MAKING CHANGE: The gay teacher changing LGBTQ+ inclusivity at his school
Growing up LGBTQ+ and going to school, the chances are you probably heard the odd homophobic slur through the halls or someone yell across the playground ‘That’s so gay!’.
Hoping to change all that for some of the next generation of young people is Nick Bentley. Nick is a drama teacher, lead practitioner and access and inclusion advisor at one school in East London.
We sat down with Nick to find out why it’s more important than ever to raise awareness of LGBTQ+ life across the curriculum and how his own experience of growing up gay in school encouraged him to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.
Hi Nick, can you tell me a bit about the work you’re doing in your school to raise LGBTQ+ awareness?
“Okay, so we – and I say ‘we’ because it’s not just about me as one person, it’s important to do things in collaboration with other staff – set up a club for students who either identify as LGBTQ+ or as allies. This came about after a few students approached us and expressed interest in doing something like this so they could support one another and have a place to talk. We set it up last year and the response has been really positive from both staff and students.”
How does the club usually operate within the school?
“Students might come with question, a feeling or sometimes they wonder about something they’ve seen in the news. They can talk it through with us and we as staff offer what we think and the students offer what they think. The students find it quite empowering because it’s definitely driven by them. I really like it because it helps builds connections for students who don’t know who they can talk to.”
What were your own personal motivations for doing this for your pupils?
“Teachers all come into this profession for different reasons. I came in loving my subject and wanting to help young people. But there was also a part of me that recognised my own educational experiences from growing up gay weren’t ideal. I’m not saying the school I went to was terrible, but you heard phrases like ‘That’s so gay!’ thrown around. You realise it’s not what any young person should grow up hearing. When you’re young and gay you’re still processing things and how you fit in the world. It’s important that we [schools] make these changes and support our young people.”
Have you faced any pushback from staff or pupils or their parents on any of the work the school is doing in this area?
“No, not at all. It’s been amazing. Staff in particular have been really supportive and want to drive it forward. With the club we have 3 or 4 regular teachers who run it. Other staff members drop in every now and again. Similarly, I haven’t been made aware of any issues parents have with any of it. I think sometimes people think you’re going to come up against a wall of resistance by default. But if you start off from a positive point of view then you can only take it from there.”
A lot of the parents of your pupils wouldn’t have had an awareness of LGBTQ+ life through their education. Why do you think it’s important to teach young people about this at secondary school level and not when they’re older?
“I think young people are identifying in this way from as early as primary school and we need an awareness of it. We live in a very diverse world and everyone is going to meet different people and children need to be prepared for that and have those positive experiences. I feel it’s incumbent upon teachers and educators to prepare young people for that. It’s so important for those who identify as lesbian, trans or non-binary that they see their identity is celebrated and validated. We need an educational system that reflects the real world.”
How about increasing LGBTQ+ awareness within the curriculum? How have you gone about addressing that?
“We run training with staff to encourage them to make the curriculum as diverse as it can be. I think that goes beyond LGBTQ+ identity. It can look into issues of race, ethnicity and gender as well so the students can see themselves in the curriculum. For example, you’re probably wondering how you can raise awareness in a Maths lesson. One way to do that is if you’re using data for a question, are you using LGBTQ+ figures? In English lessons, if you’re talking about Shakespeare, are you mentioning that a lot of scholars used to think he was bisexual? It’s those types of questions that you don’t think of straight away can be quite empowering for our young people.”
It’s interesting that you’re doing it in such a subtle way and not so explicit. That’s really impressive!
“[Laughs] Well it’s not impressive at all! It’s what I think is needed. And most of the time it doesn’t need to be explicit. I taught a lesson the other day on a poem. I mentioned that the poet was gay and that’s it. The whole lesson didn’t need to be about the fact he was gay. It was just ‘usualising’ LGBTQ+ people as part of the everyday experience as it should be.”
Is there anything else your school is doing?
“Yes! We also run themed assemblies to celebrate special events, such as LGBT History Month. That’s been lovely because it’s shared with the entire school and it’s usually the students from the club who organise it. For this year the students talked about LGBTQ+ figures who inspire them. It was great even for me to learn about new LGBTQ+ figures like Miles Mckenna and for the students to learn about traditional figures such as Sir Ian McKellen. After the assembly one student went off and researched him and came up to me and said ‘Sir! Ian McKellen is so amazing!’”
And finally, through all the work you and the rest of the school are doing to celebrate LGBTQ+ life in school, what’s the end goal?
“This goes for not just my school but across all schools. I think the ultimate end goal would be for every young person to feel validated and respected for who they are in their education. They don’t hear negative words banded around and they see themselves in their education and that all LGBTQ+ young people are happy at school.”