Dr. Donovan Griffin Blake is an author, leader, grant writer, and academic scholar with over 20 years of experience in public education. She holds degrees from Howard University (B.S.), George Washington University (M.Ed.), and Bowie State University (Ed.D.). Donovan has worked with the White House Initiative on HBCU’s, the Congressional Black Caucus, and several HBCU’s. She has received numerous awards and recognition for her leadership and service. Donovan serves as a content expert for school districts and universities. Donovan’s scholarly focus is intersectional justice for marginalized groups in education. Most recently, she was a visiting professor for Social Justice Foundations in Education at a University in the Midwest region. She is the Principal Strategy Consultant for Alchemy Consultant Group.
This essay summarizes one facilitator’s conference presentation and their overall perspective of the conference. The presentation was intended for teachers and parents to work towards developing support for LGBTQ+ students in learning environments. The summary is written as an overview to spark the seed toward becoming anti-biased individuals.
Keywords: self-reflection, supporting LGBTQ+ students, equity, anti-biased pedagogies
Initially, I was concerned about how my presentation, titled Taking Pride In Supporting Your Students, would be received in a virtual conference setting. Discussions of how diverse value systems and societal structures impact LGBTQ+ students can often impart some sense of uncomfortableness for those involved. As a Black cis-female college professor at a private white institution in Michigan, I witnessed how my students could easily hide from the parts of equity discussions that made them feel uneasy during our virtual class sessions, and I was concerned about this playing out in my virtual conference session. This conference presentation asked educators to be self-reflective in acknowledging their biases related to sexual orientation. I consider that to be a very difficult step to process because in education we focus on the social-emotional development of our students. Despite such challenges, it is important to require educators, especially tenured teachers, to evaluate their own social-emotional skills and biases and how they impact their students. Just like discussing equitable educational practices for teaching LGBTQ+ students can feel uncomfortable, for teachers self-reflection of their biases can also posit uncomfortable feelings. However, these self-reflection practices are necessary. The primary objective of my presentation was to help move classroom teachers from tolerance to transformation.
The first step in this transformation requires knowing the difference between equity and equality. It was essential to emphasize that these words are not synonyms. All teachers must know the importance of where they stand on the issues and how it impacts the philosophies they apply in their classrooms. Teachers must be challenged to consider what happens when we bring justice into the equation. This examination will help an individual teacher see the injustice that many students experience.
Early in my teaching career, my classroom was based on a teacher-led approach, just like the teachers that I had throughout my life had done with me. Without a doubt, I had an innate ability to develop personal relationships with my students and their families. Those personal relationships helped me see my students and their families from a different perspective, which helped me value each student’s funds of knowledge (Moll et al., 1992). Funds of knowledge value students’ life experiences and cultural knowledge in relation to the context of school. Based upon this new perspective of my students, my classroom changed from a teacher-led approach to a student-centered approach. This allowed my students to help make decisions in our classroom. It let my students know that they were not invisible and that their voices matter. These are some of the experiences that gave me the agency to advocate for LGBTQ+ students.
In the conference session, I provided examples of advocating for students by addressing biases with my colleagues. Here is an example of a situation that I shared with the conference participants:
During my tenure as the Special Education department chair at a high school, I facilitated an IEP meeting involving same-sex parents. As we did the introductions, we explained that the counselor would be late for the meeting. During the introductions, the mother introduced her partner as the father. For clarification and the purpose of the meeting notes, I asked both parents which pronouns we should use for each of them. Per their request, we used she, her, and hers for the mother and he, him, his for the father. The special education teacher and the general education teacher were very professional and followed my lead in properly addressing each parent in the meeting.
About fifteen minutes after the start of the meeting, the counselor came in, and sat next to me. He whispered to ask me who the lady sitting next to the mother was, and I explained, via sticky note, that he was the father of the student. The counselor then wrote to ask, “What do I call her?” I responded, “You can call him by his name as listed on the sign-in sheet, or you can use the pronouns ‘he or him.’” When it was time for the counselor to present his information in the meeting, he fumbled a few times when addressing the father. The special educator and I made corrections to help the counselor remember how to address the parent. The counselor continued to call the father ‘miss’ and ‘ma’am.’
After the meeting, I had a private meeting with the counselor to let him know that I found his behavior unprofessional. I explained how his language did not respect a diverse family culture, which hindered our opportunity to create an inclusive partnership for the student’s family. The counselor shared that he did not believe in “that gay stuff” and he would not change to suit “those kinds of people.” After not being able to reason with the counselor, I took my concerns to the principal. He had a private meeting with the counselor. After their meeting, the counselor called the student’s father and apologized. I don’t think that the counselor changed his values about gay families, but he definitely was more professional in working with them at the school.
