Small Steps: Teaching During Section 28 and Beyond

Janine Norris, Lesbian, teaching

A Random Thoughts Post by Janine Norris

Don’t get me wrong, the insults still come thick and fast. Most recently I have mainly been ‘a short-haired, lesbian bitch!’ My general response to this is something along the lines of ‘You can’t insult me with fact and I’m not always a bitch’.

I began teaching, like a real grown-up, in 1993 in a school just outside Great Yarmouth. I have to say, it was a complete shock to my system. How had this happened? Me, in charge of classes of thirty children? However, here I was, a teacher! An actual teacher! I was twenty-three.

My first position was maternity cover for two terms. I had been employed through sheer desperation on the school’s behalf. I had had a few interviews but been completely unsuccessful and this invitation to interview came on the day of my graduation. It was a standing joke throughout the eleven years I stayed at this school that I was ‘the best of a bad lot’. The morning interviewee was so bad that they had to choose me.

It was the start of an epic adventure; my release to freedom; not having to answer to anyone else except myself.

It was here I met my first girlfriend. Thirteen years older than me, an experienced teacher with an amazing sense of humour and a nice car. I mean, I wasn’t into material things but she had everything I aspired to achieve during my career. She was bright, great with the kids and an amazing teacher.

“Once the kids started doing as they were asked and stopped throwing chairs and tables, I would be bored and I knew it was time for a new challenge.”

It was 1995 when we got together. Section 28 of the Local Government Act had been introduced to England, Scotland and Wales in 1988 as an amendment (section 2A) to the Local Government Act, 1986. On the 24th May 1988, the amendment stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

Although I didn’t realise it at the time, this added a tremendous pressure to our relationship as we felt we had to hide everything we were during school hours. We had a handful of friends and very close colleagues who knew we were a couple but that was it. The act was repealed in England on 18th November 2003. We separated after 9 and a half years together in the spring of 2004.


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Through my Teacher Training years in Lincoln, I struggled with the academic side of things. I was lucky enough to get a place at college because of my music qualifications. I had struggled to pass A levels, took 3 years to do so, but at the time primary schools needed music teachers.

When I arrived at college, I realised that the standard of musician in my class was far superior to myself. I wasn’t an academic, I wasn’t a virtuoso musician, I scraped through graded exams and academic exams by the skin of my teeth. Sitting still to revise, write essays or practice instruments wasn’t my thing.

However, none of this really mattered due to the turn my primary teaching career took quite early on. For some reason, I always got on really well with the ‘naughty boys’. (There appeared to be no naughty girls back then.) So I ended up with classes of these challenging students and was encouraged by my first headteacher to establish an in-school inclusion class to accommodate the more emotional needs of the students. Nothing I learnt or studied in college or on any teaching practices prepared me for this. I just seemed to have a knack of engaging the group in things where they enjoyed being at school.

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I became a victim of my own ‘success’ and moved through various jobs in various settings. ‘Success’ meant once the kids started doing as they were asked and stopped throwing chairs and tables, I would be bored and I knew it was time for a new challenge.

I moved across Key Stages (lower and higher) and found that I really enjoyed teaching teenagers. They set the challenge a lot higher for me to work on their behaviour management strategies; every day was exhausting. Also, there were now ‘naughty girls’.

This was something I was not expecting. Girls were so much more difficult than boys. Boys would punch each other, throw a table and get over it. Girls held a grudge. For a long time. Even longer than a long time. I went through some traumatic times during this new challenge. I was bullied by students (and staff actually, but that’s another story), mainly the girls, but sometimes boys. One boy in particular enjoyed telling me at the end of a tough day, ‘I hope you die in a ditch on your moped on the way home tonight.’ Charmer.

The girls were more dangerous, though. I wasn’t open about my sexuality amongst the students, but they obviously knew I was gay. Doc Martens, short hair, riding a moped – it’s obvious, I guess. There was a group of girls who would insinuate inappropriate behaviour, subtle, but it was there. I heard them discussing me one day where they decided I would ‘probably like the Britney Spears video where she’s dressed as a school girl.’ Honestly, I’m gay, this doesn’t make me a paedophile. I hear this a lot, through misunderstanding and fear of not understanding, boys and girls making assumptions about homosexuality that are completely untrue and unfounded.

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Three years ago I was fortunate enough to join the school I work at now. It’s Alternative Provision and it’s amazing. The ethos of the whole environment is ‘transparency’. I found myself becoming brave enough to join in conversations with adults and students and refer to my ‘partner’. Shortly after I joined, I began to drop the ‘girlfriend’ word. I expected a huge, negative response. This didn’t happen. It became part of everyday conversation for the students to refer to my girlfriend, mostly in the context of ‘are you as annoying as this at home? Your girlfriend must get well fed up of you.’

“We have created an ethos within our establishment now, not purposely, by evolving, where the kids are of the opinion that ‘we don’t care whether you’re gay, trans, whatever, stop banging on about it’.”

Don’t get me wrong, the insults still come thick and fast. Most recently I have mainly been ‘a short-haired, lesbian bitch!’ My general response to this is something along the lines of ‘you can’t insult me with fact and I’m not always a bitch.’ These insults are no worse than being called a ‘fat cow’ or ‘a bald see you next Tuesday’. The kids want to get personal so they go for the things they think will upset you the most.

We have created an ethos within our establishment now, not purposely, by evolving, where the kids are of the opinion that ‘we don’t care whether you’re gay, trans, whatever, stop banging on about it’. We have explained the oppression and the history and the factors surrounding Section 28 and they understand that, but in their minds, because they see it every day and recognise that everyone is the same, it’s time to move on. Fair enough.

Obviously, they have yet to see the evils of transphobia, homophobia, etc., in the wider world, but I’m hoping that each of these individuals will stand up and be counted if they are ever unfortunate enough to witness an incident of this type of abuse.

Big journeys begin with small steps.

Janine was born in Leeds in 1970 to working-class parents, the middle of 3 children. She graduated from Teacher Training College in Lincoln in 1993 and has taught in Norfolk and Suffolk ever since. janinenorris70@wordpress.com

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