Though my time abroad was brief, I learned that inspiring students starts with creating spaces where all students feel safe and supported.
While studying art teaching at the Queen's Faculty of Education my instructor, Alan Wilkinson, dedicated a whole class to discussing how we as arts educators can specifically support LGBTQ2IA students. At the time I didn't realise how relevant and important this conversation was. We reflected on how the Art Room regularly becomes a safe space for marginalised students, a place where they feel most comfortable, and as the teachers in that room we need to be prepared to support the students who may need it more than others. They might gravitate towards us because of the room we are in, but we can do many things to make the space safe as well.
I think that the Art Room has an innate ability to create a safe space, the teacher can guide and support it, but it’s driven by the subject. Historically, those who have felt marginalised and unseen have gravitated towards the arts. Caitlin Moran, in a column for The Times, talks about how major cultural and political breakthroughs for marginalised groups happened first in pop-culture. The arts are ready with arms wide open to those who needs them. In the Art Room students are not only encouraged but celebrated when they explore new themes and express their own feelings in their work. As Arts Educators we can help, but we’re really just making sure there’s nothing in the way of this already rolling ball.
As I was preparing my class in Sweden this idea was in the back of my mind, but I was far more concerned with running my room and teaching 500 students. I didn’t know that this school had no GSA or equivalent club, I didn’t know the extent to which my students needed a safe and welcoming space. However, as Alan advised and predicted, the very first IES Halmstad LGBTQ+ club was born in the Art Room.
Looking back now, the first part of my very first term as a really real teacher blew by in such a whirlwind. Seeing each of my students once a week and trying to establish new routines and expectations in the Art Room kept me on my toes. I quickly realised that my students did not have enough time to complete their work in class and I started holding an “extra class,” a tutorial, on Thursdays after I was finished teaching. Although only officially scheduled from 3-4pm, students usually joined me from 2 until 6pm (when the school was locked, and we had to leave). We played music and worked on whatever it was we needed. This was a time for students to complete work, get help, or try new things. We played music, and sang, laughed and created. We supported each other in a peaceful, productive, and relaxing environment. Depending on what students needed I either helped them with their work or also used the space as a studio to work – drawing on the board or completing my own tasks. As soon as I started this open studio, I had a group of year 6 students who came to work every week. This was our space, we had a routine and we all benefited from it, some more than others.
In January, two year 6 boys decided to form the first ever IES Halmstad LGBTQ+ club. One of these brave boys, Vilgot, had shared that he was needing some support and didn’t know where to find it, and if he was feeling this way he knew that others also needed it but were too shy or afraid to ask. He felt it was his responsibility to create this space for others. Originally, I attended to support the students who I had grown to know during extra class, but I was soon adopted as their staff sponsor. The first meeting was held in the library but felt too public and busy, so we moved to the art room. We had discussions about topics and issues facing LGBTQ+ youth in our school and abroad. We talked about definitions and taking action. We talked about how we could make a difference, and what being strong and being an ally really meant.
The group had lofty goals of fundraising and activism / awareness campaigns in the school. There were discussions of a “Rainbow Takeover” that we couldn’t get off the ground in our freshman year but I’m sure will happen soon. We made and sold over 50 friendship bracelets reading “ALL ♥ IS GOOD ♥” in support of Halmstad Pride. Our club marched in the Halmstad Pride Parade. We maintained the LGBTQ+ display outside the cafeteria that promoted a safe school and positive discussion.
Although these are all really great things, they’re small potatoes compared to the personal growth and bravery shown by these kids. The space that we created in the art room and the conversations we had helped these students grow and show levels of confidence and bravery that deeply affected me and many others at the school. These were students who were struggling to just find a space where they felt welcome and heard and by the end of the year were expressing themselves in ways I’m not sure even they could have predicted 10 months earlier. After the club got underway we had students joining and feeling safe to express their true selves. The club created an environment in the school where students felt safe to experiment with their identity and talk about things that really concerned or were worrying them. Students who felt alone before now had a little family at the school, and a room where they knew they were safe.
I take no responsibility or credit for what these students were able to create. The space and the people in it were products of something bigger than all of us. I know that this group is full of power and bravery that I did not posses at their age, and I’m not even sure I do now. They built their own support network where and when they needed it. I feel honoured that I was able to participate in such a life-changing experience. This group was some of my hardest good-byes when I left the school, there were many tears and hugs. But I know, without a doubt, that these kids will carry-on this work and keep building this safe space, now that they’ve started they’re unstoppable and I’m just lucky I got to be a part of the start.