Meet Me Where I’m At

Using Coaching Skills to Educate School Staff in Supporting LGBTQ+ Students

When educators talk about meeting learners “where they’re at” or about adapting to the social emotional and cultural needs of learners, they are typically speaking of children. There is an assumption that adults in education are at the same place experientially and emotionally regarding what is best for children.

This casual assumption ignores the idea that adults come from different cultures, belief systems and different family backgrounds regarding some issues in schools and expecting them to support demographics of students they may not understand or with which they may have limited experience simply because they are adults can result in disappointment and be actively dangerous. Therefore, if we are going to engage members of the staff for whom these are moral issues and make our schools genuinely safe places for all students and staff we need to engage these learners where they’re at even though they’re adults.

It is not up to LGBTQ+ students and staff as the affected communities to educate school staff. That falls to coaches, leadership and allies among staff who are well positioned to reach their peers. One method of doing so is to bring the techniques of successful instructional coaching to coaching teachers towards change in this issue.

Why Whole-Staff Support Matters

Bringing the entire staff on board to support LGBTQ+ students and staff is an essential component of creating a safe environment in which all students thrive. School environment has a significant impact on the experiences of children’s lives beyond social impacts. The 2019 National School Climate Survey LGBTQ students found that children who were regularly victimized for their gender expression were three times as likely to be absent from school, had lower GPAs, and “were nearly twice as likely to have been disciplined” (GLSEN, 2020). Children victimized for their gender expression reported almost identical outcomes (GLSEN, 2020). If school districts publish districtwide goals that include nurturing lifelong learners, a school climate that does not fully address emotional and social safety for LGBTQ+ students does not support that goal.

School wide support has a beneficial effect for these students. Children in schools with a GSA or other similar groups in them were less likely to “hear ‘gay’ used in a negative way often,” and “to feel unsafe” or miss school (GLSEN, 2020). They are also more likely to report that school personnel intervened when hearing homophobic remarks,” however even in schools with a  GSA, that number is only 16.4% (2020). Despite this disconcerting lack of intervention, the impact of supportive adults in schools remains significant: 97.7% of LGBTQ students could identify at least one supportive staff member, and 66.3% knew of at least six supportive staff (2020). 

One potential goal for building a safe school climate is to find ways to encourage more staff to self-identify as supportive and to intervene in ways that help students thrive. Doing so means addressing each potential ally among the staff based on their cultural and social emotional needs within this important issue.

Staff Beliefs and Coaching Support

Engendering long term, genuine change in school cultures so that they are inclusive and allow all students to thrive requires meeting individual staff members where they are at regarding these issues, and meeting their needs. Below are some of the most common areas where staff may find themselves, and suggestions for how skills useful in instructional coaching can support these staff.

Staff with Moral & Religious Concerns

Coaching Skills: building trust, compassion, building safety, reflection

When attempting to work with staff who oppose openly LGBTQ+ individuals as part of their religious faith, allies often make the mistake of ignoring the importance of faith as a core identity, which is counter productive. As educator Mun Shing Cheong explains “Resistance to change happens when we feel that the call for change interferes with our core identity” (2021).

In this case, the coaching skill of engendering trust is essential, and in doing so we must make compassion a priority. Cheong asserts that “a sincere validation of one’s feelings, rooted in a heart for compassion can go a long way towards building trust,” and that doing so helps coachees feel safe with the coach and the process (2021). When an issue is as controversial as this one, safety and trust are paramount to successfully reaching educators as they navigate the growing presence of openly LGBTQ+ individuals in school settings.

Once trust has been established, allowing time for educators to engage in reflection and examination of best practices and advice from organizations that specialize in navigating religion and social change can increase the likelihood of change. One such organization is Christians for Social Action, which provides guidance for churches on many issues. One post, geared toward members of traditional churches reminds readers of shared core values such as love, repentance, and prayer (Lindsey, 2019). Their view includes several observations that correlate well with what educators often experience in schools, such as “parents should be the ultimate safety net for their children,” and that a lack of this love causes children harm (2019).

Staff Who Believe LGBTQ+ Issues Don’t Belong in Schools

Coaching Skills: listening, modeling and supporting reflection

The concern that LGBTQ+ issues don’t belong in school contains an inherent flaw, which is that LGBTQ+ students and staff are already members of the school population. A 2015 study found that 7% of millenials (a growing number of the workforce) identify as LGBTQ+, and trends suggest that the generation of children currently enrolled is even more comfortable with identifying as LGBTQ+ and with families or friends that are members of the LGBTQ+ community (Allen, 2018). Ignoring issues that affect them does nothing to remove these individuals from the schools. However, stakeholders in education in many areas come from this perspective and coaching them toward understanding requires meeting them where they are at and creating space for them to grow.

One important element we can apply initially in this situation is listening. Individuals who feel LGBTQ+ issues do not belong in schools may feel that way because they believe that the school doesn’t have any LGBTQ+ students or staff, sharing data may help.

Staff with Limited Exposure

Coaching Skills: providing resources, demonstrating integrity, building trust

When educators are unfamiliar with the LGBTQ+ community, it impacts the safety of LGBTQ+ students and students perceived as being LGBTQ. Educators intervene less frequently in incidents of bullying or harassment against this demographic than they do when it is related to more familiar issues such as racism, disability or religion (Minero, 2018). To address this unfamiliarity, coaches can engage in the coaching strategy of providing access to resources that provide context and information for educators who have limited experience in this area. The GSA Network recommends formal teacher trainings “where the GSA could help teachers learn about non-discrimination laws and increase their understanding of LGBTQ students and related issues” as a way to increase understanding of the experiences students in their classrooms face as members of the LGBTQ+ community (n.d.).

