How Can I Make My Classroom Trans-Friendly?
A question most teachers probably don’t consider — until they have to
Let’s face it: if you’re an educator, designing your classroom in a way that’s inclusive and welcoming for *trans students isn’t something you learned about in college. It’s still probably not on your radar today, even if you’ve been teaching for decades. That is, unless you’ve actually had a trans student in your classroom — meaning, the student (and/or their parents) disclosed this fact with you, typically in confidentiality. And with COVID-19 uncertainties, who knows when (or if) schools will ever open per usual?
*Trans, short for transgender, is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what’s typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. Basically, “trans” encompasses all gender identities that are not cisgender.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a K-12 public or private school teacher, online teacher, or college professor. The fact is, there are trans students of all ages and stages.
If you haven’t had a trans student yet — to your knowledge — it’s only a matter of time before you do. This is not because there are suddenly more of them, and this is not the latest fad or trend. Trans and gender nonconforming people have not only been in existence forever, on nearly every continent, but also have been recognized, revered, and integrated into cultures, religions, and societies worldwide that honor more than two genders.
The reason why it may seem like there are more openly transgender people in America today is due to many factors — like education and information (and the speed at which we can access it), resources, opportunities, and means of connection, which all make coming out feel a lot safer for trans people. That said, there’s still a very long way to go.
Perhaps more importantly, the reason why it may seem as if trans people are crawling out of the woodwork is because my generation — today’s parents — finally realized on the whole that shaming children for not performing their expected gender roles “correctly” is bad. It is toxic parenting. After too many tragedies, most of us now realize the damaging effects of teaching children to suppress rather than allowing them to express their authentic gender. And sometimes, a family’s refusal to let children be themselves compels these kids to take their own lives.
Yes, we know our kids may end up getting harassed or bullied in school for defying the expected gender stereotypes or for socially transitioning, but we’d take that any day over having a child who committed suicide because they couldn’t stand to hide from us anymore; because they never knew what unconditional love felt like.
As the parent of a trans non-binary teen and someone who also worked in my child’s school for many years, the question of “how can I make my classroom more welcoming and inclusive for trans students” was a question I welcomed hearing at any opportunity — which was rare. I get that it’s not the most pressing of your concerns — not even by a long stretch. But it’s a question I happen to have some answers for, and one that I’d implore my teacher friends to take seriously. Because you could save a life.
The thing is, for most teachers, this is never even an issue… until it is. Until they find themselves with a transgender student in class and absolutely no idea what responsibility lies in their hands — legally, ethically, or otherwise. And if they have no clear guidance from the school district (let alone, their own administrators), where are they supposed to turn for quick answers? There are many pieces of the puzzle to consider with trans students, and it can feel pretty overwhelming to not be prepared.
How do you handle it when a student comes out to you as trans, but their parents don’t know? What if another student outs them against their will? What if you accidentally out them? How do you handle single sex, multi-stall bathrooms, or sleeping arrangements for overnight field trips? What do you say when that small but vocal handful of negative parents learn there’s a trans kid in your class, and they inundate you with questions? Or worse, start demanding meetings or mandates — or even threats, like, how their child is not to be in the bathroom with a trans student? (This actually happens. A lot.)
*For the record, the mere presence of a trans person in the bathroom is not a threat or a danger to anyone, but that’s a topic for another day.
Elementary school teachers: I’m really talking to you here. With a growing number of known trans students — who are self-identifying at younger and younger ages — learning how to be proactive and intentionally inclusive of all gender identities is a topic that everyone in education could at least benefit from.
I hear you, and I know many elementary school teachers may not think any of this applies to them, that kids are “too young” for all this gender stuff, but please hear me when I say that is a myth. In fact, it’s a bold-faced lie we’ve told ourselves for so long that we can’t even think logically about how silly it sounds. No one explains this better than Cassie Brighter:
“You Can’t Talk Gender To A Child” — And Other LIES You Tell
You do it all the time. You’ve been doing it for years.
We can all probably agree that the last thing any teacher wants is to feel vastly unprepared, overwhelmed, or in the dark. No teacher thinks its fun to be left standing alone in a very awkward, very “grey” area which can quickly escalate, especially if the trans student is somehow outed — intentionally or unintentionally.
