LGBTQ+ should feel safe in classrooms


Graphic by Agnes Kurtzhals

LBGTQ+ students should feel safe in classrooms.

Zaynab Kouatli, Opinion Editor

I spoke to a WSC student who is studying education and is currently completing their practicum (this student wants to remain anonymous). During their practicum experience, they have had an opportunity to get to know students, one being trans. The trans student does not have parental approval to go by their preferred pronouns and thus nobody, including the teacher, uses this student’s desired pronouns. This, in turn, has resulted in the student facing a lot of bullying and alienation from their peers. Furthermore, the occurrences have led this student to act out and experience some behavioral issues in the classroom.  

I am an education major and when I first heard about this situation, I was taken aback. Classrooms are supposed to be safe and inclusive places for everyone and that includes people who identify as trans.  

So, I decided to do what I do best and write an opinion. I interviewed four professors and two high school teachers to gain perspective on what educators can do to create a classroom where everyone feels safe and included.  

An associate professor for the Art and Design Department at WSC, Carolyn Albracht, discussed what she would do in situations where students do not have parental approval to go by their preferred pronouns.  

“On the one hand you want to respect the student, but you also have to follow the protocols of the school,” Albracht said. “This is not my area of expertise, so I’m kind of relying on what is the right human thing to do. If I thought the student felt comfortable with me as a teacher, I would probably have a conversation with them about the rules of the school and let them know that I respect their wishes. I would stick into my head to use they/them regardless of what their preference is, so that there is some amount of respect and explain that to them. But I think that is conversation that you got to have with the student so that they understand your rationale and that you’re in a situation that you don’t want to get in trouble with the school or jeopardize your job. This is one of those situations where you have to feel it out.” 

Brittney Lechner is the language arts teacher at Stanton Community Schools. She emphasizes that in these situations she does what is best for the student.  

“I was looking, and the ACLU of Nebraska says that it is your right to be who you are in schools,” Lechner said. “You can be transgender, transitioning, anything and there is no law that there must be parental approval [for students to go by their preferred pronouns]. I don’t know if schools have their own policies for that. I’m wondering if in the future more schools will have policies for this. It seems like it starts with bigger schools and trickles down to smaller schools. Right now, I have students who go by they/them, and I use they/them. So far, I haven’t had any parents tell me not to. I do what is best for the kids.” 

Jacob Blum, history teacher at Stanton Community Schools, shares a similar perspective to Lechner about parental approval and preferred pronouns.  

“We don’t, as educators, work with parents,” Blum said. “We obviously want parents to support what we are doing in the classroom but at the end of the day the classroom is for the students who we teach. So, to me if it’s something that the student wants and it’s something that’s a priority, I don’t really think that we should go by what the parents want. It should be up to that individual student.” 

An assistant professor for the Department of Educational Foundation and Leadership, Ben Vilkas, said, “I need to begin by saying that during my teaching career with elementary students, the concept of preferred gender pronouns (PGP) was not a common concept in American society and thus, I have never had a situation like the one in this question.” 

Vilkas explains that in these situations he would want to know why there is a disconnect between the parents and child.  

“In any situation, getting to know the parent(s) and the child on a personal level should be a priority for educators,” Vilkas said. “One practice that I advocate for in schools is to have parent-teacher conferences prior to the start of every year so parents can talk openly and privately to the new teacher and an effective partnership can be formed that will benefit the student. The second thing that comes to mind is focusing on the child and referring to the child by the child’s preferred name. Sadly, what I have experienced in my career is when some teachers choose to call a student by some nickname because the teacher feels that student’s name is too difficult to pronounce. This is a different issue as it connects more to ethnic and cultural diversity in the classroom, but it is related to your question as it reflects the concept of honoring a person’s identity.” 

Personally, I believe that educators should respect the pronouns of their students. However, if there is a risk of jeopardizing your job there are ways to respect the student’s identity without breaking protocol. Albracht mentioned how she would use they/them so at least there is some amount of respect. I would also like to note that it is not impossible to simply not use any pronouns for the student. By referring to the student by their name you can avoid breaking policies of the school and still have the students wishes respected in your classroom.  

If you are a member of the LGBTQ+ you automatically have a target on your back. When I was in high school, I experienced my fair share of bullying and homophobic slurs. Stop Out Bullying reports that nine out of 10 LGBTQ+ students reported being harassed and bullied.  

Thomas Browning, assistant professor for the department of educational foundation and leadership, states, “GLSEN does surveys of what’s going on in schools related to LGBT students. Pretty consistently when they do these surveys, they find that students that are LGBT feel unsafe or less safe when schools aren’t considerate of student’s identities or when there’s bullying happening in the school and the schools are not responsive to those things. So, I think we have to be mindful of what that data tells us.” 

So how as educators can we combat this kind of bullying in our schools?  

