Last spring the West Vancouver School District added Administrative Procedure 171 – Sexual Minority / Sexual Orientation / Gender Identity to its Administrative Policies and Procedures.
The administrative procedure seems to have generated more attention outside the school district than inside the district. It was covered in Xtra, the North Shore News and the Vancouver Sun, but inside the district, it was generally greeted with an attitude of “well, that just codified what we do”.
While one wonders how important policies and procedures are to guiding behaviour or giving confidence to staff, it is evident that they do given this letter received from one of our teachers. With permission, I have taken out specific names and have also added hyperlinks so that others can benefit from the experience this teacher had:
I am writing to you as a new teacher in the West Vancouver district. Although I have only taught at the school for 10 days, I feel it necessary to let you know what a huge impact working in this district already has had on me.
To fully appreciate the positive impact I’ve experienced, it’s necessary to provide some context. On my ninth day of teaching, I learned of an embarrassing, disappointing, and hurtful incident. My principal, invited me into her office after school to discuss the issue. Specifically, Grade 7 students had been overheard in the playground referring to me by using homophobic language. As a teacher with 15 years of experience under my belt, the notion of kids referring to me disrespectfully did not come as a surprise. But what was surprising was my principal’s reaction. She told me how disappointed she was; however, rather than electing to just pull offenders into her office and reprimand them with the standard, “That is not respectful,” she talked with me about how she wanted to challenge and change the culture of our Grade 7 classes in which that kind of language is okay. She offered to either lead a lesson or, should I choose to take the lead, lend her support and input. This happened on Friday and I spent the weekend preparing.
This morning, I gave the lesson to 60 Grade 7 students. I was not alone. My principal stood beside me, recording kids input on the board and offering sage words throughout the presentation. Both Grade 7 teachers were there and the principal brought in the school counsellor and the learning services teacher to lend their support, as well. As I began what I knew might be a difficult lesson, the presence of all the other adults in the room made me feel as though both my school and my district were behind me in the delivery of this message.
I adapted a lesson from the BCTF’s “Name Calling” booklet for the Grade 7s. I started out by asking the kids to remember a time they had felt hurt by name calling and we wrote down their feeling words. Then, I had the kids come up with racist language and homophobic slurs they had heard. We were able to connect the impact and harm caused by all of this language. As we discussed the historical meaning of the word “faggot,” its hurtful impact became really clear for kids. I shared a terrific site out of England that tracks the use of homophobic slurs on Twitter to show them that I know they are surrounded by this language and that it is out there in force. It’s in real time and you can check it out at:
I went on to let them know that because it is so prevalent, it has a hugely negative influence on kids. I provided them with statistics on the gay teen suicide rate in our country due to bullying. I shared what adults are doing to make a difference and showed a video clip of Obama’s “It gets Better” video:
It was then that our discussion got really interesting as we looked at the problem with the campaign: that it is adults trying to make a difference, when really, it is only kids who can. With an eye on the suicide rate of teens bullied in Canada, we discussed why no one should have to wait for it to get better. Finally, we examined what they could do as Grade 7 students about to enter high school: by standing up for each other and by being more mindful of their own word choice, they could make it better NOW.
All the teachers in the room were involved in a final conversation with the kids about what we see in the world around us and how we might positively impact it. Despite the difficult content, I realized that the kids were engaged, participating and really cared about our discussion. I am having them write a reflection piece, which I hope we can share with younger students in the school. Another teacher in the room even encouraged kids who were comfortable with sharing their thoughts to blog about it.
I cannot express to you how thankful I am to be working in a district that has a policy in place that makes school a safe place for everyone, regardless of their sexuality. The Administrative Procedure 171 passed by your board this past June has made a real difference in my life and already has had a positive effect on the students I teach. My administrator, backed by this policy, went above and beyond her call of duty to transform what was a disheartening situation into an engaging, positive and teachable moment for everyone involved.
In my teaching career, I have never had an experience in which I felt so supported, and in which I felt like I was genuinely able to make an impact on kids to have them create an immediate difference in the world that surrounds us. I guess what I am trying to say is thank you for making this a possibility in our lives.
There is no doubt that our work around homophobia is a work in progress, but stories like these are heartening, and make me exceptionally proud to work in our community of amazing educators.
If you are looking for additional resources on this topic, a previous post here links to some other supports.