Award-winning College of Education doctoral student hopes his story will inspire future school counselors
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Matt Beck at the GLSEN awards
Matthew Beck received the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network's Educator of the Year Award. Photo courtesy of Matthew Beck.

The Erie, Ill., elementary school where new University of Iowa College of Education doctoral student Matthew Beck worked was facing a problem last year: students were using words like “gay” in a derogatory way and school leaders were worried about bullying.

As the school counselor, Beck dove in to create a welcoming, safe environment for all kids.

But soon, the issue went from inside the building all the way to CNN and a national award for Beck.

When a group of parents and community members found out about the resources Beck was using, specifically a curriculum called “Ready, Set, Respect” from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), there was strong pushback.

School board meetings attracted 100 people in the small town of approximately 1,600. Some held prayer circles during meetings. Many complained that the materials Beck brought into the school, including The Family Book by award-winning children’s author Todd Parr, were not age appropriate. The Parr book has a page that reads “Some families have two moms or two dads.” Erie’s elementary school serves grades preschool through fourth.

"My goal is to train future professional school counselors, help them to promote diversity and inclusion, and to help them handle unethical situations when they arise."
—Matthew Beck, UI doctoral student in counselor education

“They thought I was trying to teach their children about homosexuality and sexuality and having conversations that we don’t have in elementary school,” Beck says. “These resources were research based and taught tolerance and respect.”

After the community response, Beck says the school district required him to stop using the GLSEN curriculum and to remove from the school any resources referencing nontraditional families.

“That was unethical. I support all families. I represent all children,” Beck says. “Removing those materials really sets a tone that these families and children don’t exist.”

Banning Parr’s book drew national attention and led to a CNN news feature with the author as well as Erie school leaders.

Beck continued to fight to have the inclusive materials available to students in the school. He also organized a weekly reading night at the local library where retired teachers came and read the banned materials to families.

“I knew I was putting my job on the line and it was a huge risk,” Beck says. “But we wanted to find a creative way for children to still hear about diversity and that it’s okay to be who you are.”

Beck’s efforts eventually paid off. The district allowed some limited resources back, such as GLSEN’s No Name Calling Week, into the school and Beck earned national recognition for standing up for what he believed was right.

He was named the 2013 GLSEN Educator of the Year, a national award that “honors an educator who works not only to ensure safety, but impacts measurable change” in support of all students and particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students. GLSEN is a leading national organization in this area.

Beck says he hopes the award and his story inspire other educators to find strength when faced with opposition.

“You put kids first and do the right thing,” he says.

The controversy served as a turning point for Beck and inspired him to return to the UI, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music education, to pursue his doctorate in counselor education. He started his program this fall.

“I wanted to create change in my role in Erie, and I realized that by pursing my Ph.D., I could create change on a larger scale,” he says. “My goal is to train future professional school counselors, help them to promote diversity and inclusion, and to help them handle unethical situations when they arise.”

Beck’s graduate school advisor, Associate Professor Susannah Wood, says the UI College of Education’s program is a perfect fit for Beck because UI students can carve out their own niche within a supportive environment and enjoy opportunities to engage with state and national organizations as well as publish in leading journals.

“Future school counselors will benefit from hearing about Matt's own experience as an advocate and change agent as well as from learning about research-based, best practices for school counselors working with LGBT students,” Wood says. “I believe Matt's future students will walk away with increased self-awareness and a diverse toolkit for creating inclusive, safe schools.”