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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Equity & Diversity Opinion

‘We All Have LGBTQ Students, Whether We Know It or Not’

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 13, 2021 11 min read
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(This is the second post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What can teachers do to most effectively support LGBTQ students?

In Part One, Jennica Leather, Silvina Jover, and Jennifer Orr shared their suggestions. Jennica and Silvina were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Alaina Kommer, Nicholas Flippen, and Rocio del Castillo, Ed.D., contribute their thoughts.


Alaina Kommer is a visual arts teacher and the coordinator of the Humanitas Magnet for Interdisciplinary Studies at Grant High School in Valley Glen, Calif.:

We all have LGBTQ students, whether we know it or not. When a class discussion brushes against the topic of gender or sexuality, those students will hang on to your every word. They’re listening to hear if you’re someone they can trust or not. How can you let them know that you’re an ally?

When you introduce yourself to your class, include your pronouns. Let your students know that you will respect their pronouns, too. If you aren’t used to using they/them as a singular pronoun, practice this summer. Modeling this practice for your students will have a huge impact.

Do you currently include LGBTQ authors, artists, scientists, and activists in your syllabus? Consider adding more. When you introduce them to your class, let your students know that they are part of the LGBTQ community. It’s important for all students to learn about the contributions of LGBTQ people to the arts and sciences.

Pay attention to the way that gender roles show up in your language. Do you have different expectations for your male and female students? You may think that you don’t, but gender roles are deeply ingrained in our culture. I’ve heard teachers tell male students that they’re whining like a girl and tell female students that they need to be more ladylike. Female students often groan when a teacher asks for “a few strong guys” to move tables around. Removing those biases from our language will make classrooms more egalitarian for all students.



Nicholas Flippen teaches special education to high school students with severe and profound multiple cognitive and physical disabilities:

Mount Airy, N.C., is a small, conservative town most well known as Mayberry to those who have seen The Andy Griffith Show. It is located in the Bible Belt, meaning churches are on every corner, most of which were known to spew hate toward the LGBTQIA+ community. It was where I grew up and where my family still lives.

In 2012, Amendment One was being introduced in North Carolina, which defined marriage as being that of one man and one woman. This failed to recognize civil unions and domestic partnerships. Many people supported it, and it became clear how my community felt about the matter. To say this made my decision to come out difficult would be an understatement.

Being faced with a difficult situation regarding my sexuality made me cry one day, and a teacher pulled me aside to check on me. I had not told this teacher anything about the situation or my sexuality, so I was taken aback when he suggested that the situation was stemming from my struggle with my sexuality. While this came from a place of caring, I felt violated and uneasy being addressed in this way.

After that encounter, I met one teacher who made a profound impact on my life during high school. Our first assignment was to write an introduction about ourselves and address something we thought nobody else knew about us. I wrote about being gay and being terrified of anyone finding out. That was the first time I ever told anyone.

Her response was phenomenal and helped shape how I would come out in the very near future. She simply wrote a comment saying she would be happy to meet with me anytime to talk. Even further than that, she gave me her phone number and let me know that I could call or text if I wanted to reach out. Assuring me that she was an ally and someone I could trust gave me so much comfort. It was both liberating and terrifying to admit such a secret to someone. Interacting with teachers such as her made me hopeful that I, too, could become such an educator in the future.

Having only spent four years teaching so far, I have encountered many students who are struggling with their sexuality or gender identity. These experiences remind me how comfortable one teacher made me feel at a time when I thought I would never feel secure as myself. She simply made a connection with me and presented herself as a beacon for help in a noninvasive way.

Students who are struggling with their sexual and gender identities have valid and just reasons for feeling scared. Historically, queer people have been oppressed, hurt, and killed for being who they are. Where most teachers make the mistake is imposing their help or assuming sexual or gender identities. These judgments can make a student feel unfairly judged, wrongly identified, and completely invalidated.

As an educator, it is important to be mindful that your students’ experience is unique to them. Their perception of their world is their reality, and keeping that in mind when positioning yourself as an ally is important. The most effective strategy to support LGBTQIA+ students is to present yourself on day one as a teacher who supports all students as my teacher did when she established herself as someone I could trust. It is equally important to be specific in addressing the type of language you will and will not allow in your classroom in regards to LGBTQIA+ students. As educators, we know the power that words can hold.

Educators must also make active efforts to include queer history and perspectives so they are not weeklong features but an integral component to their content. When kids see themselves, they feel validated, comfortable, and visible. Too often, queer perspectives are marginalized or erased. Understanding intersectionality is paramount to being able to empathize with our queer students. For example: black queer students experience higher rates of both suicide and homicide, more specifically, black transgendered women.

