The rapidly changing social environment in which our students live presents us with complex challenges and opportunities that many classroom teachers never encountered during their formative years. As our students begin to embrace who they are on a personal level, how we as teachers support them in public and in an academic setting is important. The following points are provided as a reference source for teachers to gain a deeper understanding into a sector of our student population.
Important Questions to Consider:
- What should our students know about us?
- What should we know about our students?
Reflecting on the relationship we have with our students is vital when considering how we can serve and support students who identify as LGBT. As educators, we have already developed distinct teacher, musician, student, and personal identities. Our students are just beginning to understand the complex topic of personal identity formation and the variables that play roles in such development. These include gender identity, sexual orientation, embracing racial and ethnic origins, and socialization practices to name a few.
Framing the Scope of Communication
It’s vital that every student know that we care about them. Regardless of age level, we teach people first, music second. Music education is a people business, and we have a responsibility to connect with every student in our classrooms.
Adolescence is a time of profound change for teens. For students who identify as LGBTQQAAI+, their journey is profoundly more complex. To be clear, whether or not we agree with a student’s orientation or label of self-identification (or lack of one) is not the point here. Supporting all students is part of being an effective mentor and teacher.
What Do We Know?
In recent investigations of LGBT topics in music education, authors have found that transgender students do not feel safe at school.1 Additionally, more than half of LGBT students report hearing negative comments from their teachers.2
Evidence also suggests that students want a safe and affirming space at school. We already know this anecdotally by the number of students that frequent our music rooms before and after school, and during lunch. Students want a place to “be,” free from social judgment or academic evaluation. For LGBT students, a music room may be the only place that offers such security.3
These issues are not limited to our students. Some teachers who identify as LGBT position themselves in a heteronormative persona – meaning they present themselves as heterosexual, or avoid personal subjects altogether – in order to prevent the stigma of identifying as gay or lesbian.4
Resources for Teachers
I have found the following resources to be helpful in deepening my own understanding of LGBT topics. In addition, these handouts are effective ways to begin a discussion on these topics with colleagues and students.
School-Level Action Items
Perhaps you’re asking, what’s next? The items listed below can foster further reflection on your part in addition to broadening the dialogue and understanding of this topic at your school.
- Find out if your district has policy/language in place protecting LGBT students.
- Share your position and affirm your personal philosophy of providing a safe space for all students in your classroom.
- Begin discussions to develop a diversity council at your school. What would the goals and objectives be? Who will serve?
- Post the resources provided above in your office.
- Be proactive. If you see something, say something. No one should be bullied harassed or assaulted in the school environment – or anywhere.
Personal Action Items
If a student is struggling, reach out to them. You might be the only person who does. Our connections to our students are inevitably stronger than we realize. As close as we are however, there is an important caveat here. We are not mental health counselors. We must refer our students to other professionals that can assist them in ways that extend beyond our expertise. It takes a village to raise a child, and we cannot pretend to possess multiple understandings to solve complex issues. More to the point, trying to do so could jeopardize our professional standing.
We should respect our student’s choices in regard to identity. If a student comes back to school from vacation and identifies as a different gender, you honor that. This includes the use of gender appropriate pronouns and using terms that encompass all students (e.g. “ok everyone” “folks” as opposed to “boys and girls”).
The students are not the burden. In preparation for presentations on this topic, I gathered a focus group of students. I asked members of the group to share with me the perspectives they have formed on their path to self-identification. One student offered a compelling narrative:
“We have to remember that transgendered students are exhausted. Trans people have to explain themselves to everyone they interact with – family, friends, even strangers. This takes an emotional toll. We are still students and children. We have no power. Sometimes we are made to feel like being who we are is the burden. We are the problem in class – or wherever… If a student is made to feel like they are problematic, they will solve the problem by getting rid of themselves.”5
I believe music classrooms of the 21st century are places where students arrive not only to be educated and informed about any various musical genres or participate in music making, but to be an active participant in an affirming community. Our complex world requires us – if we are to be effective in connecting with our students – to dig deeper into whom they are as people. Our support at the interpersonal level will certainly pay dividends in regard to their musical development. More importantly, our support could be the critical element in enabling them to develop into mature, well-adjusted young adults.
1. The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network
2. Whitehead, Donnenwerth, Robinson, Hardy, Oswanski, Firinash, Hearns, Anderson, Tan, “Music Therapists’ Attitudes and actions regarding the LGBTQ community,” The Arts in Psychotherapy, 2013.
3. Bergonzi, L., “Sexual Orientation and Music Education: Continuing a Tradition.” Music Educators Journal, 2009.
4. Haywood, J., “LGBT self-identity and self-implications in the emerging music education dialogue, from conference proceedings,” Establishing identity: LGBT Studies & Music Education. University of Illinois, 2010.
5. Interview, October 24, 2016; Columbus, Ohio.
The Unitarian Universalist Association
Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, (Adam & Bell, 1997)
The Ohio State University Office of Multicultural Student Services