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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Inclusive Education: What Can We Learn From Ontario?

By Peter DeWitt — May 25, 2016 7 min read
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What we know from the student voice research of Russ Quaglia and Michael Corso is that students who feel a sense of self-worth are 5X more likely to be successful in school, and students who are engaged in the learning process are 17X more likely to be successful in school. Just as powerful through their intensive research that involved hundreds of thousands of students is that students who have a sense of purpose are 18X more likely to be successful in school.

What we know through the research of John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, is that classroom discussion can provide an effect size of .82, which is more than double the hinge point of .40 which those influences hitting the .40 effect size have shown to have a year’s worth of growth for an year’s input. Hattie’s research in the area of Teacher-student relationships shows a .72 effect size and peer influences a .53 effect size.

Unfortunately, not all students are getting the same opportunity to maximize their learning. The 2013 school climate report sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) shows that not all schools are inclusive, and many students who feel marginalized are not reaching their maximum potential, which puts them at a higher risk of dropping out. GLSEN’s report found,

  • 55.5% of LGBT students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 37.8% because of their gender expression.
  • 30.3% of LGBT students missed at least one entire day of school in the past month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, and over a tenth (10.6%) missed four or more days in the past month.
  • Over a third avoided gender-segregated spaces in school because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable (bathrooms: 35.4%, locker rooms: 35.3%).
  • Most reported avoiding school functions and extracurricular activities (68.1% and 61.2%, respectively) because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable.

Our first question, considering the increase in the LGBT population coming out at a younger age, is what can we do to help these students feel more included in our schools so they can reach the potential that Quaglia, Corso and Hattie have researched over the years. What questions can we ask that will help them feel more comfortable and what actions can we take to help them feel more secure?

Ontario Principals
On Thursday, May 18th I had the honor of giving a keynote on safeguarding LGBT students to the Ontario Principals’ Council, Association des directions et directions adjointes des écoles franco-ontariennes (ADFO), and the Catholic Principals’ Council of Ontario (CPCO). For anyone who has read the work of Michael Fullan, you know that those groups, all of which are part of the Ontario Ministry of Education, are a highly respected group. Speaking to the OPC, ADFO, and CPCO is like talking with Wayne Gretzky about hockey or Michael Jordan about basketball. It’s intimidating.

And it only became more intimidating...

The night before the keynote everyone came together for dinner and watched several videos created by Shelley Steele through her Heartspeak organization that focused on transgender students. The last documentary video was called Becoming Sarah and it was a story about a college professor named John who is transitioning over to being Sarah.

I have been around thousands of administrators in my life, and a good percentage of them would have walked out of the room before the video finished, or never have walked into the room in the first place. After the video finished the leaders silently sat around their tables taking it all in, and Shelley Steele introduced Sarah to the stage to take questions. Many of the participants in the room had no idea she was there. And this is why I found the leaders from all 3 organizations so powerful to work with. They asked questions like,

“What can we do to help our LGBT and other marginalized populations feel more welcome in school?”

“What could have your teachers done to help you feel more comfortable when you were growing up?”

“Do you have specific resources we could use in our schools?”

“What advice do you have for us?”

As they continued to ask questions, and have dialogue, the principals leaned into the conversation and were open to learning more. They wanted to walk out of the two days that focused on equity for LGBT students with practical steps that they could take back to their schools. The conversation with Sarah, and a student panel that happened the next day, helped them gain a better understanding of how this population of students feel in their individual schools.

So...What Can We Learn From Ontario?
First of all, let’s point out the obvious. A group of leaders, teachers and other professionals got together at a conference sponsored by all three of their organizations to gain a better understanding of LGBT students. Not because they had to, but because they wanted to. They were not volunt-told to be there, they volunteered to be there.

The whole conference was important enough to the Ontario Ministry that Hon. Liz Sandals, the Minister of Education came to speak to the group. It’s not enough to have policies and laws, this group came together to find actionable steps, and the support started from the top.

During the keynote, and in the dialogue that took place during the breakout session, we focused on the following aspects that will help all students, not just those in the LGBT community, feel like a valued part of the school community. Those aspects are:

Set the Tone - Long ago Todd Whitaker said, “When the principal sneezes the whole school catches a cold.” Understand that if leaders focus on safeguarding students, teachers and staff will follow suit. Teachers may already be doing it, but more will go out of the way to safeguarding marginalized populations if they know their principals will support them.

Ontario believes in setting the tone from the top, which is why the Minister spoke at the conference. In the breakout, one principal spoke about his school climate and their focus on “All Means All.” It’s hard to argue with that.

Common language - Where LGBT students are concerned, it can be a bit of an alphabet soup because the acronym may be LGBTQI, LGBTQ, LGBT and many others. This can be intimidating for staff who aren’t as knowledgeable about LGBT issues. As a stakeholder group, which can also include students, decide which acronym works best for you as a group, and use that as part of the common language among the whole school community.

Curriculum - In the past, LGBT curriculum has been relegated to health classes, which has not always been the best way to include the community because the focus has often been on the AIDS epidemic, which helps to perpetuate a negative stereotype that focuses on promiscuity and drug abuse.

Curriculum can easily include marginalized populations. School leaders and librarians should have LGBT sections in their libraries, and teachers can include curriculum (literature, history) that include LGBT and other marginalized populations. Curriculum should encompass all of the populations we have in schools, and not just one that focuses on the majority population in society.

Professional Development - Teachers and leaders don’t always know where to start, which is the reason for the first 3 suggestions above. According to Hattie, professional development can have an effect size of .51, but we don’t always need to send teachers out for it. There are typically non-profit organizations that are willing to come into school to provide training. In the area of LGBT issues, there are LGBT community centers that would love to work in partnership with schools.

Strong leaders can flip their faculty meetings and send out a few articles that focus on LGBT issues or other marginalized populations, and staff can engage in open discussions about the topic at faculty meetings. The bottom line is that schools are experiencing an increase in LGBT students, and sticking their head in the sand and ignoring it is no longer going to work.

In the End
To be clear, this is not just about LGBT students. The suggestions are good for all students who feel, or are made to feel, marginalized. Some of this is not new. Schools have long been dealing with the issue of providing whitewashed curriculum that doesn’t always portray lives that the students in our classrooms identify with. Many students on the panel discussion in Ontario had a great philosophy where this curriculum is concerned. I’d like to refer to it as “Make it relevant or make it stop.

The reason why the leaders, teachers and staff of the Ontario Ministry are at the forefront is that they don’t want to be reactive to the situations happening in their classrooms and schools, they want to lean in, listen and understand how to help prevent them before they start.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (2012. Corwin Press) and the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press. Forword by John Hattie). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Geralt.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.