If students don't feel comfortable in the classroom, they won't learn. In fact, they may not even show up to class, says Ryan Roemerman, executive director of the Iowa Pride Network, a nonprofit focused on strengthening the ties between gay and straight communities.
As the disturbing trend of bullying based on perceived sexual orientation grows—to the point of assaults and suicides— teachers need to be prepared to handle anti-gay remarks in high school classrooms.
While speaking to students about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues may be a little uncomfortable for some teachers, especially those who don't feel strongly about the matter, Roemerman says that's not the point.
"Just because you're intervening on a homophobic comment doesn't mean that you're necessarily trying to be an activist or anything like that," he says. "You're just trying to make sure that each child has a safe and supportive learning environment."
Some states have laws that protect LGBT students, which may make addressing homophobic slurs easier for teachers, Roemerman says. But teachers in every state can set up their own form of legislation within the classroom to prevent inappropriate remarks, he adds.
Roemerman suggests teachers host an open discussion with their class about what behavior and language students think is appropriate or inappropriate. Then, he says, each student signs an agreement to not use the language they deemed to be inappropriate.
If a student breaks the rules the class agreed on, the teacher can point to the document and say, "You agreed to this declaration. We all signed it as a class. You're not just offending me—you're offending everybody in the classroom," Roemerman says.
[Read how a quarter of a high school students are affected by bullying.]
With this student-signed agreement, there's less of a teacher versus student situation, Roemerman says.
If a student makes an inappropriate remark in front of the class, then the teacher should address him or her in front of the class, too. That way, the teacher makes it a "teachable moment," Roemerman says, and shows the targeted student that the situation was addressed.
Outside the classroom, teachers can support students they think are bullied by having a one-on-one conversation with them, says Roemerman. Instead of asking if they're being targeted or harassed, which may be a little off-putting to a student, he suggests asking a simple, open-ended question, such as "Hey, is everything OK?"
"A lot of it's about listening, because most of the time, students will fill in the gaps of information," he says.
If the student doesn't want to talk, the teacher can just tell him or her that they're always willing to listen.
"It's about making sure the student knows that you are providing a safe place for them," Roemerman says. "If nothing else, that they know there's a supportive, caring adult that is asking the right questions."