School Climate & Safety

When School’s a Battleground for Transgender Kids, Teachers Learn to Protect, Affirm Them

By Madeline Will — September 16, 2019 6 min read
Teacher Nina Gustafson displays her pronouns in a training in Boulder, Colo., to help educators create supportive classrooms for LGBTQ youth.
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Homecoming kings and queens. Lines for boys and lines for girls. Class rosters with names and gender seemingly set in stone.

Schools can be a battleground for transgender students or students who are gender nonconforming. And the potential land mines go far beyond restroom assignments, which have been a politically charged focal point in conversations about transgender youth for the past few years.

Advocates say teachers must create a safe, supportive, and inclusive classroom for transgender and gender-nonconforming students, whose gender identity or expression does not conform to the traditional expectations of the gender they were assigned at birth. And that means teachers need specialized training.

“Educators really need guidance on these issues,” said Sophia Arredondo, the director of education and youth programs at GLSEN. “Most of them will tell you they don’t want to do anything wrong. They want to be as supportive as possible.”

Even so, “we know that too often, professional development for educators often does not include LGBTQ identities and often even less so around trans- or gender-nonconforming identities,” she said.

Research has found that compared to their non-transgender peers, transgender youth are more likely to miss school, have lower grades, and view their school climate negatively.

A 2017 study by GLSEN found that nearly 84 percent of transgender students and 70 percent of gender-nonconforming students were bullied or harassed at school. Just over 40 percent of these students had been prevented by a school policy from using their affirmed name or pronouns, and almost half had been required to use the bathroom that differed from their gender identity.

Tips for the Classroom

These classroom practices from advocacy groups A Queer Endeavor and GLSEN can help teachers foster a safe space for all their students, no matter how they identify.

  • On the first day of class, ask students to name themselves rather than calling roll. Change the names on your class list as needed, and give that list to substitute teachers.
  • If you feel comfortable, normalize pronoun-sharing by sharing your own. (“Hi, I’m Ms. Smith, and I use she/her pronouns.”)
  • Don’t require students to share their pronouns with the whole class. Instead, offer them a private opportunity to share their names, pronouns, and anything else they want you to know about them. Respect your students’ privacy and follow their lead.
  • Practice using gender-neutral pronouns, such as “they” and “ze,” while visualizing the student who uses them. This will help you refer to the student more naturally.
  • When addressing your students, avoid using “ladies and gentlemen,” “boys and girls,” and other gendered language like “guys.” Some alternatives: friends, folks, scholars, readers, scientists, etc.
  • Avoid grouping students by gender. If needed, group students based on birthday months or their preferences, like vanilla or chocolate ice cream, dogs or cats, etc.
  • Show students that you’re an ally by hanging a pride flag or a sign indicating to LGBTQ students that your classroom is a safe space.
  • Welcome feedback, especially from transgender and gender nonconforming students or adults. Make adjustments as needed.

Supportive teachers and administrators can help reduce some of these odds, Arredondo said.

“When [students] don’t feel affirmed or don’t feel safe, then they can’t learn,” she said.

There’s no firm national data on how many students identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming. A recent study of 81,000 Minnesota teens found that nearly 3 percent were transgender or gender-nonconforming. The students were in 9th and 11th grades.

Preparing Educators

But few professional development providers and teacher-preparation programs show teachers the best practices for working with students of different gender identities. Five years ago, faculty at the University of Colorado Boulder’s school of education realized they were sending teachers out into the field without preparing them to teach LGBTQ students.

“We kind of owe them a debt,” said Bethy Leonardi, an assistant research professor at CU Boulder and the co-founder and co-director of A Queer Endeavor, which provides professional learning opportunities around gender and sexuality for teachers. “We recognize that there’s a need, that teachers in the field are really craving this kind of support.”

Since 2014, A Queer Endeavor has trained 6,000 teachers, counselors, and administrators. The group has partnered with five Colorado districts and offers as many trainings for staff as requested, in addition to an annual professional-development institute for teachers across the state.

