Cultural Competency in the Learning Environment: Promoting the Development of Diversity Training


Anti-gay bias among teachers within early stages of education can have lasting effects on students identifying as LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer/Questioning), particularly in terms of hate crime victimization. Pre-service teachers throughout the country currently have no regulated courses within their curriculum that focus on diversity issues pertaining to LGBTQ individuals and the sexual minority as a whole. Moreover, teachers do not receive diversity training to promote a culturally competent learning environment. This creates a gap between training and pedagogical needs of teachers because students they teach are not challenged to embrace diversity in their school systems and the teachers are not equipped to deliver such an environment. This project will delve into this issue by conducting a systematic research synthesis to discover the effects of an anti-gay bias on pre-service educators as well as their students, followed by an analysis of the effectiveness of proposed and enacted programs focused on creating a deeper knowledge of cultural diversity in pre-service educators.

Table of Contents: 


    Although there are gaps in knowledge of minority groups in general among college education majors or pre-service educators, sexual minorities remain one of the most overlooked (Wyatt, Oswalt, White, & Peterson, 2008). Because of the lack of education regarding the everyday personal struggles of LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer/Questioning) youth, administrators and teachers are often unprepared to provide needed support to those students who are victims of bullying and hate crimes due to their perceived or stated sexual orientation. Many students are bullied because other students mistakenly think they exhibit qualities of an LGBTQ individual when the victim may actually identify as heterosexual (Payne & Smith, 2010).

    In a study conducted to synthesize statistics of bullying and victimization of LGBTQ youth, researchers found that LGBTQ youth are twice as likely to be both sexually and physically abused by family members as heterosexual youth between middle school and high school ages (Saewyc, Skay, Pettingell, Reis, & Bearinger, 2006). Because of abuse at school and in the community, LGBTQ youth are prominent among populations of runaways, the homeless, juvenile delinquents, and foster children, and also have an increased risk for mental health problems (Chesir-Teran & Hughes, 2009). These individuals tend to experience higher rates of depression, anxiety disorders, behavior problems, substance abuse, school drop-outs, and sexual promiscuity as well. Researchers have identified predictors which can be used to prevent anti-LGBTQ victimization and harassment by taking into account the causes of bullying (Chesir-Teran & Hughes, 2009). A major factor in bullying in schools is that schools have few or no policies regarding anti-LGBTQ bullying. Such policies would provide students with necessary support to prevent victimization and begin the process of increasing respect for LGBTQ students. As schools are a major setting in which LGBTQ students are vulnerable to attacks from their peers, the importance of educating future teachers and administrators about victimization intervention techniques as well as “red flags” of abuse will only increase.

    The Role of the Educator

    The general knowledge of pre-service educators about LGBTQ students has been brought to light due to the immense impact educators can have upon their students based on their own viewpoints. If educators do not have a full or even partial understanding of LGBTQ students, it is not reasonable to expect them to educate their students to appreciate the cultural diversity sexual minorities bring to the school and to foster acceptance of these groups. In a study of pre-service educators in Central and Southern Texas in 2008, the candidates showed fairly negative attitudes toward homosexuals, primarily toward gay men rather than lesbian women, even though 69.2 percent reported that they were moderately informed and educated regarding sexual minorities (Wyatt, et al., 2008). With educators entering school systems possessing what they believe is moderate understanding of the sexual minorities, LGBTQ students are placed in unsafe situations within schools. Administrators and teachers are expected to provide protection and support for them even though they are often unaware of the threat of bullying and victimization faced on a daily basis by LGBTQ youth.

    A study of attitudes and beliefs of pre-service educators and counselors throughout America revealed that 83 percent of those surveyed found it acceptable to ignore slurs against LGBT youth and most completely lacked the experience and knowledge to deal with social issues within schools in general (Rogers & O’Bryon, 2008). This resulted in three out of every four students surveyed reporting they had experienced some form of verbal or physical harassment within the past year but felt administrators and teachers did not find it necessary to intervene. With new educators possessing little or no knowledge of sexual minorities and the daily struggles of LGBTQ youth, these students are essentially losing the support system that is most important to keeping them in school and working toward attaining an education.

    If new educators are to be expected to foster the education and growing knowledge of students in the prime of their youth, they have a responsibility to do so without prejudice and without concern for personal political and religious opinions. To omit discussion of controversial topics is directly in conflict with teachers’ responsibilities as educators and can have negative consequences for both heterosexual and questioning homosexual students alike due to the inferred distaste for and disapproval of certain sexual identities (Wolfe, 2006).

