You are here

Teacher education and the hidden curriculum of heteronormativity

Vicki M. Carpenter and Debora Lee

Heteronormativity is pervasive and ongoing in most societies. New Zealand, despite its comparatively liberal laws in relation to sexual orientation, is no exception. The effects of such attitudes, values and prejudices extend into education and, by default, into curriculum. Findings from a study including student and staff online surveys, a series of focus group and individual interviews and an overview of programme content suggest that there was a hidden curriculum of heteronormativity in teacher education at a New Zealand faculty of education in 2009. Course content and delivery, staff and student attitudes and beliefs and the lack of visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and transsexual (LGBTT) people appeared to produce a curriculum that was unsupportive and not inclusive of queer students and staff members. This article discusses notions of curriculum and the research findings with reference to relevant theoretical perspectives.

Teacher education and the hidden curriculum of heteronormativity

Vicki M. Carpenter and Debora Lee


Heteronormativity is pervasive and ongoing in most societies. New Zealand, despite its comparatively liberal laws in relation to sexual orientation, is no exception. The effects of such attitudes, values and prejudices extend into education and, by default, into curriculum. Findings from a study including student and staff online surveys, a series of focus group and individual interviews and an overview of programme content suggest that there was a hidden curriculum of heteronormativity in teacher education at a New Zealand faculty of education in 2009. Course content and delivery, staff and student attitudes and beliefs and the lack of visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and transsexual (LGBTT) people appeared to produce a curriculum that was unsupportive and not inclusive of queer1 students and staff members. This article discusses notions of curriculum and the research findings with reference to relevant theoretical perspectives.


Heteronormativity, or the assumption that everyone is heterosexual (Warner, 1993), permeates all aspects of our daily lives (Sedgwick, 1991). New Zealand, despite its comparatively liberal laws in relation to sexual orientation, is no exception (see, for example, the Civil Union Act 2004). The influence of heteronormative attitudes, values and prejudices extends into education and, by default, into curriculum. Sexuality issues can be perceived to be irrelevant, especially in a crowded and contested teacher education curriculum (Grace & Wells, 2006; Robinson & Ferfolja, 2001).

We maintain that there is a cost in ignoring or marginalising those in teacher education (students and lecturers) who are nonheterosexual. First and foremost, LGBTT individuals are negatively affected, as are their families, friends and communities. Furthermore, heteronormative practices make light of New Zealand’s human rights legislation. Heteronormativity also rests uneasily alongside expectations of teachers to act in a professional and equitable manner.

Heteronormativity was found to be a hidden curriculum in teacher education programmes at a New Zealand university faculty of education in 2009. The Visibility and Inclusion Research Project asked questions concerning teacher education curriculum and sexual orientation. In particular, participants were asked, “How visible (or ‘out’) are teacher education staff and students of all sexual orientations in the faculty?” “In what ways are the faculty teacher education environment, and practices, inclusive of sexual diversity?” This paper shares and theorises the findings from the research project, and provides evidence to support our assertion regarding the hidden curriculum.

Curriculum and the hidden curriculum

The New Zealand teacher education prescribed curriculum has long been contested terrain (Kane, 2005)—many want a part of it. The New Zealand Teachers Council, teacher unions, the Ministry of Education, principals, parents, early childhood education (ECE) providers and associations, business groups, political parties and those with religious affiliations are just a selection of the groups that have vested interests and opinions regarding teacher education curriculum. It is understandable that the teacher education curriculum domain is enticing: graduates have the potential to influence the lives and values of thousands of children and students.

Currently there is no single prescribed teacher education curriculum. Teacher education is, however, underpinned by the Graduating Teacher Standards (see So although teacher education institutions have some autonomy in the construction and content of their courses, they must ensure the standards are met.

Curriculum is present in the formal documentation of teacher education programmes. We argue, like many others, that curriculum is also evident in how content is presented, why, by whom, where, when, with whom and for how long (see, for example, Apple, 2004; Carpenter, 2001; Marsh & Willis, 2007; McGee, 1997; Priestley, 2002; Weis, McCarthy, & Dimitriadis, 2006). The generic and encompassing term curriculum is therefore inclusive of the formal teacher education material, which is documented in such places as paper or online course outlines. Our definition, however, also embraces all that happens in teacher education. Practicum experiences are components of curriculum. The manner of presentation and the theoretical underpinnings of course content are integral to curriculum. Course readings, DVDs, website references and visiting speakers are also examples of curriculum. The people who present teacher education, by default, form part of the curriculum: there are many overt and covert messages in, for example, teacher educators’ visible genders, social class backgrounds, ethnicities and sexualities, and in the messages shared through their values, discursive practices and dispositions.

