Back when I was at school, the most exciting things about teachers were knowing their first names and guessing if they were gay.
I’m now 44, a school leader, the children call me Shaun and they know I’m gay.
At Alfred Salter Primary School in London we have a fantastic relationship built upon high aspiration, authenticity and mutual respect.
Three years ago I reconsidered my desire to be labelled as an effective teacher first and a gay man last when data showed that 75% of our pupils were being subjected to daily homophobic abuse.
Our data clearly resonated with the data on a national level and suddenly I felt morally obliged to be authentic about my identity in order to provide a role model of a productive, respected gay teacher. In this way I hoped to make the subject of homophobic bullying and language more real, more relevant.
‘It’s not relevant to being a teacher’, I hear some of you cry.
But some children have lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender family and friends.
Once I was open, they talked more openly about their gay siblings and LGBT friends. Some of the children in our primary schools will already know they are different. Some children in our schools don’t adhere to ‘accepted’ gender stereotypes and struggle to fit in.
Ask a room full of LGBT people when they knew they were different, some will say four, some will say 24.
An openly gay teacher can provide a beacon of hope to those born LGBT, a vital thing in a frightening world that at times calls for the death of LGBT people or one in which some people choose to interpret wonderful ancient texts as a means of justifying their own hatred and fear of difference.
The representation of a diverse range of role models within school communities provides a crucial point of reference and also assists the school community in working through their own prejudice and misconceptions.
Since I came out at school, I’ve developed a programme to tackle homophobic bullying called ‘Inclusion For All’.
We are the only primary school in the UK, possibly the world, supporting other schools in tackling homophobic bullying. As a result of media interest in this work and in my website, I am contacted by teachers globally and nationally, some of whom are gay.
An emerging theme is that of heads not supporting teachers coming out as gay; this saddens me. My own headteacher supports everyone in the school community to be authentic. Why then would he, as a man in a position of great responsibility treat me differently. Unless of course he lacked relevant training or bore misconceptions, fear or prejudice himself?
Recently The Guardian ran an article which reported evidence that two thirds of LGBT teachers experience discrimination or harassment at work and explored the difficulties LGBT teachers can face in the form of unsupportive heads and unchallenged homophobia.
The whole issue of gay teachers, even in 2012, can spark debate, which in itself can frighten off LGBT teachers; I think this is a great shame.
‘You would say that’, shout the detractors. But my prime directives as a school leader are to get the best people for the job and to ensure all the pupils have a safe, happy and successful education.
There might be some potentially awful LGBT teachers out there, but there might also be some brilliant LGBT teachers who can serve as fantastic role models for children; yet tragically remain scared of prejudicial treatment or of being labelled as pedophiles.
Ah yes, the pedophile thing…let me tell you a true story.
It’s Christmas 1992 and I have just started my four-year teacher training course. I’m sat at the dinner table with my extended family.
One asks me how my course is going and then he goes on to say: ‘Isn’t it a bit tricky for you, being gay around children?’
‘Why would it be tricky?’ I ask, seeking clarification.
‘Well you know, the boys,’ he says. ‘Go on,’ I reply
He continues: ‘In PE and swimming, don’t you find it hard not to look at the little boys?’
To this day I can recall the feeling of bread sauce and turkey attempting to regurgitate itself in my rapidly dehydrating throat.
There is, as far as I know, no guide book for responding sensitively when being accused of being a pedophile, so I took several deep breaths and replied: ‘When we are all on the beach swimming with your niece, or when you are getting her into her pyjamas, do you find it hard not to look at her?’
‘Don’t be horrible’ he said, his face reddening. ‘It’s not the same thing’.
And there we have it.
I am deeply saddened that there are still people today with misconceptions about LGBT teachers.
More positively, experience has also shown me that many people in schools welcome challenge, change and the opportunity to talk out their fears and misconceptions.
In addition, the Equality Act 2010 lists sexual orientation as a ‘protected characteristic’ and schools watchdog OFSTED are actively looking for evidence that schools are tackling homophobic bullying and fostering good relationships between the wonderfully diverse groups of people that make up our school communities.
The teaching profession is highly challenging and highly rewarding; we need the very best teachers and role models in our schools to give the best life chances to all our children.
Any headteacher that can’t support a great LGBT teacher to be themselves I personally believe is failing in their duty of care for pupils and staff. Such headteachers are sadly missing a huge opportunity to provide a diverse range of role models for their pupils.
Ultimately whether the parents like it, whether certain religious people like it or whether headteachers like it, some of the children we teach will be straight and some will be LGBT and everything else in between.
It’s time we turned the tide on LGBT teachers and recruited a more diverse and representative teaching workforce for the sake of countless young people yet to come.