    The Viewpoint of a Student

    Educators may be expected to maintain a fully unbiased classroom environment; however, students identifying as LGBTQ often report their teachers not abiding by anti-bullying standards. In a study of students’ perceptions of general anti-bullying policies of schools, awareness programs, and follow-through with preventing victimization, a majority of those surveyed responded that they were unaware of specific policies geared toward creating a supportive environment for LGBTQ students (Chesir-Teran & Hughes, 2009). Participants reported having experienced verbal and physical abuse related directly to the existence (or lack of existence) of anti-bullying policies focused on LGBTQ students. Bullying occurred at a lower rate in schools that upheld anti-victimization rules and policies as well as within schools in which students believed these policies existed, regardless of whether or not they were actually intact and upheld.

    Failure of teachers and educators to show understanding and support for every student can drastically affect the way in which other students view their peers. Should a teacher ignore a student’s need for guidance and support when questioning their sexual identity, other students may view this type of questioning as both unsupported and unimportant, making it difficult for other students to come forward and question their identity. Ignoring student questioning also allows other students to look at those who question their identities as strange and unlike their “normal” peers. Standing up to LGBTQ harassment and bullying is not just about ending prejudice and oppression of sexual minorities; it also shows children that all forms of prejudice and bigotry are disrespectful and inappropriate, supporting an environment both in and out of school that welcomes being different and gives comfort during times of uncertainty (Wolfe, 2006).

    Heterosexism and the Classroom

    The idea of “heterosexism” refers to the general process of favoring heterosexual individuals over their homosexual peers. This ideal stems from a lack of LGBTQ support among administrative staff and educators alike, as well as a failure to promote support from peers through programs such as Gay-Straight Alliance clubs found within some high schools (Chesir-Teran, 2009). In some areas of the country, Gay-Straight Alliance groups are banned from being created completely due to a lack of support from the community as well as the parents of a majority of students attending the schools. Heterosexism has the power to create a rift between heterosexual and homosexual students which can disillusion heterosexual youth with stereotypes and stigma, isolating LGBTQ students that need support, while making decisions regarding their own lifestyles and personal identities. Sexuality has become increasingly “…central to identity and social relationships…[and] schools are critical social contexts in which dominant beliefs about sexuality are played out” (Payne & Smith, 2010, p. 11). Without the support of teachers and administrators, LGBTQ students have difficulty coming to terms with their own identities and are therefore alienated from those students deemed “normal” who identify as heterosexual.

    Heterosexism is a belief easily transferred from a teacher or adult in a position of power to a student through either action or inaction. Supporting the use of homophobic slang by failing to stop it, participating in using the slang, as well as ignoring the abuse of students are all ways in which educators contribute to the growing isolation of homosexual students. This makes it increasingly difficult for students to concentrate on school and gaining an education when they fear falling victim to bullying and abuse.

    Pre-Service Education Diversity Courses

    The focus of diversity courses in the education of pre-service educators is to “deconstruct gender bias and heteronormativity in schools and society” (O’Malley, Hoyt, & Slattery, 2009, p. 95), thus contributing to the creation of a supportive and safe school environment. By including required diversity courses regarding LGBTQ individuals and the specific needs of sexual minority students within basic education coursework, pre-service educators will be better informed and prepared to work with LGBTQ individuals as well as to educate their heterosexual peers regarding acceptance and respect for all students. Courses designed to educate future educators about sexual minorities are often met with road blocks created by religious and moral beliefs as well as by discomfort speaking about sexual orientation due to the perception that doing so means talking about sex, not personal identity (O’Malley, Hoy, & Slattery, 2009).

    In 2009, educators from three Texas universities created a diversity training course. In the first part of the course, they discussed the relative nature of gender in terms of biology, identity, and social roles; in the latter part of the course, they discussed human sexuality including intimacy and the transition from childhood to becoming an aware and sexual being (O’Malley, Hoy & Slattery, 2009). By speaking first about the science of gender and how these ideals tie into sexuality, the instructors saw a noticeable difference in the number of participants in the classes that were better able to understand that gender diversity does exist and cannot simply be divided into male and female categories as easily as is commonly thought. In the discussion of human sexuality, the educators who led the class discussed the issue of deviation from normative gender roles and how it leads to bullying and victimization within schools when students are not taught acceptance of diversity. At the end of the course, the majority of pre-service educators involved showed an increased understanding of sexual minority issues as well as an increased willingness to impart knowledge of sexual minority issues upon their fellow teachers and, most importantly, their future students (O’Malley, Hoyt, & Slattery, 2009).

