Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Can We Make it Just About Behaviors?

There really is not much you can do to force students to get along.  They will all have their own opinions about each other regardless of what you want.  Your students attitude about each other is outside your circle of influence.  While students have always found reasons to pick on others recently the issue has been related to sexuality.  Students anxiety over who is or is not gay and over transgender issues can turn into excuses for bullying.  In fact, it is possible that homophobia is an adaptive behavior and therefore an ingrained belief system and not a culturally learned value.  Furthermore it is challenging for teachers to discuss these issues with students because any meaningful discussion will presuppose value judgments which the students' parents may not share.  It seems the popular opinion in education is that it is not a teacher's job to teach students value judgments about homosexuality (though they do about race, fairness and many other things) so teachers do not relish situations where they have to address it on a personal level--especially when disciplinary action against students is involved.  When discussing homosexual and transgender issues with students teachers must keep the following in mind: they do not know what parents have taught their kids about these issues including any moral values that they are raising their children with and they do not know much about the students themselves.  Just because one student picks on another student and calls him gay does not mean that student is actually gay.

Consider one possible scenario.  A group of third graders has decided that because their friend has worn a pink shirt to school they are gay and tease them for it.  When addressing this issue with their students a teacher has to consider the very likely possibility that the students involved do not actually know what gay means and their parents do not want their teacher telling their children.

I have always been confused by the idea that explaining homosexuality to children is a complicated issue.  Most children, by the time they are in school, understand that some adults are attracted to each other without parents having to have the awkward "talk" with them.  Why is it so hard to explain to kids that some adults are attracted to people of the same sex?  It does not make sense even for parents with conservative views of sexuality.  Even if they do not like the idea of same sex attraction they still make their kids aware that some people steal and some people are greedy, why is homosexuality something they have to hide from their children? In what other areas do teachers have to worry about what their parents want their children to know?  Most people would agree that teachers do not need to avoid talking about blood transfers out of fear of Jehovah's Witness parents.  Why should teachers concern themselves over one but not the other?

Most teachers would, instead of addressing the issue of sexuality, focus simply on the negative behavior.  The issue is that they are bullying a student and bullying, no matter what the word gay means, is not allowed.  I wonder if this really creates an environment that is respectful of homosexuals.  If teachers refuse to talk to students about what gay means what does that say to students about people who are identified as gay?

Another possible scenario involves a student who is only considered possibly gay (the actual sexuality is unknown) that students believe is transgender.  Teachers would need to confirm this story, they cannot assume the students are correct, but asking the student in question directly could be a traumatic experience for them.  Other students, however, also have a right to feel safe in their school.  Is it fair to require boys to share a locker room with someone they consider a girl or girls to share a locker room with someone they consider a boy?  Also, teachers silence in weighing on the moral issue of sex-changes may be seen as tacit endorsement of the conservative position.  At best teachers can force students to leave victims of this kind of bullying alone but that will not make the student feel respected by their peers, or even the faculty which does not reassure them that their decisions about their sex or sexuality are proper decisions.  

This is a double bind for me because while I do not like the idea of teachers passing on their personal morality to students I know that it will happen inevitably and that neutrality is often interpreted as taking a particular side.  I also think of situations where teachers do teach their own morality to students and people do not complain.  I remember my teachers explaining concepts like "social justice" to me.  If teachers can weigh in morally on issues like racism and fairness, why not issues of sexuality?


  1. Matt, I agree. I actually saw a movie in one of my undergraduate education classes about teachers dealing with issues of sexuality in elementary school. Here is the link: It's a really good documentary, so if you have time to watch it, do so because it opened my eyes on what kids notice (or just watch the trailer, it raises some really good points too). They see it happening, so why not teach them about it, right?

  2. I'm so nihilistic about this issue! I don't want public schools commandeering jobs that should be reserved for parents like teaching moral values (I would be very upset if schools decided to teach my children their positions on moral issues) but it is impossible to be morally neutral. You teach moral values even with what you are silent about. I see no way to resolve this that respects both the rights of parents to raise their children how they want and the rights of LGBT youth to feel respected at school.

  3. It's a tough issue, that's for sure! With that new law passed, social science teachers (that's you!) are required to teach students about gay history in the hope of making students more accepting of the LGBT community. I never really thought about it being impossible to be neutral in this issue, because it's true; according to the law, this lesson is to promote acceptance of the LGBT community in students so it's like teachers are taking sides. If a student disagrees with the teacher's lesson or challenges it, what's going to happen to that student? What about the parents, do they still get a say if they don't want their student learning about gay history? Like I said, it's a tough issue...