Academic journal article Issues in Teacher Education

Reduction of Stigma in Schools: An Evaluation of the First Three Years

Academic journal article Issues in Teacher Education

Reduction of Stigma in Schools: An Evaluation of the First Three Years

Article excerpt

Introduction

High school is a profoundly social experience for students. Having friends is central to being "visible"-to having an identity-in school (Eder, 1985). Social positioning, friendship groups, romance dramas, and the battle to "fit in" gain the attention and drain the energy of students far more than do academic pursuits. Schools are the environments in which youth "struggle to define themselves in relation to others" (Wilkinson & Pearson, 2009, p. 545), and as "sexuality becomes increasingly central to identity and social relationships...schools are critical social contexts in which dominant beliefs about sexuality are played out" (546). Thus, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) youths' social relations are fraught not only with the usual adolescent tensions, but also include fears of having their sexual or gender identity discovered, of losing friends, of being marginalized. For youth who are "out," or who are judged by peers to fail in their performance of heterosexuality or hegemonic gender, taunting and harassment, isolation, and marginalization are daily occurrences (Adelman & Woods, 2006). A middle school teacher participating in this study reported her observation of peer dynamics:

Now if I see a boy who I think is gay, um, I can see that those kids are ostracized starting very young . . . The guys who exhibit any kind of, um, feminine behaviors at all, and I'm not saying all guys do, because, you know, just 'cause you're gay, doesn't mean you have those kinds of behaviors, but the guys that do, they have a terrible hard time in school. It's awful. It's awful . . . They're just left out . . . Sometimes girls will take them in. You know, that happens. But they're left out most of the time from groups altogether. Guys don't even want to sit near them. (Gay) kids are ostracized and that's, that's probably the most hurtful thing, to be alone when everybody else is so together. And when you're 11 and 12 and 13 and 14, it's so important to be part of a group, and if you're not, those are the kids where, you know, school is hell for them.

Students' ability to succeed in school relies not only on quality teaching and academic resources but also on a supportive school environment that fosters their growth as individuals and affirms their worth as human beings within this social setting. LGBTQ youth rarely receive such affirmation in school (Macgillivray, 2000). Educators need to gain a clear understanding of the ways in which LGBTQ youth experience their schools, they need new ways to "see" both their own interactions and the student interactions going on around them, and they need tools for change.

In fall 2006, the Reduction of Stigma in Schools? (RSIS) program began working in the Central New York area to bring increased awareness of the LGBTQ youth experience into area schools. This innovative professional development model aims to provide school personnel with information and resources that will empower them to advocate for LGBTQ students and to disrupt institutional practices that limit these youths' access to social power in the school environment (Payne & Smith, 2010). In September 2009, the program reached the "1000 educators trained" mark. The feedback from participating educators has been overwhelmingly positive, and the study on which this article is based explored the experiences of those who participated in the RSIS program over its first three years. The overall goal of this larger research project was to discover where the program has been successful and where changes are needed as well as to develop a deeper understanding of the meaning, in terms of their professional responsibility, that teachers make of their workshop experience. The current article explores portions of the research relevant to the three stated workshop objectives and evaluative data offered by workshop participants on their experience.

Literature Review: LGBTQ Youth School Experiences

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