Those selected as teacher education students themselves become part of the curriculum; everybody’s experiences compound (people learn from each other) from the first day of teacher education formal classes. How learners experience the taught (overt) curriculum depends on a range of factors, including their prior knowledge and experiences, beliefs and values and the learning context and social structures within the learning setting.

A hidden curriculum is revealed in the aspects of teacher education outlined above. For the purposes of this paper, the hidden curriculum, a subset of curriculum, is what is not taught but is nonetheless learnt in teacher education. McCutcheon (1997) and Vallance (1991) are two of many theorists who define the term in relation to schooling:

[Hidden curriculum is] … those practices and outcomes of schooling which, while not explicit in curriculum guides or school policy, nevertheless seem to be a regular and effective part of the school experience. (Vallance, 1991, p. 40)

More recently, Skelton reviewed the range of theoretical perspectives on the hidden curriculum: functionalist, liberal, critical and postmodern. In his conclusion he defined the hidden curriculum as:

… that set of implicit messages relating to knowledge, values, norms of behaviour and attitudes that learners experience in and through educational processes. These messages may be contradictory, non-linear and punctuational and each learner mediates the message in her/his own way. (1997, p. 188)

Sexualities in the curriculum

New Zealand has some of the most supportive sexual-diversity human rights legislation in the world. LGBTT people are protected from discrimination through the Human Rights Act 1993, and more recently legal partnerships have been mandated through the civil union legislation (Civil Union Act 2004). Despite the legislation, there is evidence that negative attitudes persist (see Collins, 2008) and many queer people living in New Zealand experience discrimination (see, for example, Henrickson, 2005).

The previously mentioned Graduating Teacher Standards do not mention sexuality. However, they signal strong requirements related to inclusiveness. Graduating teachers must (among other requirements) know how to select curriculum content appropriate to the learners and learning contexts, they must demonstrate a commitment to and strategies for promoting and nurturing the physical and emotional safety of learners, and they need to know how to build effective relationships with learners, and to have an understanding of the complex influences that personal, social and cultural factors may have on teachers and learners. They are also expected to have an understanding of education within the bicultural, multicultural, social, political, economic and historical contexts of Aotearoa New Zealand.

The Graduating Teacher Standards influence prescribed courses at the faculty of education where our research was conducted. Those courses also include coverage of the range of curriculum areas identified in The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) and Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 1996). In all programmes there are core courses that must be included, with little or no choice available to students. The term sexuality is not noted in the purpose statements of any core courses. This does not mean that sexuality issues or sexual orientation are not included in courses; however, it does suggest that there are no core courses in which learning about sexuality is a key focus or a highlighted area of curriculum.

Choices that are available vary, and they depend on the student’s sector-based programme. For instance, students in all degree programmes choose at least one general education course from the University Calendar. General education courses provide an opportunity for students to enrol in a course outside their usual field of study. Such courses cover a wide range of topics and are offered by different faculties in the university. Although there is a general education course called Sexualities, in 2009 it was taught in a stream that was not accessible to students from the faculty of education.


We were motivated to conduct the research partly to follow up on an earlier research project (Fisher, Carpenter, & Tetley, 2003) that surveyed staff at the then college of education. We, the writers, felt that despite the 2003 study’s findings and recommendations, little had changed. The earlier study did not target the perceptions of student teachers, and this was also an area of significant interest for us: did teacher education students have similar perceptions and attitudes to lecturers? And if the two cohorts differed, how were they at odds?

All teacher education academic staff and students in the faculty had the opportunity to contribute to the research. Student participants were enrolled in either undergraduate teacher education degree programmes (early childhood education [ECE], primary and secondary) or in graduate programmes (ECE, primary and secondary). A small number of respondents were distance (online) students.

A mixed-methods approach (Creswell, 2006) was followed, and the study comprised two parts. Part 1 invited students and academic staff to fill out online surveys. Surveys were completed by 156 out of a total teacher education student-teacher population of 2,020 (7.72 percent), and 35 members of the 144 teacher education academic staff (24.3 percent). While these are low return rates, from which we cannot generalise, the quantitative and qualitative survey data nonetheless provide an interesting insight into lecturer and student perceptions. The low survey return rate is also, perhaps, indicative of heteronormative attitudes.

