Helping teachers navigate mixed media messages and expectations

The practices schools adopt to support LGBTQ students, particularly in religious schools, and the reaction of various individuals and public groups, often receive significant media attention. The voices of parents, school administrators, religious leaders, and government officials often vie against each other, presenting a confusing mix of concerns and calls for action. For Zac Wierzbicki, understanding how teachers can navigate this tumult and controversy was part of his 2016 PURE award-winning research, under the supervision of Dr. Tonya Callaghan.

Zac’s project investigated the media accounts of LGBTQ initiatives across Commonwealth countries, such as the Alberta Government’s ‘Guidelines for Best Practices,’ which was implemented to improve LGBTQ students’ quality of education in Catholic schools. The study found these media portrayals were most prevalent during periods where school boards or government bodies engaged with LGBTQ topics. By analyzing the language and stakeholder responses within news reports, the study discovered intriguing patterns to negative responses to LGBTQ initiatives across the various countries, particularly in the UK and Canada.

Importance of Language

According to Zac’s research, how the issues are framed in the media and in the classroom is critical to how the message is received. Even for decisions that represent similar outcomes in policy and practice, the language employed could drastically change the reception.

Finding the line between government mandate and parental rights was frequently a source of contention in the media.  Policies and articles that centered the discussion of issues impacting LGBTQ students on concerns for ‘human rights’ and ‘equality’ were often associated with political agendas, and elicited strong reactions against the perceived ‘indoctrination’ of students.

However, the same ideas framed as promoting ‘student welfare,’ or the objective coverage of homosexuality as a reality in a pluralistic society, garnered more support. Helping the public to understand the intention and implementation of such policies through purposeful language is essential to ensuring its establishment.

Helping Teachers

The findings also revealed that teachers’ responses to LGBTQ issues can be greatly impacted by the clarity of direction and support from school boards. Previous research highlighted that teachers faced uncertainty addressing LGBTQ issues, particularly when policy and language make the topic difficult to take up. Empowering educators to constructively engage with public interests, and act within policies that nurture inclusive classrooms, can help develop pedagogies that meaningfully respect students’ contexts.

Understanding how legislation and education can address the destructive outcomes of bullying and discrimination against LGBTQ students, in spite of the potential backlash, was a central component of the project. Zac plans to continue his project in two ways:

1) Helping teachers to better navigate engaging with parents when issues of sexual orientation and identity emerge in the classroom, and

2) Examining how the arts can empower student voice regarding LGBTQ issues.

For Zac, finding that these media articles often get away from the core issue – how these decisions impact LGBTQ students and their day-to-day lives – was key. Inspired by the work Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, social justice is a key interest for Zac, and played a considerable part in his decision to become a teacher.

In the Media

Read more about Zac and the other 2016 Werklund PURE award winners here