    Methods of Diversity Training Workshops

    The controversy surrounding inclusion of gay issues in pre-service educator course work stems mainly from personal viewpoints and common misconceptions rather than focusing on creating a welcome and safe environment for all students. As stated by the creator of a teacher preparation course surrounding LGBTQ issues, “creating such an atmosphere has nothing to do with sexual issues, but everything to do with creating an educational environment free of harassment, homophobia, and discrimination” (Wolfe, 2006, p. 196).

    Until recently, most courses and workshops designed to educate future teachers about LGBTQ students and the sexual minorities focused on risk factors these students have, including substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, and mental health issues (Russell, Horn, Kosciw, & Saewyc, 2010). There have been attempts to create workshop programs within the past decade in order to educate future teachers about sexual minorities and LGBTQ students, but few have resulted in a noticeable change in the knowledge possessed by pre-service educators. A majority of these diversity programs have specifically focused on the at-risk population of LGBTQ students as well as those just coming to terms with their sexual orientation and experiencing frequent bullying rather than general prevention of victimization and bullying of sexual minorities per se.

    One method of diversity training in the form of a workshop asked teachers to explain the rights of all students in a classroom, specifically those that LGBTQ students should have but often do not. The first was the “right to develop their own unique skills as learners,” which the workshop instructors noted can be compromised due to LGBTQ students skipping class to escape bullying and feeling unsafe in the classroom. The second was the “right to be supported and encouraged by teachers,” who often fail LGBTQ students when they are unable or unwilling to understand the plight of individual students. The third was “the right to participate in extracurricular activities that expand their horizons.” Often LGBTQ students do not participate in extracurricular activities as they may feel unsafe and discriminated against when trying-out for an athletic team or other club. The banning of Gay-Straight Alliance groups or absence of such a group also contributes to the inability to support this right of all students. The fourth and final issue discussed was “the right to adequate nutrition,” which is often compromised due to the cafeteria being one of the most prominent places for anti-gay bullying to occur in schools (Sadowski, 2010, p. 56-57). Workshops which allow teacher involvement and revolve around promoting respect and success of all students appear to be effective in promoting an understanding of LGBTQ students as well as knowledge of why their specific needs must be understood and supported in order to maintain a safe school environment.

    School Programs Promoting Diversity Education

    School programs and policies used to spread the anti-bullying message are being rewritten and reprogrammed in order to come up-to-speed with the everchanging social cultures and the changing populations of students. A newly-developed anti-harassment program focuses on the specific needs of students experiencing varying levels of harassment. Within this program, primary prevention focuses on all students and creates a general knowledge and understanding of sexual minorities. The secondary prevention targets at-risk students who may have experienced victimization but not to a great extent. The Tertiary Prevention focuses on students already experiencing a great deal of bullying and harassment due to their sexual orientation (Fisher et al., 2008). With this education program, students are grouped according to their individual needs, resulting in a more coherent school environment with a focus on knowledge of social issues and bullying threats that affect not only the at-risk sexual minority students but their heterosexual counterparts as well.

    Legal Support of LGBTQ Students

    The need for LGBTQ students to be protected both in and out of school has not gone unnoticed by legislators in the United States. One example is the Prevent School Violence Illinois Bill (SB5290, 2010). This bill requires teachers and administrators to take action against any bullying or victimization based upon a student “being different,” including those who identify as LGBTQ. Some laws require the school districts to develop their own anti-bullying techniques and programs, while others have mandated programs required by the state that educate students and teachers regarding diversity and the necessity of accepting and respecting those who are different.

    Summary and Conclusions

    Through review of various forms of literature focused on both victimization of LGBTQ students and the cultural competency of their teachers, it appears that although educators believe they are well informed of LGBTQ issues they often fail to intervene when anti-gay bullying occurs within schools. This creates an unsafe and unsupportive environment for LGBTQ students and prevents their heterosexual peers from learning about diversity and acceptance from teachers and administrators. With new legislation and efforts beginning at the school district-level, diversity training not only for sexuality but also for race, ethnicity, and religion can benefit students. Creating education courses based upon diversity issues at the pre-service education level prior to entering the field can help remedy the problem of teachers being incapable and untrained in handling issues that may arise surrounding bullying and discrimination in the classroom.


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