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An Elementary School’s Journey Fostering an Inclusive and Safe Space

By Michael Neumann and Tyler Shepard
An Elementary School’s Journey Fostering an Inclusive and Safe Space

(Photo source: Verdala International School)

In 2022, Verdala International School in Malta celebrated its first Pride month across every grade, PreK to Grade 12. The aim was to foster an inclusive and safe space where every child feels represented and respected. To achieve this goal, however, school staff and teachers, especially those who identify as LGBTQ+, had to lean into the uncomfortable. There were differing opinions on how or why to come out to students, and when the opening day of Pride month arrived, there were a lot of nerves among our “champions.”

At our school, “champions” are staff members who volunteer as the month’s leader or point person, largely facilitating the direction of student learning. This isn’t only for Pride month. At Verdala, we follow a diversity, inclusion, and wellbeing (DIW) calendar. Each month is devoted to a distinct theme, focusing on various social issues and celebrations in areas such as:

  • Neurodiversity
  • Earth and Sustainability
  • World Religions
  • Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)
  • International Languages
  • Women’s History
  • Health and Wellbeing

Particularly in the elementary section, the exploration of the DIW calendar is integrated into our “Friday Focus” program. This program weaves together DIW themes with student-driven interests and preferences. Each month, our aspiration is to engage students' investigative abilities, encouraging them to delve into the DIW theme in ways that are personally meaningful.

June’s theme for the school’s DIW calendar is dedicated to the area of LGBTQ+, with our “Friday Focus” program central to our Pride month initiatives. This is a focus across our school because LGBTQ+ students globally report higher rates of violence and harassment at school than their non-LGBTQ+ peers, with instances ranging from 16 percent in Nepal to 85 percent in the United States (United Nations, 2016). At Verdala, we confront these challenges not only during Pride month but all year long. Our goal is to create a school culture where all students feel seen and safe at school.

Despite efforts by school leadership to support LGBTQ+ students and staff and being in Malta, the number one country in Europe for LGBTQ+ protection and human rights (Times of Malta, 2023), the first school Pride event brought up feelings of more than just excitement. There was hesitation, anxiousness, and worry. Members of the LGBTQ+ community struggled to feel proud, especially with fears of judgment, harassment, or harm accompanying actions or words which reveal a person’s sexuality. However, talking to students about the struggle to feel proud as an LGBTQ+ individual opened the month of conversations in an authentic way. In the year since that first whole-school Pride month, we’ve found more ways to involve families in our school’s journey with LGBTQ+ representation. Parent sessions cover topics such as what Pride looks like at our school, key terms of LGBTQ+, and general questions, comments, or concerns.

Examples of Social Justice Standards (Teaching Tolerance, 2016) in action. (Photo source: Verdala International School)

Now in our second year, we're honing in on the theme of representation. To guide student learning this month, we use the Social Justice Standards (2016) from the Teaching Tolerance organization. Kindergarten to Grade 2 will focus on areas such as recognizing, appreciating, and representing similarities and differences in families. Grades 3 through 5 have standards which ask students to recognize how life can be easier or harder for some people based on who they are and where they were born.

Kim Wong, a kindergarten teacher, reading the story And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. (Photo source: Verdala International School)

We kicked off “Friday Focus” by discussing the LGBTQ+ flag, why Verdala chooses to fly one at our entrance, and the messages it sends. Subsequently, students participated in story-reading sessions emphasizing LGBTQ+ representation. Students returned to their classrooms equipped with the voice and choice on how they wanted to learn about and represent the LGBTQ+ community. What follows now is three weeks of inquiry into LGBTQ+ representation. Student inquiry inspirations include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Celebrity Spotlight: students may research LGBTQ+ celebrities.
  • Sports Hour: students might want to create a news show/report about prominent LGBTQ+ athletes and their accomplishments.
  • Crafts: students may make their own rainbow creations to let others know our school is a safe place for all.
  • Country Research: students may research the laws of various countries and how they impact the LGBTQ+ community.
  • Library Corner: students can look for and celebrate representation of LGBTQ+ characters or figures in our school libraries.

Besides these options, students are encouraged to explore other meaningful ways to learn about LGBTQ+ representation. For more inquiry inspirations, resources, and social justice standards, please check out this resource.  

A student showing different flags that represent diverse LGBTQ+ communities. (Photo source: Verdala International School)

In addition to the “Friday Focus” dedicated hour, we are also providing information videos. We started off with the head of school exploring the reason behind the decision to display the pride flag next to the school flag at our entrance. Each day following explores a different letter in the acronym LGBTQ+, highlighting what each letter stands for and what those labels can mean. The purpose of each video is to recognize and represent diverse identity groups that students might not be exposed to. And, in an effort to continue family involvement, we had a parent information meeting to model our “Friday Focus” entry point and allow time for parents to imitate the inquiry work their own students will do over the course of the month.

A student shows their Pride football armband. (Photo source: Verdala International School)

Pride month presents an opportunity for students and families to challenge biases and misconceptions, fostering a deeper understanding of the LGBTQ+ community. It also gives school staff an opening to share their personal experiences and be their authentic selves. Through our school-wide celebration of Pride, we aim to cultivate an atmosphere of inclusivity where every member of our community feels valued.

Wherever your school may be on its journey with LGBTQ+ representation, here's to a month of learning, inclusivity, and pride!



Arena, J. (2023). Malta retains top ranking for LGBTIQ rights but loses points on lapsed strategy. Times of Malta.

Teaching Tolerance. (2016) Social Justice Standards - Learning for Justice.

United Nations. (2016). Out in the open—Education sector responses to violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.

Michael Neumann is an elementary assistant principal at Verdala International School in Malta. 

Twitter: @MichaelInSchool
LinkedIn: Michael Neumann

Tyler Shepard is a Grade 2 teacher at Verdala International School in Malta. 

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