Survey calls us to ‘do better’ for students

Adela Talbot // Western NewsEducation PhD candidate Jenny Kassen sees a recent Thames Valley District School Board survey as the latest opportunity to “do better” by all students, particularly those who identify as transgender or outside of the gender binary.

When it comes to teaching – whether that of current and future teachers, students or administrative members of London’s Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) – Jenny Kassen’s approach echoes the words of poet Maya Angelou.

We do what we can with what we know, and when we know better, we do better.

It is a directive Kassen is uniquely positioned to answer.

In addition to being a TVDSB supply teacher, Kassen delivers the board’s professional development programming on LGBTQ+ issues and instructs a Western BEd course, LGBTQ+ Issues in Education. The Education PhD candidate’s academic work also explores the experiences of trans and gender-diverse youth when accessing mental-health supports.

In all those roles, Kassen sees a recent TVDSB student survey as the latest opportunity for school boards to “do better” by all students, particularly those who identify as transgender or outside of the gender binary.

Gauging student perceptions of school engagement, safety and environment, the biannual survey allowed students to self-identify as male, female or other. Students who identified as neither male nor female scored the lowest on perceptions of emotional safety, mental health, bullying, cyberbullying and overall safety.

More than 10,000 high school students participated in the survey, representing nearly half of the board’s student body.

“This survey is useful; it’s confirming what other research has highlighted across the board. Trans and gender-diverse youth are suffering – their mental health and well-being in schools is suffering, in a place that is supposed to be one of the safest places for them,” Kassen said.

While the survey indicates trans and gender-diverse youth don’t feel adequately supported at school, Kassen, who identifies as non-binary, acknowledges the results are a step in a positive direction for the board.

“We have youth who are identifying (as non-binary), who have an awareness of their mental health, which in and of itself is a really good thing. They are able to say, ‘Hey, over here, we are not doing so well.’ That means there is a need within the student success teams in schools to pay attention to the specific needs of that demographic, to learn about how students are accessing mental-health supports provided to them in schools and whether or not those are meeting their needs.”

The survey presents an opportunity for Kassen to engage pre-service teachers with real-time concerns and challenges all school boards will continue to face in the wake of the provincial government’s changes to the sex-ed curriculum.

“You see teacher candidates who want to support LGBTQ+ youth. But, for a lot of them, this is the first time they are even deconstructing the acronym. You have teachers who want to support students, who are so enthusiastic about getting things right and doing everything they can. But there’s a fear now that everything we’ve worked towards could be taken away at any moment by the government. Students are seeing their visibility taken away, bit by bit. Even as a staff member, it’s scary,” they said.

“When I go into schools, I am as out as possible – to a certain extent. I use my first name because I can’t guarantee my students know the gender-neutral honorific “Mx.” I can’t guarantee I will be safe in that space. It’s a complicated time right now for everybody.”

In light of curriculum changes and survey results, Kassen stressed looking at where improvements can be made to support gender-diverse and LGBTQ+ students. Working within budget confines, they see mandatory, generalized training of teachers and teacher candidates as a starting point.

Both the training Kassen offers at the school board and Education course are electives. But training all adults who interact with students will help improve supports offered to gender-diverse and LGBTQ students, Kassen noted.

“If you increase awareness and sensitivity amongst admin, and anyone in the system, you’re starting with people who are going to be receptive to requests from students. Staff might even anticipate those requests. Ideally, that’s what we would like to have – take that labour off the youth, asking them to say, ‘Hey I’d like to use a different washroom,’” they said.

“(The survey) doesn’t show us everything. It was broken up into male, female and other – but there are all kinds of identities lumped into “other.” The (results) are a really great starting point. It’s like an area code; it gives us a general location but we haven’t gotten to the specific addresses yet to take on specific issues.

“It’s a really good starting point, but there is some untangling to be done there.”

This is a time for school boards to self-reflect, Kassen said. What are students communicating about school environments? What other questions need to be posed, and to whom? Are school-specific focus groups needed? What aren’t schools hearing?

“We can’t wait for more students to come forward. We have a sufficient amount of evidence that says we need to be doing more. We have pre-service teachers who want to do that work; we have in-service teachers who want to do that work. It’s finding a way of getting everybody to do better.”