The subsequent part (part 2) comprised three focus group and five individual interviews. Interviewees self-selected in response to student cohort invitation emails, Web page and noticeboard advertisements. The focus groups were conducted with a student group of five, a group of staff members and a group of Rainbow (LGBTT) staff members.2 Five student teachers (not members of the focus group) volunteered for individual interviews. Similar questions were asked across all data-gathering activities, with greater depth and clarification made possible by the eight interview situations. Survey and interview data were analysed separately, and then as a complete set. Data were categorised and themes identified after a rigorous process of searching for patterns (Neuman, 2003). It was possible to separate data into those contributed by heterosexual participants and those contributed by LGBTT participants. Such separation, at times, enabled us to analyse the findings and their potential significance at a deeper level. Three of us undertook the initial analysis. Our research assistant contributed to the coding and analyses; this enhanced the reliability and provided some triangulation.

Ethical consent was sought and granted prior to the surveys and interviews. Survey respondents had anonymity, and individual interviewees were assured of confidentiality. Those in focus groups have a lesser level of confidentiality, due to the group situations, but consent and confidentiality forms were signed. While we have chosen in this article not to name the institution, there was no ethical undertaking that this would be the case. It may be possible to identify the institution (there are only six New Zealand universities offering teacher education in faculties of education), but the purpose of the paper is not to cast aspersions. Our aim is to contribute data, analyses and perspectives that may provide some foundations for considering alternative and more inclusive approaches to curriculum in all teacher education sites.

The terminology used in the survey and the interviews was “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and transsexual”, although no staff or students identified as transsexual or transgender. In this article we have chosen to use the initials LGBTT when referring in the text to the staff and students who identified as nonheterosexual, although participants identified only as lesbian, gay or bisexual. The use of queer is common in much of the sexuality literature, but very few of the study participants chose to use this term. Disagreement about the all-encompassing use of queer is evident in the LGBTT community. In New Zealand, Henrickson (2005) found that only 5 percent of the LGBTT people he surveyed were comfortable to use the term to describe themselves.

Findings and discussion

The following four sections provide an overview of the findings. The sections cover course content and delivery, attitudes and beliefs of respondents, the visibility of openly LGBTT lecturers and students on campus, and generic observations on the hidden curriculum. Theoretical perspectives are included in all sections.

1. Course content and delivery

Many respondents observed that “diversity” was often noted in course content. Numerous student responses, however, both from the survey and interviews, indicated that diversity was invariably interpreted to mean ethnic diversity. In many courses a narrow definition of diversity appeared to be common. For example, the compulsory secondary paper on diversity sometimes included a component on sexualities, but generally it did not, as was noted in one of the focus group interviews:

I was at a lecture last night [secondary graduate programme] and the topic was diversity but not once did sexual diversity get a mention. (Woman, lecturer, focus group)

Ferfolja and Robinson (2004) argue that teacher education course content about diversity tends to deal only with cultural and ethnic diversity rather than the rich array of diversities present in our communities. While faculty course descriptions are calendared and the learning outcomes are usually negotiated by lecturing staff, there is significant professional autonomy regarding how the overt curriculum is interpreted by staff as course content from year to year. It is possible that lecturers avoid content that they do not feel confident to teach.

How sexuality was discussed at the faculty appeared to hinge on the sexuality comfort levels and content knowledge of lecturing staff.

Lecturers needed to feel at ease with the inclusion of sexuality in course content in order for sexual diversity to be openly discussed in lecture rooms. Lack of lecturer content knowledge regarding sexuality matters has been established in other research findings. Grace and Wells (2006) observe that, for many lecturers, sexuality did not seem relevant to their teaching at all. Stielger (2008) maintains that there are insufficient appropriate resources to support teachers to successfully challenge heteronormativity and provide visibility for LGBTT lifestyles.

The student interviewees described incidents that suggest a lack of lecturer ease with the area of sexual diversity. For one student participant it was upsetting that the only discussion of sexual preference she had experienced involved a lecturer advising a class to keep quiet if they were not heterosexual:

In a literature class last week the lecturer … was talking about not bringing too much of yourself into the classroom. He said—’for instance if you’re gay you might not mention it’. And that’s the only thing I’ve heard [about sexual orientation] all year. (Woman, student, interview)

The same student described her experience of the culture of the faculty as one of silencing difference. She felt excluded:

The lecturers set the tone and by not mentioning it—the message is that it’s unmentionable … I [a lesbian student] have a feeling of isolation here. (Woman, student, interview)

