Why teachers must practise what they preach on equality

25th April 2014 at 01:00
Many fail to challenge sexism and homophobia, research finds

Almost all teachers agree that eliminating sexism and homophobia is vital, but many are reluctant to do anything about it in their own schools, new research suggests.

In a survey of more than 3,400 teachers, 84 per cent said that tackling inequality was "personally important" to them. But 55 per cent have heard colleagues make homophobic remarks and only 62 per cent always challenge homophobia in the classroom, academics have found.

The findings, reported at the annual American Educational Research Association conference in Philadelphia this month, reveal that the vast majority of teachers believe it is the responsibility of school staff to ensure that all students, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, feel safe.

But the poll of teachers across Canada also shows that only 72 per cent believe their schools actually do provide a safe environment for gay and lesbian students. When only gay teachers were asked for their opinions, these numbers fell even further: 64 per cent thought that school was safe for gay students, and 33 per cent for transgender students.

All the teachers surveyed said they were aware of a range of sexist behaviour among students and a third said they witnessed sexual harassment in school on a daily or weekly basis. Sexist comments were regularly addressed towards female students, according to the research by academics from Concordia University in Montreal, the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba.

Homophobia was similarly common. Half the teachers said they regularly heard students use the phrase "that's so gay" as an insult. And 35 per cent said they heard colleagues use homophobic insults such as "faggot" or "dyke" on a daily or weekly basis.

The research follows findings, reported in TES last month, that teenagers still believe it is acceptable to call a classmate "gay" if they walk differently or do not want to hang out with friends after school. The insult is used by children who know that homophobia is wrong but believe the word "gay" has two distinct meanings, said academics from the University of London's Institute of Education.

According to the Canadian research, 30 per cent of teachers, whether gay or straight, said they would not always intervene when they heard a homophobic comment. "That's so gay" was even less likely to invite a response: only 62.8 per cent of straight teachers would intervene when they heard this used, compared with 70.9 per cent of gay teachers.

"Teachers are aware of the risks that many students experience in schools, related to gender and sexuality, yet are still hesitant to take more proactive steps to create safer and more inclusive classrooms to address these problems," the researchers write in their paper.

Although many teachers said they had begun to incorporate discussion of lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender (LGBT) rights into lessons on human rights, the researchers said such conversations largely happened only during discussions of multiculturalism. The report continues: "Therefore, the type of education that has the potential to challenge inequality and transform school cultures is still fairly low."

Tony Fenwick, chair of School's Out, which represents LGBT teachers in the UK, said that his organisation's own survey shows that almost all British teachers have witnessed homophobia at school.

But whereas the police force provides mandatory equality and diversity training for new recruits, there is no similar process for teachers. "There's nothing in their teacher training programmes, unless they choose to pick it up," Mr Fenwick said. "So, we're leaving it to heads and governors to decide whether or not it's an important thing. That's not good enough. We need to have mandatory equality and diversity training for all teachers, before they're allowed to go into the classroom."

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