It is estimated that there are 50,000 LGBT teachers in UK schools, yet very few openly LGBT teachers achieve school leadership roles (Lee, 2019a). This article draws on the work of Courageous Leaders, the UK’s only LGBT school leadership programme, and posits that the skills that LGBT teachers need to navigate the complexities of their hetero- and cis-normative school workplaces equip them with a distinct set of attributes that ideally place them to become excellent school leaders.
Despite advances in equalities legislation, many LGBT teachers do not yet feel adequately protected in their school workplaces (Lee, 2019b). Schools are entrenched in the predetermined categorisations of male and female. In pupils, this manifests in the toys in the Reception class home corner, right through to the expectations of school leavers at their prom (Robinson, 2002). In school staff, the rigid binaries of male or female are evident in the expectation for pupils to address them as Mr, Mrs or Miss, and the way in which pupils are grouped for activities according to gender.
The mention or presentation of identities that transgress the heterosexual and cisgender norm has, then, always had the potential to create moral panic in schools (Piper and Sikes, 2010), as these identities threaten the discourses of power in the school and wider community (Gray, 2010; Rudoe, 2010). Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988–2003) was a state-sanctioned example of such panic when local authorities, to which state schools belonged, were prohibited from the promotion of ‘the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. For 15 years, Section 28 left LGBT teachers believing that they would lose their jobs should their LGBT identity be revealed in the workplace.
Throughout much of 2019, there were school gate parental and faith group protests in Birmingham against the introduction of compulsory relationships, sex and health education, inclusive of LGBT relationships. Anderton Park School was forced to go to the High Court, seeking an injunction creating an exclusion zone around the school to prevent further protests, such was the effect on pupils and staff. Schools can, then, still feel like a hostile work environment for some LGBT teachers, with the recent school gate protests reminding many of Section 28.
For LGBT teachers, vigilance is required to navigate the heteronormative school community. It is not surprising that LGBT teachers often report trying not to draw attention to themselves, a strategy not conducive to job promotion (Rudoe, 2010). LGBT teachers often avoid opportunities for promotion to school leadership, as to do so would elevate their visibility and interest in their personal life. Courageous Leaders is a DfE-funded programme aiming to support LGBT teachers to apply for school leadership roles. Since 2016, the programme has helped 58 LGBT teachers to gain promotion. Courageous Leaders encourages LGBT teachers to be their authentic selves in the workplace, to be role models to their students and school stakeholders, and to gain the courage to apply for leadership roles. Throughout the year-long programme, LGBT teachers, within a safe and inclusive space and with an LGBT mentor, are empowered to critically reflect on the intersection of their personal and professional identities, challenge heteronormative school practices, and recognise their leadership potential. The work with participants and their mentors on the programme has shown that some of the strategies LGBT teachers deploy to navigate the complexities of the heteronormative and cis-normative school workplace equip them with attributes that are conducive to excellent school leadership.
There are five key leadership attributes that LGBT teachers may have in abundance. These are:
- emotional intelligence
- sensitivity to the inclusion of others
- connecting with others and building teams
- managing uncertainty and stressful situations
- courage and risk-taking.
Although LGBT people are far from a homogeneous group, shared experiences linked to their sexual and/or gender identities mean that they often develop excellent emotional intelligence (Mediana and Hassan, 2015). This is because they often have highly developed instincts from years of proceeding cautiously with new acquaintances, as a means of protecting themselves from exposure to prejudice. LGBT teachers are, then, potentially very discerning, making them ideally placed to make careful decisions when recruiting employees and interacting with a wide-ranging school community.
Sensitivity to inclusion
LGBT teachers usually have extensive experience of feeling marginalised in the workplace, sometimes within their families of origin, and often within their own educational experience (Subhrajit, 2014). They tend, therefore, to be more likely to be sensitive to inclusive practice, both in their classrooms and among colleagues (DePalma and Jennett, 2010). LGBT teachers will likely have a heightened awareness of those on the margins of their school community, and will seek ways to ensure that they feel included. This is likely to equip them with a strong sense of social justice and an abundance of empathy with pupils, parents and colleagues who may be marginalised on the basis of race, faith, social class or other protected characteristics (McAllister and Irvine, 2002).
Connecting with others
LGBT people spend the majority of their time in heteronormative spaces. This can help them over time to become skilful in identifying where it is possible to connect with others with whom they may not naturally have much in common (Smith et al., 2008). Such skills are invaluable for school leaders when developing teams and building trust across the school community. Where teachers are able to come out to colleagues, they report closer working relationships and greater levels of trust from their colleagues.
LGBT teachers are used to tolerating a good deal of ambiguity. They often must suppress the uncertainty of not knowing what the views are of school stakeholders regarding LGBT people. School leaders must sometimes protect their school communities from uncertainty, adversity or bad news, and LGBT teachers often have extensive experience of operating under personal stress whilst betraying nothing in their professional demeanour (Fassinger et al., 2010).
Courage and risk-taking
When LGBT teachers apply for new positions, they must calculate whether or not their new school will provide the space for them to speak their authentic selves into existence. It takes courage for an LGBT teacher to present themselves authentically within a new school workplace. Those teaching during the Section 28 era in particular know all too well the risks of personal and professional identities colliding, and have experience of navigating potentially risky working environments (Lee, 2019a).
The five attributes described here form the basis of the work of Courageous Leaders, and teach participants to value and celebrate their differences. A recent email (anonymised and used with permission) is typical of several that Courageous Leaders receives each year:
“Today I was offered and accepted a role as deputy head here at [XXX]. This was completely unexpected and represents me moving not one but two steps upward from my teaching role into senior management. I would like to personally thank the Courageous Leaders team for how the course changed my perspective about how I can use my diversity to my advantage.”
Few would disagree that, in order to flourish educationally, young people need access to diverse role models, committed teachers and authentic school leaders. When LGBT leaders become visible within our schools, they embody a distinct type of leadership through the application of the five attributes identified in this article. When LGBT teachers become school leaders, their visibility upsets institutional heteronormative and heterosexist practices, and encourages children, parents and staff to participate authentically and without fear in their school communities.
Courageous Leaders has been able to work with 0.01 per cent of the LGBT teacher population. At a time when the average length of service of a headteacher is just three years, it is crucial that investment into effective and distinct school leadership programmes (see also WomenEd and BAMEed) continues, so that we attract, recruit and keep talented school leaders who reflect the full diversity of British society.
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