LGBTQ+ teachers don’t receive the training and support they need

Dr Adam Brett portrait

Written by Dr Adam Brett

Adam has completed a doctorate exploring the experiences of LGBT+ secondary teachers. A presentation of his findings can be found here. He also co-hosts a podcast called Pride and Progress, @PrideProgress, which amplifies the voices of LGBT+ educators, activists and allies.

Originally posted on The Conversation in May 2024:

https://theconversation.com/lgbtq-teachers-dont-receive-the-training-and-support-they-need-228162

Republished with permission of the author.

LGBTQ+ teachers report feeling stressed and even discriminated against in the workplace due to their identity. This is a problem when keeping teachers in their jobs is vital. Teaching is facing a crisis in both recruitment and retention: in 2021-22, more than 39,000 teachers quit the profession.

But there is no formal support or training offered to LGBTQ+ teachers by the Department for Education. Supporting the teaching workforce who identify as LGBTQ+ and making teaching a welcoming profession should be a priority for the government.

For LGBTQ+ teachers, working in UK schools may no longer be the deeply traumatic and dangerous experience it was under Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act, which was repealed in 2003. This law sought to ban local authorities and their schools from promoting the acceptability of homosexuality as a “pretended family relationship”.

But LGBTQ+ teaching staff continue to face challenges such as feeling unsafe in their workplace.

Throughout their careers, LGBTQ+ teachers are placed in the difficult position of deciding whether they should conceal or reveal their sexual or gender identity. This is not a decision they are trained to deal with, nor a decision they make just once. It is particularly tricky in schools where teachers must decide if, when, and how to be open with different groups – staff, students, parents, and others involved in school life.

As an LGBTQ+ former teacher, I know first-hand the emotional tax that comes with continuously negotiating LGBT+ visibility and identity within school.

Unsafe spaces

For my doctoral research I worked with 12 LGBTQ+ teachers from a variety of contexts, including faith, private, and single sex schools. The teachers took photos to represent the spaces where they felt most and least safe within their school, and described the significance of their photos.

The teachers changed how they behaved out of fear of being seen as LGBTQ+. They did this in particular in open or visible spaces, such as when on break duty, leading an assembly or in the staffroom.

In these spaces, the LGBTQ+ teachers were fearful of comments or incidents related to their identity that they felt unequipped to deal with. One teacher said:

I give my assemblies quite often, and I don’t hide my sexuality from anybody, so the student body knows that I’m gay … but when I’m doing my assemblies I feel, I feel scared and I don’t know if it’s because I know that they know that I’m gay and therefore, I’m like afraid of them … I don’t know hurling a slur or something.

By contrast, the teachers often described their classrooms as the spaces where they felt most safe. Here, they had created their own routines, relationships and systems.

Among the 12 participants, there were teachers who had been told not to discuss their sexual or gender identity. One teacher told me that they and others had been asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement in a Catholic school: “We weren’t allowed to talk about the fact [that we were gay],” they said.

These are extreme examples. Generally, though, the assumption of heterosexuality in schools can lead to personal questions and situations that LGBTQ+ teachers often feel unequipped to deal with.

Cisgender and heterosexual teachers might be asked about their partners and families and would feel no fear of retribution or backlash in answering those questions. But what might be an entirely unremarkable conversation for a heterosexual teacher might well be deeply fraught for an LGBTQ+ teacher. This can be understood as “heterosexual privilege”.

Despite thousands of the teacher workforce identifying as LGB+, they receive no formal support or training for the challenges that they are likely to experience in their career. Sending LGBTQ+ teachers into schools without adequate support or training will probably lead to these teachers experiencing discrimination and stress.

Some teacher training providers ensure that trainees from minority backgrounds receive training and support to help them face the additional barriers they may experience in schools. However, implementation remains inconsistent.

Future reforms to the Initial Teacher Training and Early Career Framework, which outlines the minimum entitlement for trainee and early career teachers, must reflect these challenges to ensure a minimum and equitable level of provision for LGBTQ+ teachers. If they don’t, fewer LGBTQ+ teachers will enter or remain in the profession. Students and families won’t see themselves represented, and young people won’t be equipped for life in a diverse society.

LGBTQ+ people have the potential to make exceptional teachers and leaders. With the right support, they can thrive in the profession and provide young people with the role models that they desperately need.