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‘There’s No Learning Without Safety’

As incidents of racism and LGBTQ discrimination persist, educator-trainer Toni Smith works to create safe schools for all students.

Toni Smith still remembers a school day in the early 1970s, when she witnessed the end of a colleague’s career. “I watched the school security people come in and march [him] out—they wouldn’t even let him clean out his desk—because a student’s family had complained that he was gay,” she recalls.

Smith, president of the Georgia Association of Educators-Retired, also recalls the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) students she has seen navigate the treacherous waters of secondary school without a sense of safety or support.

Toni Smith has trained countless colleagues to create safer and more supportive classrooms for students. Credit: Toni Smith

With their success in mind, Smith joined NEA’s LGBTQ Issues cadre and its cultural competence and social justice cohorts more than a decade ago. Over the years, she has inspired and trained thousands of NEA members across the U.S. to create school climates that support all students.

Her hope? “That something we’ve said or done impacts practice, that it leads an institution to change their school climate to make it more inclusive, to make it more accepting, to make it a place where children feel safe,” she says. “There’s no learning without safety. There’s no learning without acceptance and inclusion.”

And schools are the perfect place to shape the world we want to live in, she says. “It’s the one experience shared by every person in this country...It’s the great equalizer.”

Today, as incidents of racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-LGBTQ hatred in schools persist, the work of NEA educator-trainers like Smith is more critical than ever. Since 2015, the trainers have reached more than 5,000 NEA members in free workshops, provided upon request, on topics such as cultural competence and diversity— using student-centered, research-based tools.

It can be challenging, says Smith, who “retired” in 2004 after 32 years. In cultural competence training, she and her partners ask educators to uncover their biases and recognize their privilege. “There’s the issue of white fragility,” Smith says.

“When you say the word ‘privilege,’ people automatically put the word ‘white’ in front of it, but that’s not what we’re talking about at all. I use myself as an example of somebody with privilege. I’m middle class, I have an advanced degree, I’m heterosexual, and married. I also have disadvantages—I’m black, female, and handicapped.”

When educators examine their own biases and privileges, they start to think about students as whole people—not just as black students, or Native American students.  This enables connections that can shape lives, she says. “[Teaching]  is the most important work a person can do.”

Meanwhile, since that pivotal day so many decades ago, Smith has seen progress around LGBTQ issues. “In the early years, I saw more resistance. People sometimes were antagonistic, angry that they had to sit there and listen to trainings about gay people...Sometimes this would be the first time a person had heard the word ‘lesbian’ spoken aloud—it was a bad word,” she says. “That’s changed. Now you have television [shows] with gay characters and stars who are trans-gender. You hear about LGBTQ issues on the news. The vocabulary isn’t as much of a challenge.”

Interested in a training with NEA Human and Civil Rights trainers? Learn more at

National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.