school consultancy on lgbt issues

by Peter Dankmeijer

In Amsterdam, the Netherlands, EduDivers (Dutch Expertise Centre on School and Sexual Diversity) advises schools on how to enhance their school strategy on social safety and citizenship. This work is done on the request of the City of Amsterdam.
Most people think LGBT emancipation consists of a one time teacher training or by offering a curriculum or a gay and lesbian speaker session. There are a lot of questions what happens in the Empowerment strategy of school-by-school consultation. This paper answers a number of these questions.

What is the aim of the school consultancy?

Our primary main is to mobilize schools to take responsibility themselves on how they deal with and prevent a negative environment around sexual diversity (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and heterosexual attraction and behaviour). We succeed in this when the schools develop their own mission and strategy and implement it.
A secondary aim is to make the school staff more knowledgeable on how to do this effectively. They should not only know which possible interventions they can undertake, but also how they can plan a range of interventions in consistency which each other. Such a package of interventions which strengthen each other should work to attain the desired concrete objectives of security and citizenship. Openly LGBT students should be friends, make homework, discuss their lives and go on camp together with their heterosexual peers without problems. We cannot expect such concrete behavioural effects by way of incidental panel sessions or teacher training workshops.
A second secondary aim is to integrate the concrete activities as much as possible in the regular routines of the school (procedures, curricula, teamwork, habits). This is the only way the LGBT attention can be anchored.

What do you actually do?

Schools are overcharged and LGBT issues or even diversity is never their first priority. They usually do not see the importance of relevance of specific attention to LGBT issues. In addition, they often have what activists call “homophobic attitudes”. For example students who say homosexuality is forbidden by Islam, teachers who are frightened or overheated class responses and school managers who do not want deal with critical parents or who are satisfied when there are no (visible) serious incidents around homophobia. Even more than with other controversial social subjects, LGBT issues seem to make people apprehensive to deal with to explicitly. We prefer to call such often felt resistances “obstructive convictions”, because it is more neutral and opens the opportunity for a dialogue on challenges and possibilities.
For this reason schools consultancy on this topic requires first of all the creation of a sense of urgency in school staff which can achieve a real change: the school location manager and directly after him or her the safety coordinator and the care coordinator. By means of conversations, recommendations and information material our advisors stimulate them to acknowledge and recognize the challenges, to develop a vision, to create a growing commitment among the rest of the staff and eventually to launch into concrete action. During this cooperation process between the advisor, school manager and coordinators, from time to time there are group conversations and workshops, which are attended by different parts of the staff. Sometimes a school is already implementing programs concerned with another but related topic, such as sexual harassment, sex education, bullying, or mediation by students. In such cases Empowerment preferably connects with the activity already being implemented. This way we prevent the feeling the integration of attention to sexual diversity is something “extra”.

How intensive is school consultancy?

The intensity of the school consultancy depends on the situation and questions from the schools. Some schools have a very multicultural or male student population and a number of cultural or gender specific challenges. On multicultural schools with tensions between cultural groups of students or on schools with mainly lower educated and macho boys, the challenges are generally larger than on mixed or mono-cultural schools. On the other hand, the sensitivity to challenges and the willingness to act (also around sexual diversity) is greater on schools where staff experiences problems.
Most schools do not want to give substantial specific attention to sexual diversity. For this reason the consultancy focuses on integration of LGBT issues in broader frameworks. This takes some time. Furthermore, a negative school environment cannot be changed in a short period. Schools know this and do not attempt to tackle such issues in a short period. We must also recognize that each hour of external consultancy we offer, leads to agreements on school action that costs the school between 8 and the 16 hours work. The consultancy and work in the schools done in the context of it, then has to be carried out in the few hours teachers and coordinators have between their regular classes and other duties.
For this reason the school consultancy is a long-term process with a low intensity. We aim for two or three conversations per school per year. In schools which still do not have a sense of urgency, this number of conversations is frequently not yet feasible. In schools which have already decided to adopt LGBT issues as a topic of action, it is easier to plan two or three progress meetings with the manager or coordinator and one group meeting or workshop per year.

If I understand this well, schools are actually doing nothing concretely?

That is a misunderstanding. It is also a question which does not appreciate the challenges and the quality of the school change process.
It is a misunderstanding because most schools do plan some activities, even in the early period of the consultancy. Speakers of the local LGBT grass roots organization are invited, enthusiastic teachers offer some lessons. Some of the teachers take part in a training. However, these incidental activities each in itself have little impact on the school climate if they the team and students are not committed to them.
Politicians critically address schools on their responsibility from time to time. This is well meant. But if the undercurrent of this criticism is political anger about the lack of speed with which schools implement concrete activities, one must be careful. If politicians try to force schools to carry out a range concrete trainings or LGBT speaker sessions, and force the issues while there is not yet a adequate commitment of the school management or staff, then the effort will only result in extra resistance. The interest and commitment only arise when the school management is convinced of the need and creates a process which in turn involves and interests other staff and finally students. The overall step-by-step plan which a school must pass through is: (J Kotter and D Cohen, 2002, The Heart or Change, Boston: Harvard Business School Press)

Kotter’s Organizational Change Model

  1. Create a sense of urgency (the school manager is persuaded LGBT issues are in need of tackling and it van be realistically done)
  2. Form an internal coalition (e.g. some interested teachers, a manager, the safety and care coordinator)
  3. Develop a vision (how does the school see attention to sexual diversity within the larger framework of safety, citizenship, how do they deal with cumbersome questions of parents and students)
  4. Share the vision in the team, formulate concrete development strategies, make a plan (where will we integrate LGBT issues)
  5. Enable the staff to overcome challenges (training, coaching, recommendations)
  6. Take care there in short term successes and rewards to celebrate (good lessons, enthusiastic responses of students, appreciation for teachers and students who offer positive and concrete ideas)
  7. Consolidate the new activities, and continue to move (incorporate them in regular lessons and activities, regular repeat activities)
  8. Anchor the change in regular routines (decide how activities return each year as a fixed component, how it is transferred to new staff, how the safer environment is introduced and maintained with new students)

When can we expect the school to be really more safe for LGBT people?

That moment depends on whether and how the concerning schools become persuaded and active in this process. In Nijmegen a similar project now runs for seven years. From the results of the local Youth Health Survey in 2008, it became clear for the first time there is now a significant difference in attitudes about LGBT issues among students in schools which have adopted an LGBT specific strategy now for several years (and are n now at stage 6 of Kotter’s Organizational Change Model). This does not mean that there are no more homophobic incidents in those schools. Schools do not have a monopoly on the social behaviour of students.
In Amsterdam, the process of involving schools so far goes approximately 2 times as fast as in Nijmegen. This is partly due to the fact Empowerment could learn from the early mistakes in Nijmegen.
The Nijmegen experience teaches us the process of adoption, enthusiasm and commitment goes more rapidly when you offer attractive interactive training and role play for teachers and students. In Nijmegen they worked with an interactive theatre play, each show leads to a school discussion about their own strategy and ideas for concrete intentions.