Teachers I’ve met in educator panels and workshops on trans-specific issues have been overwhelmingly positive. They’ve been eager to learn, and supportive. But then again, they’re the ones there. And those of us presenting are often told we’re “preaching to the choir.” There’s always at least one teacher that speaks of a fellow “resistant teacher.” That one teacher who doesn’t “buy-in” to trans people — not to mention, trans youth.
You know, the teacher who learns they have an incoming trans student and instead of asking “how can I be more inclusive,” instead chooses to say things like, “I’m not giving any special attention/bending over backwards/it’s not my job to…” and other forms of “I’m not going to cater to one student.”
Here’s the thing: you’re not just “catering to” the one trans student. In fact, your active, intentional measures to be inclusive and welcoming of trans students ultimately helps your entire class (and school), because you’re making it known that your classroom is a safe place for all, a place where learning with an open mind is expected and willful ignorance will not be tolerated.
So… where to begin?
I’ll mostly cover basics here — things any teacher is likely to say “I already knew that” or “I already do that” — but it never hurts to remind ourselves, right? Besides, if you’re anything like me, you might just find it humbling to really pause and reflect. We tend to think “yeah, I’d do that for any student anyway,” but implicit bias is something that we all have; prejudice against certain “types” is something that we all struggle with, and these things are more common than we’d like to admit.
Bear in mind that many trans students will already arrive to your room with some form of PTSD from daily microaggressions, harassment, and even abuse that they experience all too often. These wounds may be inflicted by either family, friends, peers, or strangers — any or all of those. Trans youth (typically older, around 5th grade — on) often tend to be a little defensive. What you just said to them may not have been the least bit transphobic, but what the last ten people just said to them earlier that day was. And every day before that. It’s not about you; you’re not a bad person. This is PTSD manifesting from gender dysphoria, particularly, when that student lives in a non-supportive home.
And finally, at the end I’ll list a (very) small sampling of practical tips that any teacher can use right now, to literally make a classroom look and feel more welcoming for trans students (and by default, all students).
So you have a trans student. What now?
First, remind yourself of these 3 things:
1. All behavior is communication
Looking back over my (unfinished) journey of parenting a trans kid — who’s a high schooler now— I can see clearly how often my child was attempting to communicate gender dysphoria over the years, without having the language or skills to communicate that. And all along, my husband and I had simply chalked the behaviors and mood swings up to “anger issues.” Moodiness. Melodrama. For a long time we had no idea how much more complex it was than that.
That one kid in your class who looks like they haven’t taken a shower or changed clothes for days on end? It may not be because they don’t care or their parents are lazy. It might just be gender dysphoria. Trans youth often experience bouts of severe dysphoria when they have to be alone with their nakedness. Many avoid self-care in the way of baths or showers for this reason, as often as they can get away with.
Supportive parents raising trans youth who fall into this category know that this is an issue, and believe me, they worry about it even more frequently than you notice it. But please understand the delicate balance of teaching a child to love themselves while also acknowledging the very real pain that comes from a sense of being in the wrong body; of mandating their self-care while also trying to prevent their self-harm.
Just like any other parent, parents of trans kids also have to pick and choose our battles. Some days a shower just isn’t going to happen (or a doctor’s physical, or check up, or gynecology appointment, or a whole variety of other things that may trigger a trans person’s gender dysphoria that particular day).
Remember that parents, like students, are usually doing the best they can with what they have at any given moment. Always err on the side of assuming positive intent.
Note: while many trans people are clinically diagnosed with gender dysphoria, there are some who do not experience severe gender dysphoria, or do only occasionally, or experience it to varying degrees or inconsistently. Sometimes it comes and goes throughout the course of life. Likewise, gender dysphoria manifests itself in a variety of very different ways — some of which are not always obvious. Not all trans people have the same experience.
If you have a child who’s acting out in some way, seeking attention (or withdrawing), getting into trouble (or compliant to a fault), complaining of generalized aches and pains (or refusing to feel pain), over-dramatic (or stoic), having sensory issues (or seemingly numb), has extreme anxiety (or seems overconfident, hyper-masculine, etc.), plus a whole host of other behaviors, don’t dismiss the possibility that they could be experiencing gender dysphoria.
