Parting COVID-19 Clouds: Partnering to Provide Rainbow Professional Development with School Staff in New Brunswick
Tuesday, November 9, 2021
School boards and districts across Turtle Island, such as the Anglophone South School District, recognize that rainbow students’ shine should not be eclipsed by COVID-19 clouds. Many Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) advisors have continued to provide regular club programming – in-person and/or online – to uplift students during cloudy pandemic days. GSA presence and/or participation is a key protective factor for 2SLGBTQIA+ youth; these clubs help youth find supportive staff, develop friendships with peers, experience 2SLGBTQIA+ affirmation and connection, and receive inclusive and equitable content and resources. As Stu Kearny, Quispamsis Middle School Counsellor and GSA advisor contends:
"Having GSAs in schools is vital…GSAs provide a safe space for students to just relax for a few minutes every week and feel... well... normal, like they are not contorting themselves to fit in. GSA students feel like they belong at the GSA meetings. Belongingness and the act of fitting are really contrasting ideas. When we belong, we don't have to change who we are, or omit parts of ourselves to feel like we are in the right space. When we belong we truly experience acceptance. GSAs provide that."
After a couple of stormy pandemic years, the Centre for School Mental Health, Western University, in partnership with the Anglophone South School District, collaborated to part COVID-19 clouds and deliver rainbow-infused professional learning to GSA advisors and counsellors to enhance their capacity to support 2SLGBTQIA+ youth. On October 7th, 2021, 22 high school educators and counsellors, as well as five success coaches and district administrators, gathered in-person to network with like-minded folks; reflect on club logistics, activities, and practices; discuss relevant policies; share experiences and expertise; and program plan.
This professional learning expanded on a prior online training (May 7th, 2021) when COVID-19 clouds rained out in-person meetings. The spring training was an interactive, discussion-based workshop that enhanced participants’ understanding of risk factors and resiliency among rainbow youth, and explored a promising intervention, The Healthy Relationships Program for 2SLGBTQIA+ Youth. Workshop attendees developed an understanding of the fundamental principles of the program and the focus of the individual sessions, experienced a variety of program activities, and engaged in practice facilitation. Heather Whittaker, Counselling Lead in the district and a key member of the Professional Learning (PL) planning team, believes that investing in 2SLGBTQIA+ related training facilitates capacity-building among staff and signals the importance of attending to the specific needs of rainbow youth:
"Providing our GSA leaders and counsellors with this training supports them in supporting some of our most vulnerable students. Our leaders know the importance of providing this safe space for our students and this program gives them an extra tool to educate and further support. We are excited to use this program in our schools and to see how it helps to further our growth in our district."
In terms of frontline staffs’ experiences with the PL, attendees appreciated connecting with and learning from their colleagues, seeing the program brought to life via session modelling and participation, and working with others to practice delivering a session:
"I thought this was a great opportunity to learn a little more about the resource and actually PRACTICE! I hope to make use of it in my role as a GSA facilitator and teacher for small group support. The discussion from participants was eye-opening and gave me more to think about, which I always appreciate!!"
"I appreciated getting to spend a day on this training. I feel like it is the best resource I have seen to deepen the structure of GSA meetings and can also see parts of it being implemented in the regular curriculum of classes."
The October 7th booster session explored HRP for 2SLGBTQIA+ Youth revisions (e.g., enhanced integration of interlocking Identities, Indigeneity, and intersectionality); successes and challenges with GSA formation and functioning; impactful, activities, initiatives, and events; standard GSA programming and structured HRP for 2SLGBTQIA+ Youth delivery; and ongoing supports and helpful resources. Attendees participated in a graffiti activity where they were asked to scribe successes and challenges with fulfilling four main GSA functions: safety, support, education, and advocacy. School staff voiced the importance of youth finding ‘their people, experiencing “Peer-to-peer education” and “hearing other students’ narratives.” They also spoke to the importance of having top-down and lateral support from various educational stakeholders, such as administrators, educators, counselors, custodians, parent(s)/guardian(s)/caregiver(s), and faith/religious groups. Their responses highlight how GSAs are ‘for and by’ youth; thus, attending to students’ “varied needs” and “meeting what everyone is looking for” are essential considerations to group development and functioning, as participants identified.
PL participants also received information on the district’s new policy and procedures that further emphasizes school staff’s duty of care for 2SLGBTQIA+ pupils. Heather Whittaker explains:
"Anglophone School District South has created policies to ensure all members of the school and district community are welcome, respected, accepted, and supported. Our District Improvement Plan, through Ends Policy 4, Goal 4.1, more specifically outlines the development of a strategic plan to promote diversity and anti-racism and to address heterosexism and discrimination by creating affirming cultures. Supported by the New Brunswick’s Department of Early Education and Childhood Development, Policy 713 Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity was also developed under a necessity to support the 2SLGBTQIA+ population. This policy sets minimum requirements for school districts and public schools to create a safe, welcoming, inclusive, and affirming school environment for all students, families, and allies who identify or are perceived as 2SLGBTQIA+."
Visiting two middle school GSAs was another beam of sunshine during my New Brunswick trip. Both groups were mighty, fun, and vibrant. First, I visited Quispamsis Middle School. I gave each student a progress pride flag and asked them what they liked best about their group. Without resolve, having a place to simply be, explore, and socialize were top priorities. The space and vibe in the room created a relaxing atmosphere to share and socialize. The second school I visited was Bayside Middle School. The group was curious, caring, and knowledgeable. Kids kept pouring into a medium-sized classroom during lunch to connect with each other and their primary advisor, Tiffany Sabin. She described the club as follows:
"We call it GSA, but it is so much more than Gay-Straight Alliance. It’s like a Gender Unicorn Alliance that gives anyone who wishes to join a supportive community that will welcome them just as they are…there is an understanding of fluidity and that gender, sexuality and expression aren’t binary or permanent. Allies and 2SLGBTQ+ kids learn together about terminology they can use to describe themselves. They have a safe space to try on a pronoun or use a label to see how it fits, and everyone is understanding if it changes the next week. Cis-gendered, heterosexual Allies learn that they can also describe themselves in ways that makes the space more inviting and inclusive to all. The group develops nicknames, inside jokes, and a sense of togetherness that spreads beyond the walls of our meeting room. They give each other smiles and elbow bumps when passing each other in the hallway. Each member knows that they have people spread around the school they can rely on. We begin each meeting with introductions (name, pronouns, and a little fact about themselves.) We never skip it. As the advisor, the most magical thing is when a student who may have been nervous initially and “passed” when it was their turn to introduce themselves finally introduces themselves. It isn’t always the name their teachers or peers use in the classroom and it may not be the pronoun others have heard used for them or they may use a term that isn’t well known, but they say it with pride and they get smiles and nods around the circle, and everyone has a quiet (or not so quiet) celebration for them, understanding how big of a moment that may have been for them. Then, they open up more and more with the group. GSA isn’t just a student group, it’s like a little family within our school."
It is clear that affirmative people, policy, and resources are abundant in the Anglophone South School District. It will take more than a stormy pandemic to stop bright, passionate, and supportive administrators, educators, counselors, and staff members from doing better by 2SLGBTQIA+ youth in formal and extracurricular teaching and learning spaces. As Roy T. Bennett declared, “It takes sunshine and rain to make a rainbow. There would be no rainbows without sunshine and rain.”