In addition to information, whole-school policies provide inexperienced teachers with guidelines for how to handle situations specific to this demographic of students. Examples of this include “guidelines for how to respond and be affirming when a student, staff member, or parent discloses that they are transgender to a staff member,” and “monitoring and evaluating implementation of policies, including updating policies” (Bartholomeus, 2017). Having clear guidance can help educators as they practice supportive skills.

Finally, coaches can increase trust and comfort by acknowledging that they are on a journey of growth themselves and may not have all the answers. Librarian, Karen Jenson models this behavior in discussing her experience working with transgender youth, saying “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in working with them and they have been gracious in helping me understand those mistakes” (2018). When coaches demonstrate honesty about mistakes and growth, they give coachees’ confidence and build the trust necessary for coachees to grow themselves.

Staff who are Allies but have a Victim Mindset

Coaching Skills: providing resources, communication, modeling reflection

Even when educators support the success of LGBTQ+ staff and students, they may not realize that doing so is more than minimizing bullying of these individuals, and that doing so limits their success. Depending on the culture of the community and school, full support for this demographic may necessitate moving beyond simply stopping resistance and bullying, “the dominant understanding of bullying fails to acknowledge heteronormative social systems of power that support acts of bullying targeted at LGBTQ and gender nonconforming students” (Payne and Smith, 2013). Bullying occurs as a functional part of a larger system in which heteronormative values force LGBTQ+ students into perpetual outsider status and therefore “LGBTQ youth are perpetually painted as victims, bullies as “bad kids” with inadequate social skills or abusive homes, and schools as negligent due to their ineffective methods of intervention” (Payne and Smith, 2013).

Shifting to a more expansive culture within schools where all students are welcomed and thrive requires educators to do more than interrupt “heterosexist or homophobic language or discourses” and instead engage in ally work, which “invites critical dialogue about homophobia and heteronormativity” (Thein, 2013). While some staff are comfortable doing the first, they are either uncomfortable or do not see the need for ally work, perhaps because they do not experience that need themselves. Realizing that need and meeting it requires a seismic mental shift for even the most supportive staff.

Because large shifts in mindset such as this require care, self-reflection, and time, coaching relationships may prove essential to their success. Coaches can support coachees by allowing space for conversation and reflection, by listening and engaging in critical discussions with coachees, and by providing information to support coachees throughout their journey.

In Conclusion

LGBTQ+ children are some of the most vulnerable, with serious suicide attempts at nearly 10 times the rate of their peers (Fitzsimons, 2020), making reaching and supporting their social and mental health an important consideration for schools. Fortunately, the tide is changing in how these children experience school. A 2019 GLSEN report found that several ways in which LGBTQ kids traditionally experience discrimination have declined (2020). Additionally, homophobic and negative remarks about gender expression by staff, which had increased in the previous 5 years, decreased in 2019 (GLSEN, 2020).

Although at its core this is an issue of student safety, it is impossible to create safe schools through one-size-fits-all forcibly implemented trainings. To build safe schools, one must first acknowledge the varied experiences and belief systems of the educators who run them. Then apply the techniques of academic coaching to support these educators as they develop and strengthen their knowledge and skills in this area. While this process is longer than a one-time training, and requires greater commitment, I believe that it is much more likely to engender meaningful, long-lasting change.


Allen, S. (2018, May 15). What Did You Learn at School Today? Homophobia. The Daily Beast.

Bartholomaeus, C., & Riggs, D. W. (2017). Whole-of-school approaches to supporting transgender students, staff, and parents. International Journal of Transgenderism, 18(4), 361–366.

Cheong, M. S. (2021, October 10). Successful Coaching Part 2: The Art of Changing Minds – The Techducator. The Techducator.

Fitzsimons, T. (2020, July 15). 40 percent of LGBTQ youth “seriously considered” suicide in past year, survey finds. NBC News.

GLSEN. (2020). The 2019 School Climate Survey.

GSA Network. (n.d.). Dealing With Hostility and Opposition. GSA Network: Resources. Retrieved October 17, 2021, from

Jensen, K. T. (2018, September 24). Things I Never Learned in Library School: Training Staff to Work with Transgender Teens. Teen Librarian Toolbox.

Lindsay, & Sarah. (2021, September 22). Loving LGBT People Well: 12 Suggestions for Traditional Churches. Christians for Social Action.

Minero, E. (2019, April 19). Schools Struggle to Support LGBTQ Students. Edutopia. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from

Payne, E. C., & Smith, M. J. (2012). Safety, celebration, and risk: educator responses to LGBTQ professional development. Teaching Education, 23(3), 265–285.

Payne, E. C., & Smith, M. J. (2017). Refusing Relevance: School Administrator Resistance to Offering Professional Development Addressing LGBTQ Issues in Schools. Educational Administration Quarterly, 54(2), 183–215.×17723426

Payne, E., & Smith, M. (2013). LGBTQ Kids, School Safety, and Missing the Big Picture: How the Dominant Bullying Discourse Prevents School Professionals from Thinking about Systemic Marginalization or . . . Why We Need to Rethink LGBTQ Bullying. QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, Fall, 1–36.

Thein, A. H. (2013). Language Arts Teachers’ Resistance to Teaching LGBT Literature and Issues. Language Arts, 90(3), 169–180.

*Note: title references the 2020 song “Meet me Where I’m At,” by The Trampolines, which includes lyrics particularly relevant to engaging in systemic change and the coaching process: “We break down the walls/ From inside the walls/ God meet me where I’m at now/ I don’t have the will to take the right track now/ I’m looking up for the path that you mapped out”

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