School staff experiences in supporting LGBTI students in schools: A study from Tasmania, Australia

A growing body of interdisciplinary research identifies significant need for LGBTI-inclusive teaching practices and schooling environments (Jones and Hillier 2013; Kosciw et al. 2013; Robinson and Ferfolja 2002; Shannon 2016). Pullen Sansfaçon et al. (2015) suggest that a key barrier to LGBTI-inclusion relates to school staff members’ understandings of gender, and whether discussions of sexuality and gender diversity are viewed as taboo or are positively included within school policies and practices. Other studies similarly show that a lack of knowledge in this area amongst staff makes school experiences difficult for both LGBTI students and their parents (Riggs and Bartholomaeus 2015). While there is now ample evidence of LGBTI students’ negative educational experiences and a growing body of literature examining teachers’ approaches to inclusive practice, the majority of this research is conducted in urban areas of the Global North. Comparatively little is known about Australian teachers and school staff understandings of LGBTI-inclusivity or their lived experiences of supporting LGBTI and gender-questioning students. Inclusive practices: Supporting school staff, supporting students was a research project conducted by the University of Tasmania in partnership with Working It Out (Tasmania’s gender, sexuality and intersex status support and education service) in Tasmania, Australia during 2018.


Semi-structured interviews were conducted with teachers and school staff on understandings of LGBTI-inclusive education practices in schools. Participants were invited to share their experiences supporting LGBTI students, their understandings of school and department policy, and their professional development needs. Sixteen staff members from six Tasmanian Government high schools participated in the study. Participants were class teachers (n=7), social workers and school psychologists (n=5), school nurses (n=3), and school leadership (n=1) who had been working at their current schools for an average of 4.7 years. The majority of participants were women (n=12) between the approximate ages of 25-60. Two participants identified themselves as members of the LGBTI community. While demographic data was not collected, at interview all participants identified as white, middle-class Australians.


Participants discussed both individual and whole-school approaches to LGBTI-inclusive education, including promoting safety and inclusion through anti-bullying initiatives, using inclusive language, having strong school leadership, and including LGBTI experiences in physical spaces and school curriculum. School staff outlined the need for clearer department- and school-level policies around LGBTI-inclusion and additional professional development resources and training to support LGBTI-inclusive practices.


Participants views were found to reflect Szalacha’s (2004) paradigmatic representation of inclusive practice. Szalacha’s (2004) framing recognises the multiple expressions of inclusive practice; including practices to promote safety, to promote equity and practices intended to challenge heteronormative schooling environments (critical theory). Szalacha (2004, 69) suggests that “safety” approaches tend to position LGBTI students as victims or problematic students who need special accommodation. Safety approaches are seldom whole-of-school initiatives and tend to focus on individual cases of homophobic bullying in a reactionary manner. In contrast to these reactive approaches, Szalacha (2004, 69) describes “equity” approaches to LGBTI-inclusion as broader initiatives that aim to treat all members of a school community with respect. Rather than focusing merely on anti-bullying efforts, LGBTI-inclusion efforts working in an equity paradigm aim to foster whole-school environments where LGBTI or questioning students are meaningfully included and acknowledged (Szalacha 2004, 69). Szalacha (2004, 69) recognises that equity approaches require teachers and school staff to undertake the challenging, politicised task of advocating for social change. Szalacha’s third paradigm of LGBTI-inclusive education practice refers to approaches that draw on critical theory to problematise heteronormativity in education. “Critical” perspectives aim to interrogate representations of all sexualities and genders in education, particularly through the “queering” of curriculum (Szalacha, 2004, 69), or, the process of integrating non-normative, deconstructionist understandings of sexuality into dominant education frameworks (Luhmann 2012, 120).


Overall, we found that school staff feel constrained in their ability to support LGBTI students by the context in which they work. They expressed uncertainty around their roles and responsibilities, and the impact that teaching practices might have on students. While participants were aware of a high-level policy context, the relevancy and details were not always well understood in terms of ‘what this means for on-the-ground practice’. All school staff noted the importance of having explicit inclusive practices for LGBTI students in schools which align with broader policy mandates including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians and the profession-specific code of ethics that participants are bound by, including: the Teachers Code of Ethics, the Code of Ethics for Nurses in Australia; and The Australian Psychological Society Code of Ethics. However, we found that the policy landscape, as perceived by participants, influenced how they came to think about what was expected and what was possible in supporting LGBTI students and informed the overarching approach taken to employing inclusive practice (safety, equity, or critical). The next step in this research is to construct a multi-tiered information portal through which school staff can navigate curricular and pedagogical resources to support LGBTI students.


The following publication will be available in the coming months, which further details results of the study:

Grant, R., Beasy, K., Emery, S. & Coleman, B. (in press). Beyond ‘safety’: Teachers and school staff approaches to LGBTI-inclusion in Tasmanian schools. Journal of Inclusive Education.