The issue - How to put prejudice in its place for good

Homophobia still exists in schools, even among the grown-ups, and leaders have a duty to combat staffroom discrimination

I was a "poof", a "queer" and a "faggot" when I was at school. Faster than you could say Judy Garland, the school bullies had sussed out my sexual orientation, cast their judgements and passed sentence: from the ages of 13 to 16, school life was something of an ordeal.

This was the late 1980s, in the UK. Boy George could front a pop group, two women could kiss on prime-time television and Julian Clary's show Sticky Moments could entertain thousands. But not where I came from. Being a gay kid at the comprehensive school on the local council estate was hard work.

At that time, I had no idea that being an out gay teacher in the 21st century would also have its challenges. I had no agenda in becoming a teacher. There were no righteous intentions to use my position to crusade against homophobia; I merely considered the profession a decent one.

Initially, I was determined to keep my sexuality and working life totally separate: in the classroom and staffroom, my sexual preference was going to be an irrelevance. In time, though, I felt comfortable enough to come out. For most of my colleagues, my sexuality wasn't an issue - they were far too busy to care.

Unfortunately, this all changed when a senior leader at the school publicly gave voice to her homophobia. When concerned (straight) associates informed me of her tirade, I was shocked but heartened: shocked that a member of staff could be so offensive but heartened that my colleagues felt as appalled as I did. Rousing myself, I asked, "What's the best way of dealing with this?"

After some deliberation, I decided that the most reasonable course of action was to approach the headteacher. I would make a formal complaint and seek redress. Something would be done, wouldn't it? Well, actually, no. When I asked what steps would be taken, I was told in no uncertain terms that nothing would be done. Why not? Because the senior leader was hardworking.

As an individual and as a professional I felt completely bewildered. Was this discrimination against me as a gay man? Or was it against me because I was not a member of the senior leadership team? How might the situation affect the school's reputation? I was disappointed. I was back in the 1980s, only this time it was my employer making me feel worthless. Unsurprisingly, my motivation hit rock bottom.

To her credit, the senior leader later apologised. Using our own initiative, we repaired our relationship and as a result respected each other much more. We had both learned from the experience. I couldn't help feeling, however, that I and the school had been let down.

Part of a headteacher's role is to manage conflict, maintain positive relations between staff and foster a fair, equitable culture. Furthermore, under the Equality Act 2010, employers in the UK have an obligation to actively prevent discrimination. Those in a senior position should follow the guidance below when dealing with cases of discrimination similar to my own.

Respect is essential

First and foremost, everyone involved should be treated with respect and dignity. Listen to employees and find out the facts. Reassure those concerned that something will be done.

Respond appropriately

Once a claim has been investigated, decide what action needs to be taken. Doing too little could demotivate staff; doing too much could cause resentment. Careful mediation may often be more appropriate than initiating formal disciplinary action, while following a clear and transparent grievance procedure is most suited to severe cases of discrimination.

Engage in re-education

Persuading a colleague to put aside his or her prejudices in the workplace may be a tricky task but that's no excuse for not attempting it. Provide staff with equality and diversity training. Check that job descriptions include clauses concerning the need to maintain positive relations with people of all persuasions. And request that staff sign an equality policy to ensure that everyone understands the importance of not discriminating against their colleagues.

Lead by example

Headteachers set examples for staff in leadership roles lower down the school. If bigotry rears its ugly head at any level then it ought to be challenged. Leaders at different levels of school management need to feel confident that when they tackle discrimination they will receive support from the top.

Cultivate the right culture

The culture in a school also matters. This is true for all staff, irrespective of sexual orientation. As individuals we all like to be valued and treated equally, whether gay, straight, bisexual, members of senior management or otherwise. A culture in which diversity is championed and celebrated is a culture that is good for all staff, students and communities.

Tobias Fish teaches at a secondary school in Cambridgeshire

What else?

Visit TES Connect to download free resources from gay rights charity Stonewall.

How an Australian teenager's coming out video went viral.

Gay teachers are less likely to challenge homophobia than their straight colleagues, study finds.

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