The tone of this comment is reflected in the survey data, which showed that over 50 percent of surveyed lecturers stated they were never inclusive of LGBTT differences in their teaching. In support of this finding, many students indicated that they had never had sexuality-related material included in prescribed readings (37.8 percent), recommended readings (32.4 percent) or oral language/class discussions (36.6 percent), and 58.3 percent had not heard any guest speakers address issues around sexualities. Despite these findings, there were some lecturers who were passionate about demonstrating equity and inclusiveness:

I choose every move with great care … I work really hard to make sure that I’m not accidentally excluding anybody … in the context of my own language I want to make sure that I’m not giving anybody a silent message that says teaching or teacher education isn’t for you, you shouldn’t be here, I’m not expecting you to be part of my audience. (Man, lecturer, focus group)

Taking account of discourses that exclude the sexual “other” is complex. Many institutions appear to include only a very small amount of content relating to sexual preference in teacher education courses, and how this material is timetabled and presented is significant. If included at all, sexuality-related issues tend to be presented in one-off sessions.

In the faculty, a compulsory third-year undergraduate paper has a set text that includes a chapter on sexualities; the topic is therefore generally included in some way, and students in the focus group commented on that aspect of inclusion. Reflecting the statement in the previous paragraph, the course typically includes one sexuality lecture. A staff focus group participant noted that if someone has to give a lecture specifically on sexuality, then that in itself perhaps indicates the faculty is not very inclusive. LGBTT or sexuality-related curriculum content is more likely, however, to be invisible or nonexistent in the classroom or lecture theatre. At the same time the hidden curriculum of negative language use and the power of normalising discourses in the social setting of the educational institution can marginalise students who do not fit the narrow confines of the heterosexual “norm” (Loutzenheiser & Macintosh, 2004).

The inclusion of course content related to sexualities at the faculty was seen by some to be, at best, tenuous. Robinson and Ferfolja (2001) found that, when meaningful dialogue about sexual preference occurs in teacher education, it is likely to be only in health education. Although the faculty’s health courses appear to offer ideal opportunities for in-depth discussion, a student stated she felt that she had missed out as these discussions did not occur:

I was ready to learn what the university had to offer in terms of how do you deal with students who are fa’afafine and how you deal with students who are bisexual or gay or something like that, and there was nothing offered our way. I felt quite disappointed that [health education] was one space where we could have talked openly about these issues and she [the lecturer] could have shared with us some case studies about how to do things, but there was nothing offered and I thought it was really slack … teaching is essentially a straight white middle class profession. (Woman, student, interview)

The opportunity for acknowledging the presence of diverse sexualities in our communities did not appear to be taken up in the faculty’s teacher education courses. Several students mentioned that they would like to see more content that recognised same-gender relationships. Some, however, envisaged problems that could surround such inclusivity:

We need to be introducing … Jane likes Anne and it’s normal, but not everyone is left-leaning and they don’t believe that these things are [normal]. (Woman, student, interview)

Other students asserted that a greater number of classes and readings that relate to issues of sexuality could have a positive influence on the lives of children in early childhood, primary and secondary schools:

I think it would be worthwhile to include more classes surrounding sexual orientations and inclusion, as well as more readings and/or the effects on children in the different sectors. (Student survey)

Despite the perceived lack of content, most lecturers surveyed appeared to recognise the validity of including challenging negative attitudes towards LGBTT. This finding is consistent with Ferfolja and Robinson (2004), who found that teacher educators appreciated the importance of work that decreased the incidence of homophobia and heterosexism.

In the survey findings, some students shared that they felt the pervasiveness of a culture of heteronormativity was a concern; it was seen as a form of discrimination:

I’m heterosexual and as such part of the dominant group … I have not noticed any overt discrimination or lack of support for these [non-heterosexual] groups, however my feeling is that heterosexuality is still widely accepted as the norm, so—by omission from resources and images around campus—I feel these groups are discriminated against. (Student survey)

These perceptions regarding the curriculum and its delivery signal some concerns. All of the above are underpinned by the attitudes and beliefs of those involved in teacher education.

2. Attitudes and beliefs of staff and students

Both staff and student surveys asked questions relating specifically to attitudes and beliefs. Surveys asked if the faculty was a place in which lecturers and staff of all sexual orientations could be themselves. Surveys also asked if respondents believed the faculty was supportive of students and staff of all sexual orientations. Focus group and individual interviews enabled these questions to be explored in greater depth.

