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Supporting LGBTQ Faculty: The School Counselor's Role
5/1/2011
Kandace VanWanderham
Sunday May 01, 2011
by: Kandace VanWanderham

Section: Inside Insight


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As school counselors, we should understand the unique issues of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) students. These students often struggle with their identities during adolescence, which can be an additional burden as they manage the normal teenage issues of independence, identity and role confusion, experimentation and emotional upheaval. LGBTQ students are often at higher risk for verbal and or physical harassment, academic failure, school truancy, dropping-out, homelessness, social isolation, and alcohol and/or drug use.

But what about LGBT faculty at your school? Should school counselors also be helping them? Is it ethical to provide support and services to them as well as to LGBTQ students?

Many LGBT faculty and/or staff also may experience anxiety in relation to working with colleagues they perceive to be intolerant. LGBT faculty may be affected by a hostile work environment, which could lead to feelings of isolation. They may also internalize shame or guilt about being LGBT and struggle to help other students for fear of consequences that would not apply to heterosexual teachers. Students may view these faculty members as being impersonal and cold, further affecting potential teacher-student relationships.

There is a strong connection between the emotional well-being of educators and student success. When LGBT staff feel they have straight advocates, they may feel more comfortable being themselves and may be a better, more effective part of the educational environment. One way school counselors can help is to serve as a bridge between students, faculty, administration, families and the community by promoting awareness and acceptance of all faculty for the sole purpose of meeting the needs of our students through a tolerant, effective and safe school climate.

In position statements and in its Ethical Code for School Counselors, ASCA provides a direction, which offers school counselors role definition and a path in working with LGBT faculty and staff.
ASCA’s position statement states, “Professional school counselors promote equal opportunity and respect for all individuals regardless of sexual orientation/gender identity. Professional school counselors work to eliminate barriers that impede student development and achievement and are committed to academic, personal/social and career development of all students.”

Unfortunately, there is considerable evidence to suggest some school counselors may fear advocating for LGBTQ youth and LGBT faculty because of potentially placing their own jobs in jeopardy and therefore feel powerless to help students. It is also possible school counselors may have similar feelings when deciding how to interact with LGBT faculty.

The preamble to ASCA’s Ethical Standards for School Counselors Preamble is quite clear regarding the role of school counselors in advocating for students: “School counselors create opportunities for equity in access and success in educational opportunities by connecting their programs to the mission of schools and subscribing to the following tenets of professional responsibility:

• Each person has the right to be respected, be treated with dignity and have access to a comprehensive school counseling program that advocates for and affirms all students from diverse populations including: ethnic/racial identity, age, economic status, abilities/disabilities, language, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity/expression, family type, religious/spiritual identity and appearance.

• Each person has the right to feel safe in school environments that school counselors help create, free from abuse, bullying, neglect, harassment or other forms of violence.

One way school counselors can model these ethical beliefs is in their interactions with LGBT faculty. Students create perceptions and make decisions about accepting other students and faculty by watching adults interact with each other and with students. If a school is perceived as intolerant in how faculty treat each other, then students may continue to believe in intolerance and may engage in discriminatory behavior. The school environment is a place to eliminate ignorance and not perpetuate discrimination. School counselors are in a position to advocate for the elimination of discrimination among all stakeholders within the school environment.

School counselors have been referred to as “change agents.” This role has been endorsed by ASCA and promoted in the ASCA National Model. School counselors are the best people in the best position to truly instigate change in a school environment because school counselors are so closely involved with all aspects and populations of a school community.

The Ethical Standards require school counselors to:
1. Treat colleagues with professional respect, courtesy and fairness; and to
2. Develop competencies in how prejudice, power and various forms of oppression, such as ableism, ageism, classism, familyism, genderism, heterosexism, immigrationism, linguicism, racism, religionism and sexism, affect self, students and all stakeholders.

So what is the role of the school counselor with LGBT faculty? Teachers’ well-being affects their classroom, which in turn affects student learning. Just as we offer support to teachers who have or are experiencing a divorce, a death in the family or any other types of crisis, school counselors should not shy away from supporting a teacher or staff member experiencing anxiety or other emotional issues that might be related to their sexual orientation. School counselors can offer support to LGBT faculty by providing a safe and confidential office environment. School counselors are in the position to listen, assess, refer to employee assistance programs if needed or offer referrals options if requested, just as one would with any person who enters our office looking for assistance. Just as one would with any student or faculty member, we believe it is important to “check in” with those teachers periodically to continue that support. Ultimately, we should support all teachers by promoting a professional, inclusive work environment where all can perform at their optimal level, free from discrimination and intolerance.

It should be clear school counselors should support other faculty members as colleagues and not enter into in a counseling relationship, as this is a violation of ASCA’s Ethical Standards, which state school counselors should “Avoid dual relationships with school personnel that might infringe on the integrity of the school counselor/student relationship.” Additionally, many school counselors are not licensed to counsel adults in a clinical capacity, which would also violate ethics regarding “scope of practice.”

School counselors are charged with playing an instrumental role in helping to create and maintain a safe, tolerant and welcoming school climate for all students. Additionally, the Ethical Standards state that school counselors “inform all stakeholders, including students, parents and guardians, teachers, administrators, community members and courts of justice, of best ethical practices, values and expected behaviors of the school counseling professional.” What should the “best ethical practices, values and expected behaviors of the school counseling professional” look like when involvement with LGBT faculty is concerned?

School Counselor Best Practices
As school counselors we know students are not the only people who arrive at our door in crisis. We believe school counselors should provide a safe place to share and listen for anyone who enters our office. However, we often find it easier to work with people when we are familiar with their experiences or have something in common with them. Unfortunately, many school counselors are unfamiliar with some of the special issues that surround the LGBTQ community, and many of these unresolved issues continue into adulthood. School counselors need to become knowledgeable about LGBTQ issues and about promoting a view of acceptance and understanding. An example of this is by having books or other materials in your office, in clear view, discussing issues related to LGBT or LGBTQ individuals.

Most school counselors aren’t licensed or qualified to counsel adults in a clinical or mental health capacity. Therefore, school counselors should not enter into counseling relationships but instead should be prepared to engage LGBT faculty by modeling the core principles established by Carl Rogers. These core conditions are demonstrating unconditional positive regard (respect for the person), empathy (a complete understanding of the person’s thoughts and feelings) and congruence (realness, genuineness). Modeling these principles doesn’t constitute providing therapy but is necessary in presenting a caring, supportive and safe environment for all individuals. Modeling these conditions in interactions with all persons allows the school counselor to be supportive, nonjudgmental and, as Rogers often proclaimed, “real.”

To meet our primary goal of providing the best education for all students we are obligated to provide, support and encourage environments where all students and staff feel safe and accepted. By supporting LGBT faculty, school counselors help students in the end. School counselors’ ultimate goal is to help create an environment where students can be academically successful. Being available to LGBT faculty can help model and create a more tolerant and safe learning environment for both faculty and students.

Kandace VanWanderham is a school counseling student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a teacher with Hoover City Schools, Birmingham, Ala. Lawrence Tyson, Ph.D., is an associate professor and school counseling advisor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.