School Counselor and NEA Member Honored as GLSEN Educator of the Year

On May 20th, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national organization that focuses on providing safe schools for all students, recognized Matthew Beck—a school counselor at Erie Elementary School in Erie, Illinois—as its 2013 Educator of the Year.

According to GLSEN, “The Educator of the Year award recognizes an exceptional education professional who has enriched his or her community by ensuring that all students, particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students, are safe from bullying and harassment.”

Beck, a member of the Illinois Education Association, was honored for the extraordinary efforts he took in his own school and district to foster an environment that was supportive of all students. At the GLSEN Respect Awards in New York City, Beck shared the stage  alongside actor Kevin Bacon and NBA basketball player Jason Collins.

“In our efforts to ensure that every school is a safe learning environment for all students, GLSEN relies a great deal on the commitment and partnership of local educators,” Dr. Robert McGarry, GLSEN’s Director of Education, said in a statement. “Matthew’s story reminds us of how incredibly challenging the work of these partners can be in many places. As we recognize Matthew as our Educator of the Year, we not only celebrate his commitment and perseverance in doing what’s best for his students, but we thank him for being such a steadfast partner in our work.”

Beck’s advocacy began in 2012, after the Erie Community Unity School District school board banned all elementary school resources that taught respect for all students, including efforts to address bullying associated with anti-LGBT name-calling.

The ban extended to all GLSEN materials, family-inclusive reading materials, and the district’s schools’ participation in the widely endorsed and GLSEN-backed No-Name Calling Week. School staff and counselors were even told by the administration that they could not address LGBT issues with students, even if a student approached them with questions.

“The district sent out a directive basically saying that if students came up to us in the elementary setting and discussed having two moms or two dads, we could not affirm that or talk to them about that,” Beck says. “So that’s where my role as the school counselor came in, because I found that incredibly unethical.”

Beck reached out to a number of state and national organizations to help combat the district’s new policies. Working closely with GLSEN, The Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, and the Illinois Education Association, Beck took on his district’s hardline stance on GLBT issues.

His efforts paid off. While the district still maintained its ban, Beck was able to successfully get family diversity resources returned to the counseling offices of schools across the district. He was also able to spearhead his school’s continued participation in No-Name Calling Week, leading to a successful week of anti-bullying efforts to help teach students about the power of their words. And when the school continued it’s ban on GLBT-oriented reading materials, Beck organized out-of-school family reading nights to bring students and parents together who valued the effectiveness of these tools.

While Beck was able to make a meaningful difference in his school and district community, the district has still not lifted its ban on all GLBT resources. Even after Beck was recognized as GLSEN’s Teacher of the Year, the district would not acknowledge Beck’s award and told teachers they could not discuss it with their students.

Beck acknowledges that it’s an ongoing fight to ensure that the school community does not marginalize students and families because of their differences, but he knows that it’s worth it. By providing students with the resources and guidance that they deserve from their educators, Beck believes that an entire school community can, and will, benefit.

“It creates a positive environment, and It affirms students for who they are,” Beck says. “The research clearly demonstrates that students will have so much more success in schools if there is an environment that fosters acceptance of others.”