Over half of all staff responses, and 83 percent of those of LGBTT staff, indicated that the faculty was not a safe place for students to be open regarding their sexual orientation. Qualitative data obtained through written survey comments demonstrated that students have witnessed the expression of negative and discriminatory views:

Some of my peers are young and have voiced that they think it [homosexuality] is gross, just in general conversations. (Student survey)

One staff member noted that, in particular, Christian groups “can be problematic”, and there were some comments made by students that showed a degree of sexuality-related religious tension on campus:

Since attending this campus I have been told my religious beliefs should be kept personal to project a professional image. Therefore I question whether sexual orientation too is a personal matter and should be kept out of the classroom and therefore lecture halls. (Student survey)

It freaks me out … these people who go to church and I steer dead clear of them. Pentecostal Christians, you’ll go to hell, that’s their view. (Woman, student, interview)

The two quotes above perhaps signal the need for more openness at the faculty about different beliefs and values. Dialogue about religious or moral tensions is a powerful way to begin to address the many differences in beliefs and attitudes that exist in any community. Sandel (2009) posits that it is preferable to openly confront differences rather than to leave such tensions unvoiced:

… rather than avoid the moral and religious convictions of our fellow citizens, we should attend to them more directly—sometimes by challenging and contesting them, sometimes by listening and learning from them … A politics of moral engagement is … a more inspiring ideal than a politics of avoidance. (p. 11)

Attitudes towards queers and queer issues can have a profound impact on a teacher education campus. Rottman and Rottman (2006) claim that homophobia is “embedded” (p. 2) in education. Many other researchers have acknowledged the presence of negative perceptions towards queer people in early childhood education, schools and tertiary institutions (Britzman & Gilbert, 2004; Ferfolja & Robinson, 2004; Gunn & Surtees, 2004; Hubbard & De Welde, 2003; Lee & Duncan, 2008). Student attitudes about sexuality at the faculty were varied. Approximately two-thirds (64 percent) saw the faculty as a place where students of all sexual orientations could be themselves, and 72 percent thought staff could be themselves. However, more than 20 percent of students were neutral in their responses.

While there were reported instances of overt prejudice (for instance, a student hearing another student speak in a derogatory way about a transsexual student in a social netball game) and homophobia (some students leaving a lecture theatre when the undergraduate stage 3 lecture topic was announced as Sexualities), the general attitude from students seemed to be a casual lack of interest.

There was a noticeable difference in findings, however, when data were analysed according to the professed sexual orientations of the students. Regarding how respective groups of students would approach homophobic comments, LGBTT students indicated they were more likely to be proactive regarding discriminatory language or comments than the heterosexual students. Eighty percent of LGBTT students reported that they would take some action, compared with 43 percent of heterosexual students. Over 50 percent of heterosexual students indicated they would ignore derogatory comments regarding homosexuality and would do nothing.

How educators at all levels respond to homophobic remarks is significant. Robinson and Ferfolja (2001) found that discriminatory behaviour towards LGBTT teacher education students usually went unchallenged. Sieben and Wallowitz (2009) believe that by staying quiet or “neutral” in response to negative comments about queers, teachers demonstrate tacit acceptance of the discrimination. Even when negative attitudes are not evident, the belief that sexuality is not relevant to teaching prevails in many institutions, and therefore contributes to the silencing of LGBTT voices (Ferfolja & Robinson, 2004).

Fear of the unknown, negative attitudes and varying comfort levels regarding personal sexuality can affect how open people are prepared to be.

3. Visibility of openly LGBTT students and lecturers on campus

The findings showed that LGBTT lecturers and students were generally not visible on the faculty campus. One hundred and thirty students (83.3 percent) indicated in the student survey that they did not know of any LGBTT lecturers in the faculty, and 70 (45.5 percent) did not know of any LGBTT students:

There are no openly gay people at faculty social events—that would be kind of odd, but cool. (Man, student, focus group)

For some students there was a recognition that an LGBTT context might be available if one knew where, and how, to look:

Unless you’re looking for it you do not see it. (Woman, student, focus group)

Of the 25 LGBTT students who completed the questionnaire, nine (36 percent) did not know of any other students who identified as LGBTT, and 17 (68 percent) did not know of any lecturers who identified as LGBTT. For this group of students, in particular, the lack of visibility was a concern:

They must exist, but apart from myself [lesbian] I have not met or heard of anyone else so far this year. It’s pretty lonely, but I don’t know where to start finding anyone else on campus! (Student survey)

Heterosexual students were accepting and almost blasé about the existing state of affairs in relation to visibility for LGBTT staff and students. For instance, the student focus group, while generally agreeing that people were not “out” on campus, did not see it as a major concern. Many of the survey comments were in agreement with this view:

