Six steps to creating a more inclusive environment.
By Lisa van de Geyn
It was two years ago when Ian and Stephanie Clark noticed their middle child, AJ (not his real name) — seven years old and in Grade 2 — was acting out. “For most of the year, there was a surface-level explanation: AJ was being a kid and trying to test boundaries,” Stephanie says. “Then, before the school year ended, AJ shared that he wanted to wear girls’ clothes, but feared this form of self-expression would not be accepted.” The couple — who use plural pronouns “they, them and their” when referring to their biologically male child — were stunned by AJ’s sense of self-awareness. But sadly, Stephanie says, AJ’s (and her) worries didn’t come out of left field. Despite living in a diverse town, “the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two spirit and queer) community does face biases, discrimination and the struggle for acceptance.”
This intolerance continues to creep into classrooms across the province, even though there are policies and legislation meant to protect students (including Ontario’s Equity and Inclusive Education policy). A Manitoba Teachers’ Society study published in 2015 called The Every Teacher Project on LGBTQ-Inclusive Education in Canada’s K–12 Schools is riddled with dire statistics: 49 per cent of educators report hearing homophobic comments (“that’s so gay”) daily or weekly; 55 per cent were aware of LGBTQ kids, who had experienced harassment, engaging in self-harming; and though 97 per cent of teachers say their school is safe, the number nosedives when focusing on LGBTQ students’ well-being. Egale Canada Human Rights Trust (an organization that promotes inclusion and informs public policy) found 44 per cent of trans students are likely to miss classes due to safety concerns.
Fortunately, there’s a good-news story to tell: Research shows the vast majority of teachers are aware and supportive of LGBTQ-inclusive education (including Professionally Speaking’s readers, who asked for more coverage on the topic in the latest reader survey). David Parmer, OCT, a secondary science teacher at Toronto’s Dr. Norman Bethune Collegiate Institute, says he’s made a conscious effort to keep these students top of mind over his 25 years of teaching. “I’m fully aware of the statistics that show suicide rates among LGBTQ youth is very high, and it’s important to me to create a safe and welcoming space. I strive to have my students feel represented in our classroom.”
Perhaps you share Parmer’s passion but don’t feel well versed or trained in creating a more inclusive environment — you’re not alone. Many teachers say they could use a boost of confidence and knowledge to help them better connect with and teach LGBTQ students. We spoke to educators who are successfully incorporating the curriculum and prioritizing the visibility of all students in their classrooms. Here’s their advice.
It’s not the most obvious first step, but the College’s Deputy Registrar Joe Jamieson, OCT, says it’s incumbent upon educators to demonstrate care, trust, respect and integrity in the workplace. That’s why it’s important to look inward. “Ask ‘Do I have any biases about the LGBTQ community?’” he says. “If you have a negative perception, that’s something that needs work; it will be hard to interact with the necessary care and respect these students deserve.”
“The feeling of being intimidated by a lack of knowledge or training is common. However, we’ve found that the best way to overcome our apprehensions has been to find opportunities where we can learn and gain confidence,” says Tess Della-Pieta, OCT, a teacher at École secondaire catholique Pierre-Savard in Ottawa. As one of several LGBTQ advocates in her school, Della-Pieta says her administration’s support has allowed staff to not only go to seminars, but to develop their own educational forums. “A few years ago, we organized and hosted the first annual ‘Rencontre interscolaire’— a one-day conference with workshops and guest panels discussing current issues, tools, next steps and future goals within our board.”
As a member of the LGBTQ community, John Paul Kane, OCT, who teaches primary grades in Toronto, says getting acquainted with students who identify as LGBTQ takes initiative. “Request professional development, and reach out to Gay-Straight Alliances and colleagues in neighbouring schools where there are programs to create inclusive and safe spaces. Visit to see them in action.” Kane says each school should have an equity representative who liaises with their board’s equity department. “If you don’t have an equity rep, become one.” The College offers an Additional Qualification course on teaching LGBTQ students. (See sidebar for details.)
