Fall 2019

Sexual orientation and gender identity: fostering inclusion for learners, staff and families

Rainbow crosswalk, Nelson, BC, 2019, photo provided

It was during my first teacher education practicum on a field trip when I had my first experience with miss identifying the gender of a learner. I was not provided with an attendance sheet that identified a column of gender as many schools create. Nor did I need one. In the classroom there were no activities that separated learners by gender. On this particular field trip, learners were taking a break to use the washrooms and I noticed one learner go into the wrong washroom… or so I thought.

Recently, the opportunity to review syllabi for post-secondary courses in comprehensive health and wellness in teacher education programs across Canada. I was interested to research which topics were present, but even further interested in which topics may be missing. There was a wide range of topics that pre-service teachers would learn about in many geographical locations and then use this knowledge in their own practice to create inclusive space: healthy eating, obesity, mental wellness, and physical activity. What is missing in many syllabi for health and wellness? Sexual orientation and gender identity.

Rather than focus on the content that pre-service teachers will teach to the students, there can be a missed opportunity to actually enable pre-service teachers with strategies to create inclusivity in their classrooms and within educational spaces. Even further, how can we bring these strategies to practicing, experienced teachers? If our goal across Canada to create safe and caring schools, comprehensive school health and wellness programs are a perfect opportunity to foster learning, professional development and create inclusion for all staff and students. The opportunity to review syllabi presented research in why we need inclusive practices, the discovery of innovations in creating inclusion through education, and finally, reflection on changing our own practices to foster inclusion related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

Why do we need inclusive practice?

In 2016, an update to the Human Rights Code included protection of gender identity as well as proclaiming rights of people and groups that are often suffering from discrimination in Canada. These people and groups are often suffering from discrimination because of their gender or gender identity. I was able to learn from experience in my own teacher education practicum that gender identity must be identified by the learner and not a piece of paper. In Western Canada, research shows that “64% of LGBTQ+ students feel unsafe at school” and “homophobia and transphobia affect all students, whether they identify as LGBTQ+ or not” (The ARC Foundation, 2019). Working as a Social Justice Representative in BC for the teacher’s union opened my eyes that there are also staff struggling with inclusive practices regarding their own sexual orientation or gender identity. Inclusion is more than just about learners, it’s also about colleagues and families and community. It is evident that demonstrating acceptance and creating a welcoming space is going to need some work because the research is showing that we have big improvements to make towards inclusion.

Rayside (2014) reveals debates against the ability to create inclusion. Religion, traditional values, emphasis on common population or on diversity, exposing students to worldly aspects, and whether or not parents should be the ones to educate learners about sexuality and sexuality diversity. However, in my research and practice of inclusion, my focus has been on inclusive language, and allowing space for all learners to share and develop their own identity and to be mindful that each learner and their family is unique and worth celebrating. Like many institutions, The University of British Columbia is implementing inclusive education across its campuses “nurturing an inclusive culture, work place and learning environment for faculty, staff, and students in the Faculty of Education and also reaching out to other faculties and institutions who wish to develop inclusive climates and practices” (The University of British Columbia, 2019). SOGI Education’s (2019) brochure for parents describes how teachers can include sexual orientation and gender identity in schools:

At the primary level, teachers may talk about stereotypes in families, toys and TV, while secondary teachers encourage students to critically analyze our world for how these stereotypes affect our interactions. Concepts around sexual orientation and gender identity mature as children age.

Innovation in creating inclusion through education

When working as a High School French teacher, I encountered a valuable experience of appreciative inquiry that resulted in a four-day health offering for all students. Teachers and staff were asked to brainstorm ideas of health topics that were unique to the student population and the region, beyond the big ideas stated in the curriculum. From these, a series of activities were created as school wide education opportunities. On the health days, several classrooms and the gym became learning spaces for each grade. The groups of learners would rotate throughout the activities allowing participation in each one. This configuration and learning design is an example of how schools can use the knowledge of their staff (both teachers and support staff) to create learning experiences that offer strategies of inclusive practices connecting to recognizing the need of support in the area of sexual orientation and gender identification. 

Around Canada, there are many practices and projects increasing inclusion in classrooms, educational spaces and communities in consideration of sexual orientation and gender identity.

  • Parent sessions
  • Rainbow crosswalks
  • Gender neutral washrooms
  • Gender neutral change rooms
  • Inclusive language
  • Inclusive education policies
  • School wide education opportunities
  • Transition programs from Middle School to High School
  • Leadership and mentorship opportunities

Changing our own practice to foster inclusion

Kearns, L., Kukner, J., & Tompkins, J. (2014) state that research shows participation in training opportunities can help pre-service educators be increasingly capable of supporting the inclusion of all staff and learners. Professional development opportunities are wonderful strategy to change our own practice to foster inclusion. If you are looking to make your own classroom, school or community more inclusive, there are many opportunities available. The University of British Columbia offers a MOOC, Gender and Sexuality: Applications in Society. In addition to this, SOGI 123 is offers learning opportunities for collaborators, educators and parents online. Under the BC Educators link, there are 10 videos for learning; while specific to BC educators, and an additional tab specific to Alberta, but the learning is valuable across Canada for all staff in education.

Over the past 3 years, I have made some changes to show students acceptance, welcoming them, and fostering inclusion whether I am working in post-secondary or in K-12. The first step was looking at how I can eliminate a focus on gender binarism, the classification of learners by gender and sex. I no longer use the gender data of the learners. This means that I make an effort not to know what it says online or on a spreadsheet in reference to the classification system that a school or university may use. You can request that you receive your class rosters or learner lists without gender identification. Furthermore, for online learners, I asked them to choose a symbol from nature that is reflective of them rather than a profile photo.

Lastly, I ask learners and family to write an introduction about their family composition, as well as any pronouns that would help with inclusion. The response has been positive! The learning has been profound!  What a wonderful opportunity to create a safe and caring education experience right from the start of the year or term while getting to know learners and their families along with important information to get the year off to an inclusive start. 

In conclusion, it is evident that demonstrating acceptance and welcoming needs to be present in classrooms, learning spaces and communities across Canada. Many districts, schools, teachers and support staff across Canada are already hard at work with school programming, training and professional development opportunities on this path. Developing our inclusive practices can lead to innovation and reflection with the need to make changes in our own practices to foster inclusion related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Each individual can take the lead on their own learning and participate in training opportunities that will help them to ensure that every person that they connect with daily is included.

E.D. Woodford is a former Principal and works as an Instructor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Lethbridge Calgary Campus and as a Learning Consultant. She is passionate about inclusive education.
Kearns, L., Kukner, J., & Tompkins, J. (2014). Building LGBTQ Awareness and Allies in Our Teacher Education Community and Beyond. Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching, 7(1), 6.
Rayside, D. (2014). The inadequate recognition of sexual diversity by canadian schools: LGBT advocacy and its impact. Journal of Canadian Studies, 48(1), 190-225,277. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.acadiau.ca:2048/10.3138/jcs.48.1.190
The ARC Foundation. (2019). SOGI 123. Retrieved 28 Aug 2019 from https://www.sogieducation.org/
The University of British Columbia. (2019). SOGI UBC. Retrieved 13 Aug 2019 from https://educ.ubc.ca/faculty-units/office-of-the-dean/initiatives/sogiubc/

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