Before beginning his career as a teacher, James Bennett made a promise to his teenage self: to be the ‘out’ role model that was missing from his own school days (see bit.ly/OutSchool).
Today, the Teach First participant has no regrets about an approach that he says helped to keep him going during the most trying moments of his first year.
Bennett says there was no single moment when, as a teacher, he came out at school – indeed, he is still doing it in some cases. “It was just a case of as and when it came up, I would just tell the truth to students,” he explains.
He wears a rainbow badge on his lanyard, “which was a conscious decision so that pupils who either want to come out or are out just know that they do have someone in school they can come and talk to”.
“Students do see that and ask questions like, ‘Sir, are you gay?’, and, ‘Sir, why are you wearing that?’, and I think those are the conversations to have.”
He cites the example of one pupil who thought that teachers should not wear rainbow badges for Pride. “That meant we could have a conversation around our school values, and we talked about working with people from all different kinds of backgrounds,” says Bennett.
“Now, we have quite a good relationship, and I was able to challenge those stereotypes and his misconceptions that I think ultimately came from his parents or from his religion, and now he knows someone who is openly gay and he thinks I am an alright teacher and will come and talk to me. And that’s all come from wearing the rainbow badge.”
Bennett has had “absolutely no problems” from colleagues, for whom he ran a training session on challenging homophobic language.
He says he has encountered few instances of homophobia – a couple of cases of pupils acting negatively towards each other, and once when it was directed towards him – and in each case the senior leadership team offered “incredible” support.
In the latter case, a pupil he had never taught before shouted “gay” when walking past Bennett’s classroom. “We had a conversation with another member of staff, and talked about first impressions. He didn’t know why he said it. He apologised and knew why in that situation it was wrong.”
Bennett contrasts the situation with his own school days. “Generally, pupils are fine, really open. It’s refreshing,” he says.
“I came straight into Teach First after doing my degree. I’m only 23. It wasn’t that long ago that I was at school, when no one was out, and actually within school we have a number of pupils who are out. We have got trans pupils who we are supporting. We have multiple staff members who are out.
“There’s that culture now that I think young people, especially, are so understanding. I think generally pupils now are far more embracing and accepting than 10 years ago when I was at school.”
He thinks that teachers being honest about their identity is particularly important in schools such as his that are in challenging areas and have a high staff turnover.
“Children really struggle because of that and their automatic assumption is that you are going to leave them at the end of term, so being open with them, revealing part of your identity and just being yourself and authentic, they really respect that,” he says.
And, one year in, Bennett has no regrets about keeping that promise to his teenage self.
“Especially in my training year, when teaching has been really tough and challenging, especially working in a very challenging school, it’s those extra bits I have done, having those pupils come to me and disclose something, and being able to support them, and them feeling it is safe to be out in school – those are probably the highlights of my training year.
“When things get tough, those are the things that really kept me going.”
James Bennett teaches at a secondary school in North London