Because I am a parent myself, I have spent much of my time over the past six years advocating for parents and caregivers of transgender and gender-diverse youth. However, as I continue meeting people and doing training for different groups, I have heard a similar refrain from educators: Teachers and school staff also have to learn about gender diversity and how to affirm their students.
So, I reached out to an experienced and compassionate former schoolteacher and principal to get her perspective on what it’s like to have a child transitioning at school.
Learning What’s Involved in Transition
I sat down with Elizabeth Bennett, a recently retired educator with 35 years of experience and author of the book Courageous Conversations: a guide for parents to understand and connect with their teen. She shared the story with me of her first experience with a gender-diverse student. It was several years ago, and at the time, the family had to guide the school on how to affirm the child and what changes were needed in the classroom.
This was also my experience when Mitchell first came out as transgender in 2016. I wrote about the harrowing experience in an article for LGBTQ Nation, but essentially the school had pathologized and othered Mitchell because they didn’t understand what gender diversity meant. So today, when I do training for school boards and other businesses and organizations, I start with a clear explanation of how gender develops in children and that it is very different from sexual and romantic attraction.
Seeing the Person Instead of the Policy
Elizabeth shared with me that she made a concerted effort while leading her staff to focus on making their school a safer place and to be welcoming and inclusive. Understandably, any organization with a governing body must live and operate within a policy structure. But it is so important to be sensitive to the vulnerable children affected by those policies.
Another school principal once shared with me that it was more often closed-minded parents who took exception to the affirming actions the school had taken for transgender and gender-diverse students. But, for the most part, fellow students had no issues. When making decisions in schools, we need administrators to think first about the child and not the rigid or uninformed opinions of adults.
Gender Inclusive Language
Learning to say “everyone” or “friends” instead of “boys and girls” was a tricky one at first for Elizabeth. Schools are often set up for gender segregation, from pink and blue cubbies to gym classes. Further, teachers in middle and high school can attest to the difficulties of using chosen names and different pronouns with the students in class but then having to switch to the old name and pronouns when talking with parents as requested by the child if they haven’t come out to their parents yet.
While it can be challenging to learn new ways to address students, again, these kids are on an often difficult journey, and we adults with our fully developed pre-frontal lobes get to do the heavy emotional labour.
Being a Proactive School
Elizabeth’s final advice was that it is so important for schools to learn about gender diversity and how to accommodate transgender students early on. You don’t want to be constantly in a reactive, knee-jerk state. It’s imperative to be purposeful in our actions and conversations.
If you feel that your school, school board, or organization that interacts with children and their families could use more training on what transgender means and how you can accommodate and affirm gender-diverse youth, please reach out to find out how I can help.