week I thought a great deal about how to teach understanding and acceptance, especially as it relates to the LGBTQ population, as these youth are often the recipients of violence, misunderstanding and are subject to the painful product of the ignorance of others.

The movie, “Bully”, set to come out in theaters nationwide on April 13th, exposes the stories of kids who have experienced bullying within the public school system.  Included in the film is Kelby’s story, a 16 year old lesbian who continues to be harassed by other students in her school system.  Kelby fights against the ignorance and violence of other students with support from a few close friends and her Parents, but many other students are not as lucky.

A heterosexist environment exists not only within our public school systems, but within the social climate in general, creating a hostile atmosphere for LGBTQ students (and adults, for that matter) to communicate honestly with those around them including Parents, friends and educators.  Further, a gender binary system also exists, representing a black and white thinking pattern within social stereotypes.  Students are categorized either “feminine” or “masculine”, with little room for androgyny, let alone the acceptance of identification with both or neither gender.

Which leads me to the question within sexuality education; How can we teach compassion and understanding of the unknown (or the “other”).  I thought about some of the strategies that would be most effective in doing so and which of these I could apply in my current work setting to foster increased unity within the population.

According to Anderson et al (2010), teachers rarely intervene when presented with bullying situations with school systems and approximately 1/3 of transgender youth within this study mention that bullying comes from the educators themselves.  First and foremost, educators need to have the knowledge required to live by example for their students and advocate for understanding, compassion and kindness among students.  We can’t teach what we don’t know. 

Some of the recommendations made by TYFA (Transgender Youth and Families Alliance) include:  educating parents, educators and students,  creating a gay/straight alliance, expose the rarity of LGBTQ characters, issues or concerns within the curriculum and teaching engagement, not simply content. (SITE TYFA)  I think the most important component of this type of both affective and intellectual education is beginning by showing students how similar they are and advocating for them to challenge their current belief structures, even if they don’t change them.  Uniting students with each other can be the beginning of life changes for them and social changes for us.

References:  Fabrikant-Eagan, Amy (2012, March 12). Changing social norms in school starts with a conversation.  Retrieved April 7, 2012 from:
Anderson, C.R., McGuire, J.K., Russell, S.T. & Toomey, R.B. (2010). School climate for transgender youth: A mixed method investigation of student experiences and school responses.  Journal of Youth Adolescence(39).


  1. Megan, great post and wonderful things to think about. I just finished scanning a book called The Right to be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America's Public Schools (Biegl, 2010). The author points out many of the same things you mention in the blog. One of the main points he brought up was the school climate and how that needs to change. By having a positive and proactive school climate, it positively affects all students, especially LGBT youth. Many schools have begun making positive changes by having GSA's and actively discussing bullying and LGBT issues. Additionally, teacher education is key with implementing changes in school. Many states have adopted the addition of LGBT education to the curriculum but implementation is much more difficult. He points out that education is reluctant to change. Unfortunately, it very much seems like an uphill battle that we face. Teachers and schools do not have all the resources needed to implement effective change. As you mention, teachers often do not respond to bullying. I think some of that has to do with lack of information and resources on how to appropriately handle situations that arise. I think as sexuality educators, our job is to begin by talking about these issues and begin to educate teachers, students and parents.

  2. Great topic especially with the new documentary bully coming out. I find it interesting the documentary had some contriversy about the rating because of the bad language. I'm glad it was decided the film should be rated PG13 instead of R so more students are able to see the film. It also caught controversy because the film crew didn't stop one child from getting hit, but how often to people walk away when physical or emotional bullying occurs.
    I was recently trained on the Olweus Bullying Prevention and on the committee for my school to teach the staff what bullying is, what are the roles students pay, and how to stop bullying behavior. I have been a fan of the program since I wrote my masters paper on bullying. While it is a great program, everyone needs to buy into it and we are having a problem with teachers supporting the program. While bullying occurs everyday, teachers need to be role models and stop kids from bullying one another. If teachers ignore the bullying behavior then it will continue to grow as a problem.

  3. Great post, Megan! In our field it is something we should definitely be concerned about, but also something that we are probably in the best position to do something about. In my practicum experience, we used a curriculum that was pretty inclusive, though there was definitely room for improvement. In the last session, students do role-plays. The role-plays are designed so that both partners' names are ambiguous and you can make it boy/girl boy/boy, girl/girl etc.

    I think it is such a great step. However, I have never seen any group where someone did a homosexual skit, nor have I ever seen one where it was the girl pressuring the guy to have sex. Part of the problem is scripting. These kids know what they see on TV, and that of course is completely sexist and heteronormative. I always try to point out that they can be two boys or girls or that either can be pressuring the other, but they tend to look at me like I'm crazy, so I meet them where they're at and don't insist on inclusiveness.

    It's difficult because, for a lot of us, we will only have the kids for an hour a week or, if we're really lucky an hour a day. Either way, the climate of the whole school really needs to be behind us in order for us to make any sort of difference. What I would like to see is for the organization where I did my practicum to go into the schools that they teach in and do a teacher training on LGBTQ issues and teach them how to be more inclusive in ALL classrooms. Sexuality educators can certainly help, but the whole school needs to be behind that mission in order for it to be truly successful. If this is students first and only exposure to LGBT inclusiveness, of course they will look at me like I'm crazy, but if, as Megan said we can get the whole school behind it by educating parents, teachers and starting clubs and alliances then we can come in with our gender-neutral names and have a lot more success.

  4. Megan -

    You brought up some really important things for educators to think about, not just when working with youth, but when working with the LGBTQ population. Our school systems reflect our culture in so many ways, and homophobia and heterosexism are two blatant examples. It's difficult to figure out ways to work with students and to provide support for LGBTQ students when the larger culture frequently does not.

    I agree with the ideas of educating staff and parents. How can we expect them to be advocates, or at the very least to stop bullying, if they are not aware of the issues and have the understanding to recognize it. Also, helping to bring together students is a wonderful idea. It almost feels utopian to think about it, but helping students see their similarities over their perceived differences would be building blocks not just in school bullying, but in life tolerance and acceptance.

  5. Megan,

    I also really like the idea of educating staff and ensuring that parents, teachers and staff are able to advocate. I remember in high school there was a school known as the "lesbian school" - which I thought was interesting, but my basketball coach always stated that we were never to go to the bathroom by ourselves because of the "lesbian rape" that might take place that would make us "lesbians" I think I died at this point in high school and quit the team the next year. This is just an example of how educators need education. I won't even tell you about the how to use a tampon talk she gave.

    I can't wait to see Bully and am glad that people are starting to realize it's not a rites of passage for childhood. Also to realize that for those in the "other" categories of sexuality how the internalization of the negativity spewed at them causes such dissonance with self.

  6. Megan,

    This is such a huge issue to tackle! It made me think of the post that Lexx put up recently. I think that you are right, it can be really hard to get people to feel empathy for "others" that they do not understand or want to understand. I do think, though, that people understand what it means to be an "other" in some way from personal experience. This might not always be true, but I think that it is true for many. Building off of those experiences in order to help with an affective piece of education, along with helping to create more education for students, parents and educators in general would be a great place to start! I also really appreciated the idea of taking a moment to consider who is left out of the materials that we provide our students.

    I have not seen Bully, but want to go! I have been following the news about the rating and am absolutely thrilled about the new PG-13 rating so that it is more accessible to the people that need to see it and can be incorporated into more classes and community settings. I have a feeling that it is a powerful movie that will speak to a lot of student experiences.