Parmer is consistently on the lookout for meaningful ways to connect the curriculum with what’s relevant to the LGBTQ community. “One of the topics I cover is the global impact of HIV/AIDS, and I spend a great deal of time outlining the marginalization of the LGBTQ community during the rise of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. ”
For Samuel Everitt, OCT, a guidance counsellor at École secondaire Étienne- Brûlé in Toronto, including sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression came naturally when he taught English. “I found it relatively easy to incorporate different types of texts with that content, as there are more and more novels, plays and short stories with LGBTQ characters and themes. When this content wasn’t immediately evident, we studied the subtext.” While reading Romeo and Juliet, for example, Everitt says his class analyzed subtext in relation to “the character of Mercutio as possibly being queer and in love with Romeo.”
When Everitt taught a Grade 10 history course, he included a discussion of the pink triangle, which was first used by the Nazis as a symbol of persecution against homosexuals, but later became a positive symbol of the LGBTQ community.
Della-Pieta’s school has made impressive strides in supporting the community. “LGBTQ students have access to several gender-neutral washrooms, we have a strong Gay-Straight Alliance that meets weekly, and last summer we participated in the Ottawa Pride Parade,” she says. The school also ensures safe spaces and individuals are clearly identifiable — any staff member can attach “safe space” stickers and cards to their classroom doors, walls or personal items. “This identification is purely voluntary and ensures these individuals are truly prepared to support anyone who might approach them.”
Educators in the LGBTQ community, or those with loved ones in the community, have a unique opportunity here. Ian Clark, OCT, is the vice-principal at West Oak Public School in Oakville, Ont., and he’s AJ’s father. While he can only speak to his family’s experience and perspective, he’s eager to encourage and support his LGBTQ students and their families by being open about AJ’s journey.
When LGBTQ teachers are out and visible, it benefits students, says Jamieson. As an openly gay educator, he believes kids need to see themselves — be it Indigenous, differently abled or however they identify — in their role models. “They need to see examples of successful adults in their communities,” he explains, adding the College supports teachers who choose to be visible role models for LGBTQ students.
Kane has been out about his sexuality and identity since he started working at his board 22 years ago. “We queer teachers must take the lead,” he says, adding he’s also open about his side gig. Along with his co-collaborator, Kane performs in drag for children and presents culturally diverse, inclusive books for story times. “Many of my students have attended my events and more than a dozen performed with me at the Toronto Pride Parade,” he says.
“We’re often looking for a manual or lesson plan that will lay out how to deliver inclusive education, but there isn’t a prescribed curriculum that matches every individual,” Ian Clark explains. Consider taking one action at a time: put up a poster discouraging homophobic bullying; pick up diverse books for the library; participate in International Day of Pink; speak to the administration about raising the rainbow Pride flag; pay attention to slurs and homophobic language — and enforce zero tolerance; and invite LGBTQ students and their families (or connections you have) into your class to share their stories.
Take a page from Parmer’s book: He’s made “direct changes” in the language he uses each day. “I no longer greet my class with a, ‘Good morning, boys and girls,’ or ‘Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.’ Rather, I simply say, ‘Good morning, everyone,’” he explains. “I’m much more cognizant of proper pronoun usage and ask students to communicate which pronouns they prefer. This gives them the opportunity to inform me of their preferences, and hopefully they’ll feel more welcome, represented and safe in our classroom as a result.”
The Teaching LGBTQ Students AQ is offered seasonally online and is accredited by the College. The course focuses on honouring LGBTQ students, creating safe environments and instruction on how to encourage inclusive learning. Open to educators teaching kindergarten to Grade 12. Visit oct-oeeo.ca/findanAQ.
Find helpful e-titles online at the College library, such as Reading the Rainbow: LGBTQ-Inclusive Literacy Instruction in the Elementary Classroom. Visit oct-oeeo.ca/OCTlibrary.
Check out The Every Teacher Project on LGBTQ-Inclusive Education in Canada’s K–12 Schools Final Report and Egale’s Supporting Your Gender Diverse Child: A Guide to Support Parents, Guardians, and Caregivers Who Advocate for Their Trans, Intersex, Two Spirit, and Gender Diverse Children and Youth in the Ontario Education System report. Visit egale.ca.