Out and proud

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - CONTENTS -

Sup­port­ing LGBT staff with a whole-school in­clu­sive ethos

Too many teach­ers still feel un­com­fort­able talk­ing about their sex­u­al­ity, says head­teacher Ja­son Gil­man-hughes, who be­lieves school lead­ers need to do more to en­cour­age their staff to be as out as they want to be in the school en­vi­ron­ment

Can you re­mem­ber the mo­ment when you de­clared to your col­leagues, pupils and par­ents your sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion? If you’re straight, mar­ried or in a re­la­tion­ship, the chances are you’ve prob­a­bly “outed” your­self count­less times with­out giv­ing it a sec­ond thought. You know, those or­di­nary men­tions of the hus­band/wife/girl­friend/boyfriend, as you’re queu­ing for the staffroom hot-wa­ter boiler thingy (does it have a proper name?)

Maybe it was an aside when talk­ing to the chil­dren in your class about some­thing you did re­cently with your fam­ily. It’s the same with col­leagues: who could for­get the lat­est col­lec­tion for the forth­com­ing baby?

I men­tion this be­cause so many ar­ti­cles on gay teach­ers fo­cus on whether an in­di­vid­ual should be “out” at school. Nowa­days, that de­ci­sion would hope­fully be a much eas­ier one than at any other time in his­tory. A big­ger is­sue, in my view, arises once you’ve come out: how out ac­tu­ally are you?

I have never at­tempted to hide my sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion from col­leagues. I pre­fer to adopt the view that peo­ple need to see the real me. When I first started as a head­teacher, I brought my hus­band along to a com­mu­nity event, not to make a point, but be­cause we hap­pened to be to­gether that day. It was lovely to meet my prospec­tive col­leagues and there was no sense of at­tract­ing funny looks or sur­prise. Fan­tas­tic.

Ever since then, as head, I’ve found it per­fectly com­fort­able be­ing able to talk about my hus­band and I with ev­ery­one at work. For me, that’s just a much bet­ter po­si­tion to be in, so I can be authen­tic. And for col­leagues, it puts them at ease to see that I am re­laxed about it.

Gov­er­nor sup­port

I also think it’s use­ful to be out to the gover­nors. Af­ter all, if I were ever sub­ject to any form of abuse or dis­crim­i­na­tion, I would need them to sup­port me. An­other ben­e­fit of this can be seen in the fol­low­ing: a gov­er­nor brought up the im­por­tance of mak­ing sure chil­dren were made aware of dif­fer­ent fam­ily set­tings, in­clud­ing same-sex cou­ples. I was then able to men­tion that I was al­ready putting to­gether some ideas to sup­port staff, as part of sex and re­la­tion­ship ed­u­ca­tion lessons, and that be­cause I was mar­ried to a man, I felt well placed to of­fer some ad­vice.

It was re­as­sur­ing that this push came from the gover­nors, not from me.

I am aware, how­ever, that not all teach­ers feel com­fort­able enough to do as I do. Af­ter the ini­tial “out” dec­la­ra­tion, some can re­frain from speak­ing openly about their home life or ref­er­enc­ing any­thing that “gives away” their sex­u­al­ity. Some feel that they can never men­tion be­ing gay again. Clearly, this is very much an in­di­vid­ual’s choice. But as a school leader, I am keenly aware that this might not al­ways be their own choice.

As heads, we need to make sure we do all we can to en­able teach­ers to be as out as they feel com­fort­able be­ing. This can be made dif­fi­cult in schools with a strongly re­li­gious char­ac­ter or if the school serves a par­tic­u­lar com­mu­nity, but we have to get over those bar­ri­ers – legally, we ob­vi­ously have to, but we also have a moral duty, too.

We have the op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate a safe space. This has to be com­mu­ni­cated not just from those of us at the top, but through

ev­ery lead­er­ship role in the school. Teach­ers and sup­port staff of­ten feel like they have the least amount of con­trol and they need to know that they would be sup­ported if they spoke freely about their sex­u­al­ity. If you’re a head­teacher, do you think your staff know that they would re­ceive such sup­port?

Re­mov­ing bar­ri­ers

If there is an in­di­ca­tion that some­one feels un­com­fort­able, and you find that they have rea­son to feel that way, you must act de­ci­sively. By lead­ing on in­clu­siv­ity, we have to be seen to deal with any bar­ri­ers that are in place.

As heads, it’s im­por­tant to be ap­proach­able. If some­one is think­ing of com­ing out, or if they are hav­ing is­sues with how out they feel com­fort­able be­ing, our door should be open to that con­ver­sa­tion, and we should be pre­pared to seek out and re­move any bar­ri­ers that the per­son may be­lieve are in place. And if you’re a head with those thoughts and feel­ings your­self, then the chair of gover­nors might be worth talk­ing to. They have a duty of care to us, af­ter all.

This is­sue is im­por­tant not just for the teach­ers in ques­tion, nor the staff as a whole. It is im­por­tant that the pupils also feel they are part of an in­clu­sive en­vi­ron­ment in which be­ing out is not just “nor­mal”, but is – in a way – a non-is­sue.

So let’s shift the de­bate from “com­ing out” to be­ing com­fort­able “be­ing out”. Be­ing com­pletely out still isn’t quite the norm, so the only way to nor­malise things is to be­come part of the change.

Ja­son Gil­man-hughes is head­teacher of Oxley Pri­mary School in Shep­shed, Le­ices­ter­shire

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