At a Department of Education in-service course in Dublin, Irish primary school teachers have said they do not feel comfortable or are afraid to tackle anti-gay bullying.
The course is a first of its kind, week-long affair approved by the department and organized by Belong To Youth Services, an LGBT youth advocacy group, alongside Educate Together which runs 58 nondenominational schools across Ireland.
Teachers at the course have already told of how children at startlingly young age appear to be associating words like “gay” with negative emotions and situations, and that, while of course teachers would aim to tackle all forms of bullying and bullying-related behavior, they feel under-equipped to tackle this kind of issue.
“Teachers are simply not as comfortable dealing with it like they would be if it was racist bullying or any other kind of bullying,” said Molly O’Duffy, a teacher who attended yesterday’s course and who is ethos development officer with Educate Together.
While emphasising that children in older classes knew exactly what the term gay meant, Ms O’Duffy explained that for children of all ages, it was often used to describe something they disliked.
“Children, typically boys, can use the word to describe another who is not conforming to a typical stereotype of what a boy is – they understand that it is bad and that it is never good to be called gay.
“We need to be able to give the teachers and the principals the skills to face up to homophobic bullying and deal with it in an age-appropriate way,” Ms O’Duffy added.
Course instructor and advocacy co-ordinator with Belong To Youth Service Carol-Anne O’Brien said this was sorely lacking in the current primary education system.
“It is the type of bullying that [teachers] feel least prepared for. There is a lack of training and support and teachers don’t want to take on something that they do not feel comfortable about.”
Course instructors heard that children of seven and eight are using words like “gay” and “queer” to describe things they do not like, and this is already having an impact on other children.
Apart from the obvious distress this is likely to cause children who begin to discover their sexuality as they grow older, behaviour like this, said Ms O’Duffy, made life for children from same-sex marriages particularly difficult as they tried to integrate into normal school life.
“I’ve heard of parents having to give their children a line to explain their home situation. It’s outrageous that a four-year-old would need a line.”
The issue here is perhaps more tricky than it would first appear.
Teachers are likely hampered when discussing why the word “gay” as a pejorative is unacceptable because they are wondering if there will be fall-out from parents who question the age appropriateness of teachers discussing matters that, even in the abstract, relate to sexual orientation.
This further emphasizes the need for robust anti-bullying frameworks that allow parents to understand the role they must play in helping their children learn why these behaviors can be hurtful.
As such, Ireland recently stepped up its anti-bullying efforts where LGBT children and LGBT topics are concerned. Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn issued new guidelines in May that aim to give teachers support in dealing with issues relating to LGBT identity and to create specific frameworks through which schools can handle issues of LGBT bullying. This is in direct response to research that found LGBT students currently face pervasive levels of homophobia and bullying related to their sexual orientation or gender identity in Irish schools, something of course not unique to Ireland but worrying nonetheless. Read more on that here.
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