Can I Start a GSA as a Teacher?
Can I Start a GSA as a Teacher?
by Sara Schmidt-Kost
Hello fellow teacher!
It’s wonderful that you want to start a Gay-Straight Alliance (or Gender & Sexuality Alliance) to support your LGBTQIA students. You are correct that most GSAs are started by students, but it is also common for faculty to assist in starting a group in the hopes that students who need the support will join. Generally students need some sort of faculty advisor for their extra-curricular groups anyway, so it’s not weird for a faculty member to start one on their own. In addition, while High School GSAs are usually started by students, Middle School GSAs are mostly started by faculty.
This past year was my first at a new school, and previously their GSA hadn’t been very successful. I jumped at the chance to reboot the GSA and start anew. I was very lucky to have support from my Administration and staff to start the GSA at my school and an interested student population to join. There are challenges in starting a brand new GSA (or a GSA reboot), but it’s also incredibly rewarding to know you’re building something for students who need the community support.
As a faculty member starting a GSA, the biggest hurdle is gaining support from the Administration. You can, of course, go the route of “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission,” but if you want to keep your Administration in the loop, then it would benefit you to do some research first. Before meeting with your Admin, outline your proposal for a GSA, and utilize GLSEN and the ACLU as supports. According to the Federal Equal Access Act, if you teach at a public school, legally your Admin has to allow you to start the GSA—just as they would allow students or faculty members to start a Chess Club or a Robotics Club or a Cooking Club. Your state might also have additional protections for LGBT students.
It sounds from your letter that you anticipate some pushback from your administration or the community as you move forward starting the GSA. In preparation for that, it may be good to have talking points prepared, as the more data you have at your disposal, the easier it will be to refute any arguments that come your way. GLSEN conducts a National School Climate Survey to collect data regarding how LGBTQ students feel in their schools. According to these surveys, GLSEN has found that GSAs and other school-based supports improve school climates for LGBTQ students. In these improved climates, LGBTQ students hear less homophobic language, experience less victimization, and have more supportive staff and accepting peers. The data from GLSEN backs up what we as LGBTQ educators already know; that GSAs are important in order for LGBTQ students to feel safe and supported at school.
Once you have Admin approval, then you can start planning your GSA. What do you want it to look like? When and where will you meet? How will meetings run? There are many guides out there for starting a GSA, with lots of different ideas for you to try. Regarding the when and where, I’ve seen many different options at various schools I’ve taught at and visited. In my observations, GSAs usually meet in the faculty advisor’s classroom. If you don’t have a classroom at your disposal, you could also meet in the media center, a computer lab, or an open conference room.
Some schools, including my own, operate their GSA as an after-school group. These work well if your school already has other after-school groups and transportation for students after school. If transportation might be an issue, then you could run an in-school group during lunch, advisory, or homeroom. If neither of these would work in your school, you could try a before school option. This works well if your students arrive at school well before class begins.
One hurdle I faced this year was planning a meeting time that more students could attend. It seemed for my students that the day of the week I picked for our after school meeting often conflicted with other extracurricular activities. As a result I’m going to adjust our GSA time for the coming year. To reach the maximum number of students, you could also have multiple meetings—perhaps a weekly lunchtime GSA in your classroom, and then a larger once-a-month GSA time after school in the media center. You could also plan large events for the monthly slot, such as showing an LGBTQIA movie or having a pre-winter break coloring party.
Once you have the GSA planned and meeting times established, you’ll need to consider how to inform students of the meetings, and specifically how to reach those students that need it most. Many times, the students who need a GSA as a support system are reluctant to come or may face barriers to attending. If you have a prior relationship established with students you think would benefit from coming to a GSA, you can reach out to them individually. Posters around the school and announcements in the daily school announcements system also work to spread the word. To reach students at my school, I put a GSA slide into our daily announcements that are shown during advisory, and I include a GSA trivia question every week which sparks some additional interest, especially from staff.
Another good idea to reach more students is to include other faculty members. You can reach out to any support staff who work with students in crisis—counselors, social workers, nurses, etc—and ask them to invite students they identify who could benefit from GSA. Pro-tip: print up some small leaflets for the GSA with date/time/location and give them to the support staff to give to interested students.
With all your hard work, you’ll hopefully find that students who need the GSA will gravitate to your group! Best of luck to you!
Sara Schmidt-Kost is an out, queer Educator in Minneapolis, MN. She spent five years as a leader in the LGBT student organizations at St. Cloud State University where she completed her undergrad in Secondary Social Studies Education. Sara currently leads the after-school GSA at the high school where she works, and she is thankful for the opportunity to support her students as they grow into fully-functioning adults. She has also created a training workshop on LGBT Issues in Schools and has presented it to groups of Social Studies teachers, other educators, and students alike.