Pride 2016. It was not my first, but I felt the same level of excitement I’d had as a teenager. In my hands I held a large rainbow sign that proudly declared, ‘Love is Love’. But the slogan wasn’t the reason I was so pleased with it; the sign was made up of numerous coloured post-it notes, each with a handwritten message about the importance of the Stonewall Riots and modern acceptance. Every note was written by one of my students.
It was not an easy project to complete. I’d arrived fresh from teacher training to a school that had a lot of students from conservative backgrounds. I was determined to be an example of an ‘out and proud’ teacher for young people who had perhaps yet to see this.
Still, I came out slowly. I waited until I was more settled in my classroom and knew my groups – I wanted to be out, but I was unsure how students would respond, and friends and family warned me about the reactions I might face. I decided to start with my GCSE class, the eldest class I taught, as I figured they would be mature enough to respond respectfully. They were pleasantly relaxed about it and, dare I say it, even mildly disinterested. But the news travelled quickly, and I was soon speaking to senior leadership about the increasing amounts of homophobic abuse from students.
The abuse wasn’t confined to within the school walls. Students started shouting at me on the street or even running after my bus home, screaming homophobic slurs. Colleagues were sympathetic and did their best to challenge their students, while management suggested I be less vocal, and not to take the abuse personally. The atmosphere, and lack of support, almost ended my teaching career.
However, while some students were casting judgement, others began to reach out. I had students approaching me wanting to talk. Some were happy to just have someone else who was out, and who understood their identity. Other students wanted help and support in understanding their own feelings. It was these pupils who made me realise the situation needed to change, that the school could no longer ignore the attitudes some students carried with them.
I began including more LGBT+ discussions in my lessons, and led on LGBT+ History Month and staff training. Gradually, things began to change. A new anti-bullying policy was implemented, this time including clear references to homophobic bullying. I watched with pride as students began to challenge each other’s use of homophobic language.
There was such a visible change throughout the school – I wanted a way to show it to others. At the end of the academic year, I discussed the Stonewall Riots with one of my classes. At the end, I asked the students if they wanted to complete one post-it note each about the riots and acceptance. I explained they would be used to create a rainbow Pride sign that I could take to a march. I had so many volunteers that I ran out of post-it notes. Some of the messages were short and simple, like ‘It’s important for people to have equal rights’, or my favourite, ‘Big up the LGBT’. Others wrote paragraphs that brought tears to my eyes.
The students asked about Pride, too. What was it like? Why do you go? What do you wear? Can we go when we’re older even if we aren’t LGBT+? Some of these students had shouted abuse through classroom windows, and now wanted to show their support at a Pride parade. I had never witnessed the power of education so clearly.
I showed the sign in a staff briefing a week after Pride. I explained the project, and mentioned some of the students who had been involved, and there was visible surprise from some of my colleagues. It was in that moment I saw the importance of perseverance, and what we can do as educators. We all go into teaching with a notion about the ideals we want to instil, and the type of young people we want to help raise. I now know not to give up on that, however hard it may sometimes seem, because our work can genuinely change people’s lives.
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