I shared this story at the conference to demonstrate that I am aware of how difficult it is to address biases and microagressions related to LGBTQ+ issues with our colleagues. It must become your personal charge to model the correct behaviors, and address biases and microagressions head-on. In the event that our peers don’t hear us, we must bring our concerns to an administrator. I explained to the conference participants that I still sometimes struggle with using the correct pronouns, but I do make an effort to try. As a result, my students and their families know that I care and that I am there to support them by ensuring a safe, productive, and welcoming learning environment for all of my students.
The session moved into a data chat. Here are some of the data highlighted from the 2019 National School Climate Survey:
*Infographics are fully credited to GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Survey
We also examined a graph that looked at the intersection of race and sexual orientation. Despite an overall decline of racial discrimination in schools, LGBTQ+ students of color were still experiencing a higher rate of racist remarks in school when compared to their peers. It was important to share this data with session attendees to help them understand how school policies and biases in schools negatively impact LGBTQ+ students.
To answer why we are biased, I focused on Being the Change, written by Sarah Ahmed. In the book, Ahmed explains that a huge part of being human is related to membership, and as humans, it is our nature to look for sameness but label differences. The process of categorizing can cause us to dehumanize others. This unpacks why it can be easy for us to feel unaccountable for individuals or groups, who we view as being different from us, and are mistreated in our society (Ahmed, 2019). Our schools mirror our societies. In Chapter 5 of Being the Change, Ahmed (2019) gives two recommendations to help teachers avoid being biased:
1. Fight the destructive forces by finding and examining our own humanity first.
2. Honor how kids see the world while working to build their capacity for empathy.
The first statement urges us to find some commonality among those we initially perceive to be different. The second statement encourages us to use kids’ perspectives to enact teachable moments, which will aid in the evolution of empathy for each individual.
The session ended with a review of a classroom scenario about an elementary student sharing that they have two same-sex parents and another student responding negatively due to learned bias. In the vignette, another student shares that he has two same-sex fathers, referring to his biological father, who is in jail, and his stepfather, his mom’s new husband. This scenario was used to illuminate the importance of creating welcoming and safe classroom environments for students. Then, attendees were provided suggestions for making an LGBTQ+ friendly classroom. Here are the suggestions:
1. Do not presume that students live in traditional families with both married heterosexual birth parents. Instead, name a wide variety of configurations possible in the diversity of human families.
2. Explore and challenge gender stereotypes with your students. Once they learn to question these stereotypes, they can learn to reflect, recognize, and challenge.
3. Teach a lesson on teasing and name-calling.
4. Answer students’ questions about gay and lesbian issues in a straightforward, educational manner.
5. Replace the phrase ‘moms and dads’ with ‘parents and guardians’ in your classroom and your school.
6. Be clear that all students deserve a safe and supportive school environment.
7. Be clear that we are talking about equal rights, not special rights.
8. We are not talking about ‘sexuality’ with students when we discuss LGBTQ issues any more than we are discussing sexuality when we read stories with heterosexual characters.
A recurring theme that came up throughout our discourse in the session related to the consequences teachers would face from colleagues and administrators for openly discussing LGBTQ+ issues in their classrooms. I was clear in sharing that addressing anti-bias in schools is about normalizing uncomfortable conversations. Moving from tolerance to transformation is not easy, but you will have the courage to fight for change if you are authentic in this work.
Presenting anti-bias pedagogy strategies at this conference was extremely beneficial for me. In my conference session, the participants were engaged by asking questions, sharing their thoughts, and being present visually in the virtual space. Several participants shared that they would read Being the Change, and others discussed how they envisioned implementing the strategies into their class for the upcoming school year. The feedback that I received from the participants in the session helped to recharge me as I prepared to return to in-person classroom instruction for the fall semester. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the conference and was very impressed at how well organized the virtual conference was. I will definitely attend in the future.
Below are the additional resources that I shared in our session:
- Growing Up Transgender
- Toilets, bowties, gender, and me
- Lego & Gender Part 1
- Lego & Gender Part 2
- Kid Meets a Transgender Soldier
Ahmed, S. K. (2019). Being the change: Lessons and strategies to teach social comprehension. Heinemann USA Imprint.
Feminist Frequency. (2012, January 30). LEGO Friends-LEGO & Gender Part 1 --> --> --> -->. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrmRxGLn0Bk
Feminist Frequency. (2012, February 6). LEGO Boys Club-LEGO & Gender Part 2 --> --> --> -->. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oe65EGkB9kA
GLSEN. (2019). Share findings from the 2019 national school climate survey [Infographics]. GSLEN.org. https://www.glsen.org/activity/2019-national-school-climate-survey-infographics
Griffin-Blake, D. E. (2021, July 15). Growing Up Transgender --> --> --> -->. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/alchemyconsultgroup/videos/525920688606645
HiHo Kids. (2018, April 19). Kids Meet a Transgender Soldier --> --> --> -->. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwE2mIPkKP8
Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into practice, 31(2), 132-141.
Tedx Talks. (2018, January 19). TEDxAdelaide - Audrey Mason-Hyde - Toilets, bowties, gender, and me --> --> --> -->. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NCLoNwVJA-0