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Teach For America LGBT Initiative Will Address School Climate, Teacher Training

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Teach For America plans a multi-pronged initiative to address the needs of LGBT and gender-nonconforming students in school, the organization announced Thursday.

Announcement of the project—which will involve efforts to create "safe spaces" for students of all sexual orientations and gender identities—comes a day after a group of organizations released new reports claiming disparate discipline rates for LGBT youth. One possible solution to that problem? Increased training for teachers on how to address the unique needs of LGBT students and how to best tackle issues like bullying and disrespectful language in the classroom.

TFA says the initiative will "support LGBTQ students and create safe classrooms for them to learn; bring educational equity to the forefront of conversations within the LGBTQ community; expand the impact of LGBTQ students, corps members, alumni, and staff; and help demonstrate teaching in high-need schools as a career pathway for those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning."

"The initiative offers a way to think about identity in broad and intersecting ways where discussions of race and class can be LGBTQ inclusive, given that low-income LGBTQ youth of color face higher rates of truancy and dropouts, suicide, bullying, homelessness, and are overrepresented in both the foster care and criminal justice systems," TFA said in a press release. 

I chatted with Tim'm West, a former teacher who will direct the new initiative, about TFA's plans.

What are the first steps TFA is taking to address these issues?

The organization plans a series of discussions in 14 communities with youth activists, community organizations, students, and educators about the specific challenges LGBT and gender-nonconforming students face at school, West said. "We want to set some priorities that we can really focus on," he said. "I think it's a really bold step because a lot of organizations just won't touch it."

What might those priorities be?

As a result of the meetings, TFA plans to create some recommendations for its own programs and, potentially, guidance for schools and teacher training programs as a whole, West said. Changes could include a more deliberate, organization-wide focus on LGBT student issues in TFA training, something that is already a focus at many of the organization's sites, West said. It could also include guidance on specific issues, such as addressing bullying related to a student's sexuality without making them feel further singled out or the unique issues LGBT teachers face when they address these issues.

TFA has announced other initiatives to boost recruitment and retention of teachers of color. Will recruitment of LGBT teachers be a part of this initiative?

Not in a deliberate way.

"I think that what we're finding is that a lot of LGBTQ professionals have a lot to offer because of some of the experiences they've had in classrooms where they didn't feel safe," West said. But the broader focus of the initiative is helping all teachers understand these issues—whether it's as a result of their own experiences or as a result of thoughtful discussions and training, he said.

I've been hearing more about LGBT student issues lately. Isn't this already a big focus for schools?

Along with efforts to address bullying and school climate, there's been a lot of discussion about helping LGBT students feel safe at school, West said, but he would like to see a focus on issues like inclusion and respect.

"How do we create safe environments and places where students can have dignity?" he said. "Safety should be low-hanging fruit. We really need to have a conversation about what it means to have dignity in the classroom."

Why should schools care about this?

West thinks fights for same-sex marriage have really dominated the narrative for gay-rights organizations, and a lot of other issues (including educational ones) have fallen into the background as a result.

But the way students are treated by their peers and their own sense that they are supported by their teachers has the potential to affect all areas of their education, West said, from truancy rates to discipline. And those issues can have effects that unfold for the rest of their lives.

"What does it really mean to position LGBTQ advocacy as an educational equity issue?" West asked. "It's not just about the right to marry when you just want to survive middle school."

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