2. It’s important to challenge gender (or sex-based) stereotypes every time you see and hear them
Many times in the past, I’d look at my youngest — assigned male at birth but always feminine — and think, “I’m pretty sure I have a future gay son.” And I still may have a gay, trans teen — any combination is possible. But my frame of reference when this child was younger was that feminine boys = gay.
Of course, this was simple and flawed thinking on my part. It wasn’t until much later that I learned and truly understood how gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation are three completely separate and unrelated parts of an individual, and many different combinations are possible and exist.
But many students do not understand this, regardless of age. In fact, most students arrive to their first day of kindergarten already fully invested in stereotypical gender roles — both their own and everyone else’s — and they tend to “police” each other, often blurring the lines of sexual orientation and gender expression.
Please, please don’t let this slide. Challenge it every time you hear or see it. However, be mindful not to stigmatize words like “gay,” because we want to remove any power that word might still carry as an insult — the LGBTQ community are, after all, a protected minority group in the U.S.
It is possible to address gender expression without going into sexual orientation. Say you have a group of kindergarten boys who, on the first day of school, complain about having to use pink construction paper because it’s “for girls.” One might even say out loud, “because it’s gay.” Stop what you’re doing and have a class meeting right then and there. With the whole class. Gently challenge them with guiding questions like these:
“Do you think so? Why is that?”
“Is it always true that girls like pink and boys don’t?”
“Do the colors that a person likes have anything to do with how good of a friend they might be?”
From here you can guide students into a short group discussion that teaches necessary social skills like tolerance and respect, but also, it can easily lend itself to a full math lesson if you want it to. You could go a step further and collect students’ individual color preferences and then graph the data. Compare and contrast. Teach the difference between “patterns” and “rules.” Challenge stereotypes.
Yes, I know it’s out of the way and may even feel like you’re “catering to” the one student, or maybe even being “political” (although there’s nothing inherently political about gender). This circumstance may definitely be a tangent from what you’d planned, but teachers naturally do this all the time anyway, and with grace! It might be a small curve in your plans for that day, but taking the time to tackle and instill this important life lesson from day one decreases the likelihood that you’ll have to keep on repeating the lesson time and again.
3. Just because a student “fits” a gender stereotype (like hyper-masculine or feminine), that doesn’t always mean that’s who they are at their core
When I first got involved in trans advocacy, I remember feeling floored by the number of trans women I’d gotten to know, who, before transitioning, were what we’d likely see as “hyper-masculine” in a gender stereotyped world. They were decorated military and war veterans, auto-repair enthusiasts, large company CEOs. They were associated with labels in high school like “Alpha male,” or “the ladies man” on college campus. Many were in heterosexual marriages with children and even grandchildren.
All of these women I met revealed they were masking (meaning hiding their authentic gender and performing their expected “male” gender role). Additionally, they all spoke of learning to be this way from very early ages — because any sign of femininity,” they’d say, was either “beaten out of them” physically, or gently persuaded into suppression. Many of these individuals ended up performing their assigned at birth sex (and gender role) so well that others in their lives claimed “we never saw that coming” when they came out as trans.
Here’s why this matters:
As a teacher, you may have trans students — even very young ones — who are masking, have not come out yet, don’t yet realize they’re trans, or are in denial, but are still very much internalizing the damaging and mixed messages of gender stereotypes that we tend to dole out without even realizing. (In one of my child’s early schools, I counted the number of times I heard or saw things that were gender segregated. I’d counted 47 separate instances — and that was only before lunch).
It matters because these harmful gender stereotypes affect all students. But they fall particularly hard on the ears of trans students. Trans youth are often used to feeling isolated, ostracized, and ashamed of who they are inside, which already doesn’t match up to society’s (or their family’s) gender expectations. Don’t be yet another person in that student’s life who adds fuel to the fire.
A few practical ideas any teacher can do right now to create a more trans-friendly classroom
Again, these are not just good practices for trans students; they’re good practices for all students. And while cis students may not notice or care about some of these differences, trust me, your trans students — including those you don’t know are trans — will value your class more than you’ll ever know, and as a result, are more likely to perform better all around, including academically.
