Transgender Teachers Speak Out on What They Need From School Leaders
Schools can be an unwelcoming, isolating place for transgender teachers, between the male- and female-assigned restrooms and the layers of red tape when it comes to changing personal information in data systems.
Yet educators say there are steps that school leaders can take to make transgender teachers feel more included. Sam Long, a high school biology teacher who is transgender, produced a video on the five best practices to support and learn from trans educators.
"To omit [my trans identity] would be to omit the best and most valuable things about myself," Long wrote in an essay for Education Week Teacher. "It is in the hands of school leaders to ensure that transgender staff are never made to feel like a burden for being themselves. School districts need precise guidelines on how to support transgender staff as they transition, come out, and continually navigate the workplace."
The video urges school leaders to listen to transgender people about what their needs are, critically examine their own biases and preconceptions, and be proactive about implementing systems and policies that include everyone. For instance, transgender teachers shouldn't be the only ones who are asked to share their pronouns, educators in the video said—every teacher in the school should make that a habit.
School districts should also have systems in place for educators to update their names and gender records. The video pointed to the Chicago, Los Angeles Unified, and Toronto school districts as places with model policies on topics like bathroom use, sports teams, school trips, and information privacy. Those places all include staff as well as students.
But most districts don't have any specific policy or system in place, and administrators are left scrambling when a teacher transitions, Long said in an interview: "Asking to have their name changed takes way longer than it really needs to."
Most of all, Long said, school leaders need to listen to transgender teachers about what they need from the administration and school community. Administrators should also solicit input from an equity consultant, he said.
"The thing that I want school leaders to keep in mind is regardless of their intentions, there's no way they're the experts on how to handle this," he said.
For example, one educator said in the video that when he transitioned, his school leaders created a plan of action without seeking his own input. "The plan that they created was invasive, it totally outed me to people who didn't need to know about my transition, it created space for people to speak hate about me—I felt trapped," said Elliott Ross, who left the school because of this experience and is now a clinical mental health counseling graduate student. "I didn't feel like I had a voice in the plan that was created."
Without supportive school policies, Long said, transgender teachers might leave the profession. Through his work as the co-founder of the Colorado chapter of the Transgender/Nonbinary Educators Network, he knows roughly 20 transgender teachers in Colorado. Five or six of them are no longer in the classroom, Long said—they left because they didn't feel accepted or welcomed.
Last year, NPR surveyed 79 transgender and gender-nonconforming teachers from the United States and Canada. More than half of those teachers said they faced harassment or discrimination at work. A fifth said they experienced verbal harassment, including being called by the wrong pronoun, and 17 percent said they were asked to change how they present themselves at work.
There is no national data on how many transgender and gender-nonconforming people, whose gender identity or expression does not conform to the traditional expectations of the gender they were assigned at birth, work in schools. A 2016 study from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law estimated that transgender adults make up 0.6 percent of the U.S. adult population, or 1.4 million individuals.
There aren't many resources available that specifically focus on transgender teachers, rather than for transgender or gender-nonconforming students. The video's director, Zee Griffler, who uses the pronouns they/them, said they have heard a lot of positive feedback from school leaders since the video was released.
"Sometimes the things that are common sense just need a little more awareness," said Griffler, who is a Colorado-based filmmaker. "It's not challenging to support trans people, but you do just have to put in the work."
And when transgender teachers are a valued part of the school community, it can have positive effects on students who are transgender, gender non-conforming, or questioning their gender identity, educators said.
"Showing trans students that there are role models in the community who are living successful, productive lives is so important," Griffler said. "It's so important to show people that you can be exactly who you are, and people will respect you for that."
Even so, Long warned against making transgender teachers a token.
"I want to be clear that trans educators—we exist in our own right, and it's not necessarily to be an example to students," he said. "There are trans educators that I know locally [who] don't want to be known as the trans teacher. Their careers are still meaningful and full."
Above all, the transgender educators in the video say they want to be heard and accepted for who they are and the work they do.
"Most importantly, I hope that school leadership recognizes that trans educators have a really unique experience and a unique role in our school community," Griffler said. "It's not too challenging to give them a space and make them feel welcome, as opposed to making them feel like they're a burden or a challenge to overcome."
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