It isn’t like you need a pat on the back for being straight or gay or transsexual etc is it? Sexual orientation to me is just one part of what makes us who we are. I don’t think the faculty needs to be supportive or discriminative towards a person’s sexual orientation. (Student survey)

Some student comments, however, indicated that other faculties and tertiary institutions have a more accepting attitude to LGBTT visibility:

I strongly believe it should be [visible], but compared to where I was previously studying this environment seems much more conservative and conformist. (Student survey)

In contrast, some students saw the faculty of education as more accepting:

[At this faculty it is] better than other places, more students are educated not to discriminate people of marginalised sexualities, but there are still many people who are not. (Student survey)

Those in the staff focus group remarked that there was little visibility, and no evidence of support or encouragement for sexual orientation diversity on campus.

The invisibility of LGBTT in the teacher education curriculum is not new. Michel Foucault’s ideas about power and control are especially helpful when considering why this type of invisibility occurs. The hegemonic power of heterosexuality acts as a “regime of truth” by excluding, and/or putting under surveillance, those who do not fit the socially accepted sexual orientation or preference (Foucault, 1972, 1977). There are many ways in which surveillance and silencing can be perpetuated.

Robinson and Ferfolja (2001) consider that teacher educators assume their students are heterosexual unless they have strong evidence to the contrary. LGBTT people therefore have a daily dilemma about how and who to tell about their sexualities, and in doing so are owning to being “other” (Cross & Epting, 2005). Although many writers suggest that being open and visible about sexuality is perhaps the healthiest option (see, for example, Gunn & Surtees, 2009), visibility presents difficulties in an educational context. Bernstein and Reimann (2001) contend that visibility is a perennial issue in relation to LGBTT lifestyles, and our research findings support this position.

Over half of the LGBTT students were not comfortable enough to be out with their peers regarding their sexuality, and half of the LGBTT staff members felt unable to be open with their colleagues regarding their sexuality. With LGBTT teacher education staff members, only one of the six survey respondents was prepared to be open regarding her sexuality with teacher education students. Both staff and students were concerned about the possible responses of straight peers. Among staff and students, LGBTT people were more aware of negativity towards those who are not straight. Fewer LGBTT than straight people were prepared to be open regarding their sexuality. They did not see the faculty as a safe place to be “out”, and in Foucault’s terms they had internalised the oppressive attitudes of society. It is possible that they considered themselves to be potentially under surveillance. Foucault (1977) recognised the power of surveillance to control the behaviour of those deemed as “other”. Not disclosing sexual identity or preference may be one of the manifestations of this internalised form of control. Both students and staff acknowledged that they had concerns about “coming out” at the faculty:

You never know how people may react, so it tends to just be easier to keep it quiet. (Student survey)

The faculty ignores this form of diversity—we have a ‘straight’ face which reflects the education system in general. (Woman, staff survey)

Grace and Wells (2006) suggest that LGBTT teachers are very concerned about work prospects and their career options. Sears (1993) discovered that LGBTT teachers are less likely to be promoted and more likely to suffer job loss. The negative attitudes expressed by students in schools towards LGBTT are well documented (Hubbard & De Welde, 2003; Solomon, 2004). LGBTT student teachers do not always feel accepted or able to “come out” or challenge homophobic comments on practicum (Stielger, 2008). LGBTT students who do “come out”, or who express support for LGBTT rights, may place themselves in the uncomfortable position of being viewed by fellow students as “a recruiter to some misconstrued queer cause” (Grace & Wells, 2006, p. 55). For both LGBTT staff and students in teacher education, “coming out”, or stepping out of the metaphorical closet, is likely to be an ongoing concern. In the student focus group interview, fears were expressed surrounding how being queer could influence job prospects in teaching:

You might be worried about your career, career choices and associates and everyone is going to whisper and tell everyone and also you won’t get a job. That might be more of a reason why somebody might not want to come out. (Woman, student, focus group)

4. The hidden curriculum of heteronormativity

Despite the inclusiveness of the Human Rights Act 1993 and various other forms of legislation, teacher education students in the faculty of education, in 2009, were being denied—through a pervasive hidden curriculum— understanding and knowledge that is central to the lives of thousands of New Zealanders, their families and their friends. A hidden curriculum of heteronormativity in the faculty meant that, whereas heterosexual students and lecturers generally displayed their personal relationships, LGBTT staff and students were less likely to feel comfortable enough to readily share their lives. This concurs with Rottman and Rottman’s findings (2006). Heteronormativity permits the presence of homophobia by “othering” LGBTT people. This hidden curriculum within the faculty aids and abets a discriminatory context.

