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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How I Ruined My Teaching Career by Changing Gender

By Abigail Robinson — January 19, 2016 6 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by Abigail Robinson, who currently lives in Bucharest with her wife, where the two of them founded the English language school, the Ross-Robinson Centre.

I was regarded with such esteem at the school where I held my most recent full-time teaching post that my first day as ‘Miss Robinson’ was something of an anti-climax. Just before the previous half-term holiday, I had held a series of assemblies to tell the school’s 1,200 students of my intentions. I invited them to think about people they might have seen in the media who had changed gender, and told them I was one of those people. I explained this merely meant that I wanted to start dressing like a woman, and that they should get used to calling me Miss instead of Sir.

Nothing else was required of them, I said, except to continue to work hard in my lessons; trust me to teach them as well as I always had; and show me as much respect as they had ‘Mr Robinson’. The children applauded. Seriously. Not a stilted slow clap, but an actual ovation; a display of support and admiration for my courage and honesty, and of gratitude for the faith I had placed in them to embrace difference and accept me as I am.

The response I encountered was so positive - so kind and so open - that I felt, for want of a better word, loved. When my name was included in a round of redundancies, therefore, I was tempted to sue for unfair dismissal, but the principal offered me a pay-out slightly above the amount I would have taken home had I successfully taken him to a tribunal, and I was nervous of acquiring a reputation as the one who sues - which would, I feared, prevent me from ever finding employment in a school again.

When, after taking a two-month mini-sabbatical to finish my doctoral thesis, I threw myself earnestly into trying to find a job, I had a bit of a shock. For almost twenty years, I had rarely applied for a post I didn’t get; had collected an impressive roster of qualifications, and used them to teach my way across continents. In 2014, all that changed. It wasn’t just that I would be interviewed for classroom teaching posts - often teaching dazzlingly good lessons as part of the selection process - only to be turned down that upset me, or that I’d be vetted via Skype by principals and, irrespective of how capable, qualified and competent I showed myself to be, fail to secure the post. What irked was not hearing whether I’d been appointed or not until I badgered them for an answer!

An (ex-) friend of mine who is principal of a private school in Spain was frank enough to tell me exactly why my offer of employment there was withdrawn when he realised that I’d changed quite a bit since he’d last seen me. The issue, he said, was that parental disapproval of having their children taught by a transgender woman could provoke them to withdraw their children from the school.

The reason why parents might object to their offspring being in my class is, I suspect, linked to the nature of transgenderism itself: because gender is something we enact through our choices of clothing and behaviour (as opposed to biological sex, which is chromosomally determined), transgender is easily interpreted as something you do rather than something you are, and, by implication, as a form of sexual kink. This is the epitome of transphobia, and it was genuinely unsettling to be the victim of such twisted logic.

By persisting in my search for work, I did find myself in the right place at the right time eventually. I was no longer in positions congruent with my qualifications and experience, but I was daring to believe that I might not have turned myself into as great a professional pariah as I’d feared. I was fortunate enough to work for a head of English who still clung to enough of her seventies’ hippy bohemianism not to mind when the substitute-teacher agency through which I had found the post had told her they were sending a transgender applicant.

...Wait: what?

Yes, she explained: an agent from the substitute-teacher agency had given her the option of overlooking my application on the grounds that I was transgender, and to compound this gesture with cant of spectacular hypocrisy, another agent from the agency later asked if I would be willing to participate in a focus group for developing the company’s LGBQT policy. It is difficult to think of comparable situations where that sort of knowledge about someone should, on moral or practical grounds, be shared. I suppose if I was a wheelchair user, or if I was bringing my guide-dog with me, the school would have needed to make material accommodation to my needs; but I’m not, and I wasn’t.

Schools work very hard to project themselves as inclusive organisations predicated on notions of care, mutual respect and the celebration of difference, and espouse these ideals with metaphors of community and the family. The promotional literature schools produce about themselves endeavours to convey messages of inclusiveness and equality, but very rarely do they adumbrate what these actually mean, or how they translate into practice. As I saw for myself, it is the exception rather than the norm that these values have been internalised by members of the organisation to the extent that they govern behaviour and inform thinking regarding transgender teachers.

...At least in the case of the adults who lead schools. The children, meanwhile, remain models of polite curiosity, magnanimity and tolerance, and at no point over the last two years has a student said or done anything to me that could be considered mean or prejudicial, or that shows any sign that they were afraid of - or confused by - me. My heart sinks when a conversation with a principal post-interview begins, “It’s not me, but...” because I know that they are limbering up to use children and their parents as a convenient way of abdicating responsibility for not hiring transgender staff. Initiatives aimed at promoting LGBQT awareness in schools are usually, therefore, targeting the wrong audience.

Primary school children haven’t yet learned prejudice, and, as a result, their behaviour isn’t governed by fear of difference. The teenagers I taught didn’t care how I looked or what pronoun I wanted them to use, provided my lessons were interesting and I worked hard to help them achieve academic success. It isn’t young people who need to reflect on their attitudes and assumptions about transgender teachers: it is the adults who manage schools, appoint staff, and make decisions about how schools are run, who need educating in how to embrace diversity, celebrate difference, and take the occasional brave decision.

I could’ve stayed in the UK and chipped away at the system until I got noticed, appointed, and could fly the flag for transgender teachers, but, to be honest, I just didn’t have the stomach to engage in a long campaign of attrition with a system for which I had lost all respect. Instead, I have moved to Bucharest to open a school of my own. We have a long way to go before we can consider ourselves profitable, but we can at least rest easy in the knowledge that our professional conduct is based on a belief in equity and inclusiveness that is more than skin deep.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of John Hain.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.