What are some of the challenges that LGBTQ teachers face in the classroom? Recent Ed.D. graduate Amy Cecilio ’14, ’18 addressed this question in her University of Redlands School of Education dissertation titled “The Perceptions and Experiences of Queer Teachers.” Members of the Bulldog Blog sat down with Cecilio to talk about her findings and why she chose to focus her research on teachers.
Bulldog Blog: How did you come to the University of Redlands?
Amy Cecilio: I grew up in Big Bear Lake, so I had always heard about the University of Redlands and had friends who came here as undergraduate students. I earned my teaching credential from the School of Education in 2005, and my husband earned his shortly after. We’re both high school teachers. A few years later, my husband and I were talking about getting our master’s degrees and we decided to do it together. Then, with the encouragement of a couple of professors, we entered the School of Education’s doctoral program.
BB: How did you become interested in studying the LGBTQ community?
AC: Before conducting my research, I had never worked within the LGBTQ community. The first class I took in the doctoral program explored different kinds of communities; my final paper focused on what teachers can do in their classrooms to support LGBTQ students. After that, I completed a research project in which I examined some of the challenges that LGBTQ students face in school. That project really opened my eyes. After learning about queer students’ experiences and challenges on campus, I wanted to do something. I established a gay-straight alliance group at the high school where I teach.
BB: What are some of the challenges that LGBTQ students face?
AC: The teacher-founded advocacy group GLSEN has published a lot of research on LGBTQ students. Studies have shown that queer students are less likely to graduate from high school and pursue higher education. These students are prone to miss school because of bullying or just not wanting to be in that environment. Sometimes students complain or talk to a teacher about their experiences at school and nothing is done to rectify the situation. A lot of the time, teachers don’t realize that they can help, or maybe they don’t know how because they aren’t familiar with the LGBTQ community.
BB: What are the ways in which teachers can help their students in those situations?
AC: Teachers can be mindful of the language they use and not permit students to use derogatory language in the classroom. They can also facilitate discussions with students as to why some language is hurtful. Another opportunity is highlighting figures from LGBTQ history, such as Harvey Milk, in class. Teachers have to be comfortable discussing these things. In addition, having a gay-straight alliance on campus allows students to come together, be themselves, and make connections.
BB: Your dissertation focused on the experiences of queer teachers. What led to your interest in that topic?
AC: When I established the gay-straight alliance on my campus, there weren’t teachers who were against it, but there also weren’t teachers who spoke out in support. I looked around and realized there weren’t any teachers on campus who were "out." Statistically speaking, there had to be people working at my school who identified as queer in some way. I wanted to figure out what was going on, so for my doctoral research I set out to interview queer teachers to learn about their experiences.
BB: How did you find teachers to interview?
AC: Finding people who would dedicate time to talk to me was one of my biggest concerns. I was able to send an email through the School of Education asking any teacher who identified as part of the LGBTQ community if they’d feel comfortable talking to me. Five people, all high school or middle school teachers from the Inland Empire, came forward. I conducted three interviews with each teacher. The first interview focused on their background and family life to get an understanding of who they are; the second interview focused on their experiences in the classroom; and the third consisted of revisiting some of those experiences in more depth. I also had them read through the transcriptions to make sure that everything I captured was accurate and came across as they intended.
BB: What are some of the challenges that LGBTQ teachers face in the classroom?
AC: People’s level of outness can vary, with places they feel they can be more out than others. All the teachers I interviewed considered themselves to be out outside of campus. One of the major findings in my research was that, even if a teacher is not out in the classroom, they’re fully aware of their queerness; it’s always in the back of their mind. Some teachers are careful how they present their personal lives to students, for example, using language that avoids specifying the gender of their spouse or partner. One teacher I interviewed allowed students to ask about her personal life after class; so kids would come and talk to her and she could share with them in that way and be supportive of the students’ own struggles with their identity. As they considered coming out at school, many teachers feared their queerness would interfere with being able to keep a job or receive tenure, or that they or their partners would be harassed outside of work or put in danger. One teacher—faced with unique time demands and challenging students—didn’t see how coming out could fit in the classroom as she prioritized her students’ academic needs.
BB: Were some of the teachers you spoke with out at school?
AC: Two of the teachers did come out completely in their classrooms. It wasn’t a planned event, more of something that happened as part of a conversation. For one teacher, the class was talking about the Holocaust, and some comments were made about homosexuals. He used himself as an example, saying, “So you feel I should not live?” It was a teachable moment and he used it to try to make the issue real. A parent did go to the principal the next day. That was one of the biggest fears among queer teachers; they weren’t so much afraid of the kids finding out, as the parents’ reaction. The parent who came in was livid and demanded the teacher’s removal. Fortunately, his principal had his back. But the student involved ended up being moved out of the class, so for the teacher, personally, it was hurtful and a hard thing for him to go through.
BB: What are the next steps for you?
AC: Right now I’m focusing on condensing my dissertation into an article and sending it out for publication. I recently had the opportunity to teach a University of Redlands teaching credential course, and it was great to work with people going into the profession. We were able to discuss some of the points of my research and have a conversation about language. Some of the students had never realized that things they were saying could be hurtful. It was great to see them become more cognizant.
See also Bulldog Blog piece, “Addressing LGBTQ issues in the classroom” and additional information on the University of Redlands School of Education programs.