What became apparent as we analysed our data was that there was little evidence (but there was some) of people (students or lecturers), or the environments they created, being deliberately homophobic. Teacher education in this faculty of education, in 2009, was perceived to be either asexual or immersed in norms of heterosexuality. There was little overt or covert inclusion, in any form, of sexuality in any form other than heterosexuality. The underlying curriculum assumption was that the world is heterosexual; there was, by default, a hidden curriculum of heteronormativity. In teacher education it was heteronormativity that controlled programme content.

The results of this hidden curriculum impact, negatively, far more widely than on faculty members and students. Heterosexist or heteronormative attitudes in teachers have the potential to negatively influence the wellbeing of children and their families. Heteronormativity influences the faculty teacher education curriculum because of its stranglehold on course content and delivery, the attitudes and beliefs of many staff and students and the lack of visibility of openly LGBTT lecturers and students on campus.


Teacher education students are the teachers of the future. Our position is that the faculty’s hidden curriculum of heteronormativity is doing our wider society an injustice. The situation signals both human rights and social justice concerns.

The problem appears to be how to build the bridge from where we are now—a situation where the hidden curriculum is heteronormativity—to an ideal faculty world where all groups and individuals are included and affirmed—where diversity truly means diversity—and which meets basic human rights obligations.

Our research included asking for suggestions regarding ways forward and positive change. Interestingly, many of the suggestions given by lecturers related to broader matters of community building at the faculty rather than exclusively addressing LGBTT concerns. The assumption that closer communities provide greater opportunity for inclusion and acceptance of difference would provide a valid topic for further research. Other suggestions from lecturers included: workshops for staff; inclusion of material regarding LGBTT issues in staff induction; and course coordinators taking responsibility for appropriate content throughout the programme curriculum. Students requested greater visibility of LGBTT lecturers, closer links to the wider university LGBTT groups and the displaying of posters with LGBTT content. Each of these proposals will be considered over the coming months as we continue to “trouble” the hidden curriculum of heteronormativity.

The ultimate task, we believe, must be preceded by awareness. We hope this article contributes to that awareness. The task for teacher education and educators is to work positively, in a myriad of ways, to challenge the pervasive presence of the hidden curriculum of heteronormativity in teacher education.


Our thanks to CRSTIE, STEP and the Faculty of Education Equity Committee at The University of Auckland for funding this project. Thanks also to Constanza Tolosa (research assistant) and to all lecturer and student participants.


Apple, M. W. (2004). Ideology and curriculum (3rd ed.). New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Bernstein, M., & Reimann, R. (2001). Queer families and the politics of visibility. In M. Bernstein & R. Reimann (Eds.), Queer families and queer politics: Challenging culture and the state (pp. 1–17). New York: Columbia University Press.

Britzman, D., & Gilbert, J. (2004). What will have been said about gayness in teacher education? Teaching Education, 15(1), 81–96.

Carpenter, V. M. (2001). Curriculum and the (re)production of education. In V. Carpenter, H. Dixon, E. Rata, & C. Rawlinson (Eds.), Theory in practice for educators (pp.109–136). Palmerston North: Dunmore Press.

Collins, S. (2008, 16 February). “Asians winning acceptance.” New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2 April 2008, from

Creswell, J. W. (2006). Using mixed method-sequential explanatory design—from theory to practice. Field Methods, 18(1), 3–20.

Cross, M., & Epting, F. (2005). Self-obliteration, self-definition, self-integration: Claiming a homosexual identity. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 18, 53–63.

Ferfolja, T., & Robinson, K. H. (2004). Why anti-homophobia in teacher education? Perspectives from Australian teacher educators. Teaching Education, 15(1), 9–25.

Fisher, D., Carpenter, V. M., & Tetley, P. (2003). “Is this really an issue?”: Institutional heterosexism in a college of education (Monograph/Research Report Series No. 5). Auckland: Auckland College of Education.

Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge. London: Tavistock.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. London: Allen Lane.

Grace, A. P., & Wells, K. (2006). The quest for a queer inclusive cultural ethics: Setting directions for teachers’ preservice and continuing professional development. InterScience, 112, 51–61.

Gunn, A., & Surtees, N. (2004). Engaging with dominance and knowing our desires: New possibilities for addressing sexualities matters in early childhood education. New Zealand Journal of Educational Leadership, 19, 79–91.

Gunn, A. C., & Surtees, N. (2009). We’re a family: How lesbians and gay men are creating and maintaining family in New Zealand. Wellington: Families Commission.

