How to Be an Ally and Upstander in Your School

Let’s face it. There are a lot of differing views in the world today. When I came into education, I wanted to be a mentor and give students the chance to have one more teacher who looked like them (multicultural, curly hair, etc.). I still believe students are looking for a sense of connection and belonging in school.

We heard it all during the COVID-19 pandemic: “Maslow before Bloom.” And yet, we continue to have levels of hatred and bias toward marginalized groups of people. 

As we celebrate Pride Month this June, we must take a step back and ask ourselves, why do we celebrate “months”?

Black History Month … Women’s History Month … Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month … Hispanic Heritage Month … Disability Awareness Month … Autism Awareness Month … Pride Month.

Well, it is because these are marginalized groups that are not seen in mainstream culture. The reason we celebrate is because we have come a long way in the United States, but we still need work to elevate voices and place value on differences — respecting differences of others without sitting in judgment. 

Sadly, individuals (including myself) have been bullied or treated unfairly because of how they look, the color of their skin, texture of their hair, their ability status, or how they present to the world through gender orientation, sexuality, or who they are romantically attracted to. 

As educators, we can highlight Pride Month and other “months” in our classrooms and schools as a way to uplift and spotlight various cultures and groups so ALL students will feel a greater sense of belonging.

Why Students Need Allies

Here are some sobering facts from the Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health:

  • 73% of LGBTQ youth reported symptoms of anxiety in 2022 (up from 68% in 2020);
  • 58% of LGBTQ youth reported symptoms of depression in 2022 (up from 55% in 2020);
  • 45% of LGBTQ youth considered suicide in 2022 (up from 40% in 2020).

There are many ways to be an ally for students no matter the continuum of your comfort level and the comfort level of LGBTQ+ topics in your school. One example of how to support students is through mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors (Bishop, 1990). This is a term coined by Rudine Sims Bishop to embrace multiculturalism in literature.

We can take this idea and transfer it to many components of how our students engage in our classroom.

  • Mirrors: Do students see themselves reflected in the curriculum and instructional materials?
  • Windows: Can students look through the window and see other worlds and cultures reflected in the curriculum and instructional materials?
  • Sliding Glass Doors: Does the instructional experience and curriculum allow students to enter that world as well?

Let’s take this a little further. When students come into our classroom, gym, or the hallways near our instructional spaces, do they see themselves and others in pictures and instructional diagrams? Do students explore different cultural games and activities in physical education? Do they explore different cultures and sexual orientation in health education class?

For example, in the nutrition unit, are the foods represented isolated to traditional American food or do they highlight other cultures like Ethiopian, Brazilian, Latino/a, and many more? Likewise, when discussing families, are all family types represented? Single parents, students raised by grandparents, foster and adoption, families with same sex parents, and so on?

Are students allowed time and space — in a welcoming environment — to share who they are, their cultures and backgrounds, how they identify (if they are comfortable and out), or their family structures? My favorite elementary book is The Family Book by Todd Parr. Using this shows different families for our students.

These are just some ways to help think about what we can do to help students see themselves in our classrooms and learning spaces.  

8 Ways to Be an Ally

As a cisgender, heterosexual woman married to a cisgender heterosexual man, I can’t lie and say I am in the affinity group of the LGBTQ+ community. I can say that I am an ally and upstander. Here are some of the things I do — and you can do — to be an ally for your students and others:

  1. Use the correct language. Start paying attention to what you say. Learn about the correct language. Think about what it could mean to individuals in a marginalized group or community or how it could be taken out of context. We should all know to avoid generalizations and stereotypes because they are not the true narrative of every human being.
  2. Use appropriate names of students. Ask students for the correct pronunciation of their name and learn to say it right. 
  3. Use appropriate pronouns of students. You don’t have to have an activity where everyone shares their pronouns, but if a student wants you to use a different pronoun for them, don’t correct them. Believe them and support them. 
  4. Be willing to accept corrections. You may not have meant harm by what you said, but if it came across that way to another individual, be open to corrections. 
  5. Be intolerant of intolerance. Be willing to be an upstander through standing up against hate speech toward the LGBTQ+ community. If we don’t speak up, the silence is viewed as acceptance. Our students see that and feel hurt when other students say, “That’s so gay” and it is not corrected in the hallway, locker room, or classroom. Stand up for our students. 
  6. Educate yourself. Seek out marginalized voices and perspectives different from your own. This could be through activism, community events for Pride Month, visiting museums, book studies, and professional development. 
  7. Educate your community. Do not underestimate the power of your voice to correct negative words and foster a community that shows respect and love for all people.
  8. Provide a safe space. If you are able, you can put a safe space sticker in your classroom to let LGBTQ students know they can come to you as a trusted adult.

No matter where we are in the world today, all of our students (and our coworkers) need a sense of belonging and a place to be loved and accepted. As educators, we must make sure that school is that place for them. We can connect them to resources and tools — and practice speaking up and speaking out to advocate for self and others. 

Additional Resources

Cara Grant

Cara D. Grant, Ed.D., C.A.P.E., is supervisor of PreK-12 Adapted Physical Education, Health, and Physical Education in the Office of Curriculum and Instructional Programs for Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. Additionally, Cara is professional development coordinator for the University of Maryland College Park Physical Education Teacher Education Program (part-time). She currently serves as SHAPE America president-elect. She can be reached at