As teachers, our greatest charge may be moral: create a safe and responsive environment where all students learn. And that charge -- in the face of 12+ hour days, isolation, and little support -- can be hard to live out. But summoning the requisite courage and compassion is particularly essential for students who are gender-nonconforming. In a world too often lacking in understanding and acceptance, sometimes even in a student’s own home, teachers have a potent opportunity and responsibility to make our classrooms and schools an oasis of grace and safety.
On the Youth Mic blog, three transgender students have shared their perspective in their own voice. Their experience personalizes and echoes the findings of a recent report, “Separation and Stigma: Transgender Youth and School Facilities,” which found that 70% of transgender students said they’ve gone out of their way to not use campus bathrooms. This means drinking less, even to the point of developing urinary tract infections in an effort to skip the public restroom, in addition to complications around physical education classes, attendance concerns, and the effects of dehydration on attention and study habits.
But the bathroom question, though serious, is also symbolic. It begs us to ask a more fundamental question. Will we fully include these students -- these human beings -- in our public education system?
For us, this is a moral question. One that urges a response in the affirmative. In our efforts toward full inclusion, we offer these suggestions for creating classroom and school cultures more supportive to gender-nonconforming students:
Words Matter. Be Intentional.
We’ve all had students that prefer a name other than that on the class roster. Sometimes it’s Samantha preferring Sam. Maybe it’s Joseph preferring Alex. It might be Erika preferring Erik. Accompanying the name preference might also be a pronoun preference. This might call for more of a conscious effort to use actively, but the reward is worth the effort (even if a student prefers the pronoun “they” and it makes your English-teacher-brain malfunction). That simple, conscious choice to respect a student enough to refer to them in the way they prefer can help them feel known, respected, and accepted.
- Get ahead of this opportunity by asking students their preferred name and pronoun as part of one of the first quiet, independent activities of the year. This could be as simple as adding it to an initial survey for the teacher’s knowledge.
- Or try creating student trading cards. Similar to baseball cards or artist trading cards, students use one side to illustrate something about themselves and on the other provide biographical information. These can be shared for the first few minutes of group activities early in the year so students get to know one another and can share important aspects of their identity.
- And use your words to support students. If you intend it to be so, vocally and visibly declare your room a safe space, and use your voice to intervene if you hear biased remarks.
Organize for Inclusion and Action
Our school’s Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) offers a forum for learning and sharing, and organizational power within the school. Patapsco’s GSA meets weekly and focuses on two primary goals: providing a safe space for students to be themselves and organizing actions within the school community to expand that safe space to all students. You can learn more about organizing a GSA at your school by visiting the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s website.
Our GSA has supported its goals by inviting guest speakers to address students, providing professional development for staff, creating educational ads on our morning announcements, and engaging in action events that involve the school community. Invited guest speakers not only provide education for all students, but can offer our gender-nonconforming students affirmation that their identities are recognized and accepted. If your school doesn't have internal methods of offering training, organizations such as GLSEN and PFLAG can help with professional development for staff or other resources, often at no cost.
Campaign with Allies for Understanding
As a group, students support each other in meetings but we also work to bring our message of inclusiveness to the school body. Students have created ads to promote inclusiveness during Ally Week, asking their peers to sign a pledge to be an ally to LGBTQ+ youth. This has been followed by after school events engaging students in conversations about what it means to be an ally to this community. We have created displays, poster campaigns, and social media to promote visibility and awareness during Day of Silence and Transgender Day of Visibility.
Although our group is sometimes small, we feel validated when hundreds of students respond by signing our petitions and pledges, wearing stickers and buttons, and sharing their belief that our school should be a safe space. As a magnet school, some of our students have stated in their application that having a GSA made the school more attractive as a choice because they knew it meant a more welcoming and inclusive environment. GLSEN’s independent research confirms that students who attend a school with a GSA feel safer and more welcome. Isn’t that what we want for all kids?
Use Your Power
We know gender-nonconforming students are at high risk for self-harming behaviors and targeted abuse. We know improvement is not inevitable. We know we have the power to influence the environment where these students spend most of their day and reduce the dangers they face.
National organizations such as the ASCA, NEA, and NPTA have taken positions affirming these students. But those positions have much more meaning when individual teachers make the decision to make a difference. These students ask merely for recognition that they have a right to exist in this world with some measure of security. Doesn’t every student deserve that?
Natalie Avallone is a National Board Certified English teacher at Patapsco High School & Center for the Arts. She is also the school’s GSA advisor and serves on the Board of GLSEN Baltimore. Connect with Natalie on Twitter: @naavallone.
Sean McComb teaches English at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in the Baltimore County Public Schools System. Sean also supports the development of teaching and learning for Baltimore County’s STAT Initiative. He is affiliated with the Maryland Writing Project, NCTE, Learning Forward, National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and ISTE. Sean is the 2014 National Teacher of the Year and a Teaching Channel Laureate. Connect with Sean on Twitter: @Mr_McComb.