Henrickson, M. (2005). “Lavender parents”. Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, 26, 68–83.

Hubbard, E., & De Welde, K. (2003). “I’m glad I’m not gay!” Heterosexual students’ emotional experience in the college classroom with a “coming out” assignment. Teaching Sociology, 31(1), 73–84.

Kane, R. G. (2005). Initial teacher education: Policy and practice. Final report to the Ministry of Education. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Lee, D., & Duncan, J. (2008). On our best behaviour: Lesbian mothers and early childhood education. Early Childhood Folio, 12, 22–26.

Loutzenheiser, L., & MacIntosh, L. (2004). Citizenship, sexualities, and education. Theory into Practice, 43(2), 151–158.

Marsh, C. J., & Willis, G. (2007). Curriculum: Alternative approaches, ongoing issues (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.

McCutcheon, G. (1997). Curriculum and the work of teachers. In D. J. Flinders & S. J. Thornton (Eds.), The curriculum studies reader (pp. 188–197). New York: Routledge.

McGee, C. (1997). Teachers and curriculum decision making. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press.

Ministry of Education. (1996). Te whāriki: He whāriki mātauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa. Wellington: Learning Media.

Ministry of Education. (2007). The New Zealand curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media.

Neuman, W. L. (2003). Social research methods: Qualitative and quantitative approaches (5th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education.

Priestley, M. (2002). Global discourse and national reconstruction: The impact of globalization on curriculum policy. Curriculum Journal, 13(1), 121–138.

Rich, A. (1980). Compulsory heterosexuality and the lesbian existence. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 5, 631–660.

Robinson, K., & Ferfolja, T. (2001). “What are we doing this for?” Dealing with lesbian and gay issues in teacher education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 22(1), 121–131.

Robinson, K., & Ferfolja, T. (2004). Playing it up, playing it down, playing it safe: Queering teacher education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24, 846–858.

Rottman, D. D., & Rottman, C. (2006). Queering educational leadership from the inside out. International Journal of Leadership Education, 9(1), 1–20.

Sandel, M. (2009). A new citizenship. Reith Lectures, BBC 4. Retrieved 20 March 2010, from

Sears, J. T. (1993). Credibility in teacher education: Dilemmas of faculty, students, and administrators at Indiana University. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 10(3), 109–151.

Sedgwick, E. (1991). Epistemology of the closet. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Sieben, N., & Wallowitz, L. (2009). “Watch what you teach”: A first-year teacher refuses to play it safe. English Journal, 98(4), 44–49.

Skelton, A. (1997). Studying hidden curricula: Developing a perspective in the light of postmodern insights. Curriculum Studies, 5(2), 177–193.

Solomon, S. (2004). Kids say the funniest things … anti-homophobic group work in the classroom. Teaching Education, 15(1), 103–106.

Stielger, S. (2008). Queer youth as teachers: Dismantling silence of queer issues in a teacher preparation program committed to social justice. Journal of LGBT Youth, 5(4), 116–123.

Vallance, E. (1991). Hidden curriculum. In A. Lewy (Ed.), The international encyclopedia of curriculum (pp. 40–42). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Warner, M. (1993). Introduction. In M. Warner (Ed.), Fear of a queer planet: Queer politics and social theory (pp. vii–xxxi). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Weis, L., McCarthy, C., & Dimitriadis, G. (Eds.). (2006). Ideology, curriculum, and the new sociology of education. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.


1&;&;&;The term queer challenges and complicates the misperception that sexuality is constant, and disrupts the assumption of heterosexuality as “normal” (Loutzenheiser & MacIntosh, 2004). “Queering” therefore means interrupting what Rich (1980) calls the “heterosexual matrix”.

2&;&;&;A group of lesbian and gay staff meet regularly on and off campus; they call themselves Rainbow Staff members.

The authors

Vicki M. Carpenter is a principal lecturer in the School of Critical Studies in Education, Faculty of Education, The University of Auckland. Her teaching and school leadership background is in urban and rural low socioeconomic schools. Vicki’s research interests and publications centre around the sociology of education and social justice issues, in particular those surrounding curriculum, schooling in low socioeconomic communities, and sexual orientation.

Debora Lee is a lecturer and the Practicum Coordinator (ECE) in the School of Teacher Education Practice, Faculty of Education, The University of Auckland. Debora teaches in early childhood social sciences and practicum-related courses. Her research interests and publications are based on her work in the early childhood practicum and her interest in LGBTT issues in education.