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OPINION 'Trans-formal' education
by Bob Chikos
2020-02-05

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"The year started well, but substitute teachers were not told about Dave's name," my friend Pat told me. "My son was called a distinctly feminine name in a time and at a place where no one knew he was transgender. Without his consent. Without his permission. Without his control. He was outed. Everyone in that class knew. By lunch, the whisper network had grown."

Three months before this event, Dave had transferred to a new district; his former district did nothing about the LGBTQ bullying he had endured. In fact, when Dave reported the bullying to a staff member, the response was that Dave's gender identity—not the bullying—was the problem.

Dave's story is not unusual. Many transgender students around the country are unsupported in their schools. The statistics on the educational experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming students are alarming. According to the 2017 National School Climate Survey by GLSEN, more than 71 percent of LGBTQ students report hearing negative comments about gender expression from school staff. More than 40 percent of transgender and gender-nonconforming students are prevented from using their chosen name and pronoun or are forced to use a bathroom or locker room inconsistent with their gender. Many are disciplined for actions that would not have resulted in discipline for straight or cisgender students, such as wearing clothing based on their gender identity. Students victimized for being transgender or gender nonconforming are almost three times as likely to have missed a day of school over the past month, have a lower GPA, lower self-esteem and higher rates of depression.

Fortunately, for students who attend schools with supportive staff, these discrepancies are all but erased. In 2014, my district held an all-staff training on gender. As a teacher, I learned a lot from that training. First, the number of transgender teens is much higher than I had believed. According to the Williams Institute of UCLA, about 0.7 percent of teens are transgender. The high school where I teach has 1,508 students. This means that, statistically, my school would be home to about 11 transgender students.

I learned from the American Academy of Pediatrics that children who are transgender understand their gender at an average age of 8.5 years—but typically repress those feelings for an average of 10 years. At this point, it became very clear to me that teachers of students at all age levels need to understand best practices regarding student gender identity.

I learned how to create a safe classroom through simple techniques: When I divide a class, I can use birthday month, hair length, shirt color and many other factors aside from gender. I can address my students by our school mascot, "tigers," rather than "ladies and gentlemen" to be inclusive of students who are gender non-conforming. One suggested change stuck with me: listing students' preferred names and pronouns on sub plans. If only Dave's teacher had known about that accommodation.

We also learned some ideas that required bigger changes on my part and the part of other teachers. It is as important to intervene when we hear LGBTQ-phobic slurs as it is when we hear racial slurs. School is oftentimes the only place LGBTQ students feel safe and a staff member may be the only adult they can trust.

Fortunately, Illinois is taking steps to ensure our students have affirming educational experiences. This year, the Affirming and Inclusive Schools Task Force released a report that outlines best practices for school districts. The legislature should pass their recommendations into law, as well as a staff training law similar to California's Safe and Supportive Schools Act of 2019. These actions would go a long way toward ensuring that students like Dave have an experience more like the students in my district, rather than the difficult one he endured at his high school.

Educators have a lot of responsibilities: preparing and delivering lessons, managing classrooms, addressing mental health concerns, preparing meals, transporting students to and from school. As a teacher, I know that it's nearly impossible to be all things to all stakeholders at once. But we can be a lifeline to our most important stakeholders: our students. Because Dave could be my student and Dave could be your student.

Bob Chikos teaches special education reading, math and pre-vocational classes at Crystal Lake Central High School in Crystal Lake, Illinois. He is a 2019-20 Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellow.


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