Show your entire class how much you truly care and support the LGBTQIA+ community by your words, actions, and policies. Queer students will appreciate it and feel safe, whether they ever tell you or not.


‘Be an Ally’

Dr. Rocio del Castillo began her career as a school psychologist in Peru and has dedicated her professional career to being an advocate for educational equity and social justice. Rocio currently serves as assistant superintendent for special services in Huntley Community School District 158 (Illinois) and as an adjunct professor:

The goal of education is to promote equity in learning opportunities while fostering an environment of acceptance and respect among those who are in our schools. Research shows that the education environment is a space where LGBTQ+ students suffer greater discrimination and stigmatization. In the introduction to its new guide, Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students, Teaching for Tolerance claims that according to data from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network GLSEN, an organization that provides resources, research, and advocacy in support of queer youth, more than half of LGBTQ students feel unsafe at school. Fewer than 25 percent of those students see positive representations of queer people in their classrooms; more than half hear negative remarks about their sexuality or gender identity from school staff.

Here are some approaches to support our LGBTQ+ students and to ensure they feel welcome, safe, represented, and included in our classrooms.

Inform and educate yourself.

  • Learn about the experiences and stories of LGBTQ+ people. That’s an important way to understand the issues that affect their lives.
  • Identify available resources to support respect for sexual diversity and gender identity, as well as the organizations and groups that offer them.
  • Talk with LGBTQ+ students to learn about their reality firsthand. Having a personal connection allows you to question prejudices and stereotypes.
  • Read, learn about, reflect, listen, propose, and participate. Knowing and embracing diversity transforms lives.

Be an ally

  • Recognize and overcome your biases. We’ve all been socialized in homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia. Know your fears, prejudices, and stereotypes around the issue. The more you do, the easier it will be to transform yourself in order to transform the reality in your classroom. Question the stereotypes and reflect on the ideas and realities that you associate with LGBTQ+ people.
  • Sponsor affinity groups where students and teachers can have discussions based on identity. They are essential for embracing diversity.
  • Demonstrate a clear position against discrimination in general and in favor of diversity. Put up signs that identify your classroom as a safe space. For more information, download GLSEN Safe Space Kits.

Use inclusive language.

  • Discrimination begins with linguistic practices. Make it a goal that every person who hears you feels recognized positively in your speech.
  • Avoid always speaking from the masculine point of view and treating the rest of the people as if everyone were heterosexual.
  • Respect every person’s desire to be treated with the gender and name with which they identify and with their preferred pronouns.

Create safe spaces and inclusive pedagogy.

  • Be sure that the students see themselves reflected in what they are learning.
  • It is very important to deconstruct myths and stereotypes around sexuality, gender, and sexual orientation and to work on these issues in a cross-disciplinary way.
  • Promote coeducational games, encourage the use of recreation spaces undivided by sex, and incentivize reading stories without gender stereotypes. Go to Ready, Set, Respect! GLSEN’s Elementary School Toolkit for more information.
  • Avoid making groups using sex as a criterion. Use creativity and divide students on the basis of other characteristics, such as age, birth month, birth order, numbers, alphabetical order, etc.
  • In your classes, introduce role models for different sexual orientations and gender identities. There are many outstanding figures in history, science, literature, religion, and art who have loved and desired persons of their same sex or who have lived beyond the gender norms of their time period. Go to GLSEN LGBTQ History for more information.
  • Support celebrations of LGBTQ+ Pride day, as well as other awareness-raising events.
  • Remember that silence reinforces harassing behaviors and attitudes for homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia. For more information, see Parents, Families, Friends, and Allies United with LGBT People (PFLAG).

Respect each student’s identity and journey.

  • Do not focus your attention and relationships with LGBT people exclusively on their sexual orientation, sexual identity, or way of expressing their gender. There are many more facets to their personality which should not be overshadowed.
  • Respect every student’s privacy and ask for permission before sharing the information given to you with others, including their families. For more information, check Family Acceptance Project.
  • Speak with your LGBT students about the challenges implied by possibly coming out of the closet. For more information, check GLSEN : Coming Out
  • Ask your LGBT students about their fears and hopes for the future. Recognize that the prejudice experienced by LGBTQ+ students can contribute to anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and other mental-health problems. For more information, check American Psychological Association.

Thanks to Alaina, Nicholas, and Rocio for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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