“A lot of times when LGBTQ students are talked about, it’s, ‘How do we protect these kids?’ ” Leonardi said. “Our work really broadens the scope of what this conversation is all about. We want to create cultures and contexts that recognize and affirm gender diversity.”

Teachers can start by challenging gender norms in their classrooms and avoiding gendered language, such as calling students “boys and girls,” she said. And she encourages teachers to create space in their classroom for students to share their pronouns.

“We often say, ‘Share your pronouns as a teacher as a way to open up the conversation,’ ” she said. “You become the curriculum for students.”

Megan Hayes-Golding, a high school physics and robotics teacher at Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Mass., said she shares personal things with her students, which encourages them to also open up to her. For instance, she’ll mention her wife in conversations, and includes her pronouns on her name tag. Hayes-Golding tells students they are welcome to share their pronouns with her—but she doesn’t make it mandatory.

“If I asked every kid in the room to share their pronouns, a kid who is just figuring out their identity is going to be uncomfortable,” she said.

Meanwhile, at Silver Creek High School in Sellersburg, Ind., there are several students who are transgender or gender-nonconforming, said Erin Braune, a 10th and 11th grade English teacher and the founder of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.

“When they tell their teachers [their gender identity], they feel supported,” she said. But not all of them do share.

To get around that problem in her own classroom, Braune asks her students what their pronouns are—and in what context she should use them—in her back-to-school survey. For example, she said, some students might only want her to use their affirmed pronouns or names privately, and not in front of their classmates. And other students might be out at school, but not to their parents.

Students, she said, “need a place to ask questions and feel like they can let their guard down for a second. It helps normalize what is often seen as the other.”

Experts say this work can begin at all grade levels. In fact, Leonardi said elementary teachers are the most likely to sign up for A Queer Endeavor’s voluntary trainings.

Christopher Henry Hinesley, the assistant director for campus life at the Q Center at Rochester Institute of Technology, works with LGBTQ students brand new to college. He’s noticed that students seem to be beginning to transition or come out at earlier ages.

“I’m seeing kids who have transitioned already before they get here, at least socially, or they’re ready to go once they get here,” he said. “I know we have a generation coming who will have already transitioned in middle school or elementary school.”

That means that teachers of all grade levels need to embed LGBTQ experiences into their curricula, Hinesley said. Just four states—Illinois, California, New Jersey, and Colorado—have mandated teaching LGBTQ history in the last few years.

“Having a Harvey Milk Day isn’t going to cut it,” he said. “We need to talk more about what are the present-day experiences of people who, every time they fill out a form, their identity gets erased. What kind of stories can we tell that will expand the narrative to include more people?”

Learning the Language

That’s why professional learning is so important, Leonardi said. A Queer Endeavor’s trainings equip teachers with the tools and vocabulary to tell the stories of LGBTQ people.

“A lot of teachers don’t have the language. They just haven’t been supported to understand the difference between gender and sexuality, for example,” she said. “It’s not on teachers. ... It’s been deemed inappropriate and controversial. It’s not controversy; it’s students’ lives.”

Teachers at Silver Creek High School in Indiana were eager to support LGBTQ students—but they didn’t know where to start, Braune said. She sent out a list of terms, such as “gender-nonconforming” and “nonbinary,” to the faculty so they could “feel a little more confident.”

But now that students have taken more ownership of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, Braune said they are educating their teachers, too.

Last school year, the Hopkins school district in Minnetonka, Minn., held a training on transgender students. It was organized and presented by three transgender students, said Mark French, the principal of Gatewood Elementary School who attended.

As an openly gay man, French thought he was well-versed in creating an inclusive school climate, but hearing directly from transgender students was powerful, he said.

“What I took away from each of these students,” he said, “is we have to respect and take their lead in how they want to be identified.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 2019 edition of Education Week as Teachers on Front Lines of Making Schools Safe for Transgender Kids

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