Christian Legler, assistant professor for the department of educational foundation and leadership, explains, “To prevent bullying from occurring in the classroom, I encourage our pre-service teachers to integrate anti-bullying or social and emotional learning (SEL) in their curriculum. For example, Harmony Social and Emotional Learning provides a wide variety of curriculum resources for teachers. Additionally, teachers can also work closely with the school counselor to assist with bullying prevention. If a teacher faces issues pertaining to bullying in their classroom, it is crucial to bring together administration, the school counselor, and the families of the students involved to address the problem immediately.” 

Albracht said it is important to have an understanding of the culture of your school, “If you hear casual terms like gay as a put down, then you need to put a kibosh on that and have a conversation with the class. Maybe it is one of those things where you know the culture and you know those words get thrown around a lot, then you can address it on the first day to let everyone know that these words are not going to be tolerated. We don’t use these terms as slurs and put downs.” 

Lechner said that she has zero tolerance for bullying in her classroom.  

“Don’t allow it,” Lechner said. “Don’t let it happen. Bullying is bullying no matter what you are talking about. People are people no matter who they identify as, and I won’t let it happen in my classroom.” 

Lechner said she would protect LGBTQ+ students in her classroom by saying, “I would tell my other students that this is who they are and if you are not going to respect them then you are not welcome in my classroom. You can do your work in the office or somewhere else.” 

Blum similarly does not tolerate bullying in his classroom.  

“The idea is that sometimes in life we are not going to agree with each other and that’s okay but whether another student agrees or not about their use of pronouns, that doesn’t really matter. It should still be respected,” Blum said. “That’s what that student really wants so it should be respected and if it’s not then there’s going to be consequences just like there would be if students weren’t respected for other reasons.” 

Vilkas iterates that teachers are responsible for building a community of learners that respect and care for each other.  

“Modeling and teaching students how to be caring, kind and respectful to all is a central role for those in the field of education,” Vilkas said. “When students see how their teachers treat each and every student in their classroom, the students should be seeing how they should also be treating each other and demonstrating respect to all.” 

In Lechner’s classroom she has added small things that have had big impacts. For one she has a pride sticker on her laptop which shows her student that she is an ally. Additionally, on her desk is a snow globe with three resistance fists that are the colors of the pride flag. On the snow globe it reads “Hate has no home here.” 

“I keep this globe in my room and it’s amazing what it has done,” Lechner said. “I have had nobody say anything negative about it. I have kids who hold and do this [she shook the globe]. I have had a student who came up and said, ‘I’m Bi’ and I said thank you for sharing that with me and if you want to talk with me about it know that I accept you for who you are. It [the globe] has opened conversations I probably wouldn’t have had before. People have said ‘thank you for supporting me’ and it has opened so many doors.” 

Along with being a teacher, Lechner also coaches the One Act team in Stanton. To make One Act inclusive to all students she has her roles be gender non-specific. This allows all students to participate without feeling restricted by the binary.  

Lechner also mentioned how she attends many queer panels and includes videos relating to queer history in her classroom. She does a lot of research outside of the classroom about LGBTQ+ related topics.  

“I have to educate myself to educate my students,” Lechner said.  

 Vilkas mentioned how he was not familiar with this topic in his career; however, he has taken the time to learn about it.  

“There are countless books, articles, and materials that are available for all to read if they are open to learning and understanding,” Vilkas said. “I’ve utilized the WSC Library over the past few years to learn more on this topic. This is not me patting myself on the back, but simply to say that educators should always be lifelong learners. In addition, I also strive to understand all perspectives on various issues, including the issue of gender identification and sexual orientation. Empathy is about understanding, and no educator can be empathetic if they fail to try to understand issues fully. Placing oneself in the position of the students, the parents, and also all members of a given community is important to be able to help create that classroom environment that truly demonstrates respect for all.”  

Queer and trans students still predominantly feel unsafe and unwelcome in the public school system. Constantly experiencing high rates of harassment and bullying in schools has resulted in a compromised education for many students who are part of the LGBTQ+. 

However, it does not have to be this way. I have found some guidelines based on my interviews and research that educators can do to make sure that queer students do not face what the data tells us. For starters, educators need to get used to using inclusive language in the classroom. For example, instead of saying “boys and girls,” instead use “students,” “friends” or “class.” 

Abusive and homophobic terms should never be tolerated in the classroom or in the hallway. Punishment is not always the most productive way to handle instances like these. I think educators should make these things into learning experiences and explain to the student how those words are hurtful. Instead of having the student sit in detention, rather they should write a lengthy essay about Marsha P. Johnson.  

Respect the requests and needs of trans and queer students. You can find ways to use the preferred pronouns of a student without breaking protocol. If a student comes out to you make sure to be supportive and empathetic. All educators need to examine their curriculum and make an effort to include queer history into the classroom. Above all, educators need to educate themselves.