1. Choose language carefully
As much as you can (I know this one’s hard), avoid addressing students by gender. Instead of “boys and girls,” or “ladies and gentlemen,” say “friends,” “class,” “scientists,” “writers,” “calling all learners,” etc. Invite younger students to join you at the carpet by calling their table color or number, team names, or birth months. For addressing older students, say “folks,” “you all,” or “hey everybody.” You have generally more options with older students, and you can even invite them to come up with ideas of their own for classroom language.
Use language like “all people can…” when a student claims something is for boys or girls only.
Realize that non-binary (neither male nor female, some combination of both, or some other gender altogether, like “two spirits”) fall under the trans umbrella as well. When we use gender language, we essentially erase non-binary students. When a non-binary students hears “ladies and gentlemen,” that’s a microaggression. It’s the type of thing they already deal with hearing/seeing many times a day, every day, and every instance of it is like pouring salt in a wound.
Use gender neutral words as much as possible. Really, anything will do that doesn’t point out gender as the main component that defines your students.
2. Avoid segregating groups by gender
Similar to number 1 above, why do we need a “boys” team and a “girls” team when we can make groups any number of other creative ways? Sure, it’s quick and easy to split boy/girl, but for trans students (which, again, includes non-binary, agender, two-spirit, and other gender identities that aren’t necessarily binary), it’s a microaggression (or worse). It’s needlessly inducing stress and anxiety every time these students are forced to be segregated into a group that’s either the wrong gender for them, or does not include them at all.
3. Use gender-inclusive signs & visuals whenever possible
Remember, if your elementary classroom is equipped with a single-stall/one person bathroom, you already have a gender neutral bathroom. Why not hang a sign that reads “all gender bathroom?”
Display photos from other cultures that celebrate more than one gender, or use books and pictures that “flip” the traditional gender roles. For instance, a story that features a stay at home Dad, or features images with male ballet dancers or nurses; and women in stereotypically male professions, like doctors, CEOs, and athletes.
Hang posters with phrases like “think beyond the binary” or “think outside the box.” Encourage students to come up with their own inclusive classroom posters that would welcome anyone.
4. Find ways to integrate notions of gender into the material you’re already teaching
Do you give spelling tests and use example sentences? Switch them up. “The word is ‘athlete.’ She was the best football player on the team.” Middle schoolers might enjoy finding gender stereotypes in pop culture, advertising, social media, and TV. For older students, give writing prompts or hold socratic seminars that explore topics like, “do you see toxic masculinity portrayed in the media, and how might it be harmful to all genders?” In science, touch on biodiversity and normalize things in this world that go beyond the binary.
Definitely integrate a whole class discussion — preferably early in the year — to educate everyone on what gender-based harassment and bullying looks and sounds like. Talk with students, ask for their ideas on ways to effectively stop this (or any other type of) bullying when they see or hear it.
The organization Gender Spectrum has “life affirming for all, life saving for some” as one of their mottos. They expand on this:
“Students who are perceived to be transgressing society’s rigid gender norms are frequently targets of discrimination, harassment and violence. Without an intentional focus on respecting all forms of gender identity and expression, schools not only miss the opportunity to create better learning environments, they become unsafe. That gender-based bullying is commonplace across the globe is beyond question. Research in the United States indicates that 80% of students will face some kind of gender-based bullying during their K — 12 experience, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity.” — genderspectrum.org
Learn to scrutinize your classroom through the lens of a trans non-binary person. What are you communicating via the visuals on your walls? What are you reinforcing through the visuals around the classroom — including even something as seemingly innocent as pink or blue name tags on student cubbies? What about the books on your shelves?
If you’re willing, try and determine if you might have any unconscious gender biases. Do you say things like, “I appreciate how the girls are working so quietly over there”? Do you say these things automatically, without even thinking of the many implications embedded in phrases like that? And finally, consider your own gender story. We all have one. Has there ever been a time in your own life where you’ve felt set-back, or experienced limitations because of expected gender “norms?”
Recognize the influence of a teacher. Recognize that someone who holds the respect, authority, and power of a teacher gets to “paint a picture” of the world every day. Imagine what it feels like for those students who look at this big beautiful world the teacher just painted, and they don’t see themselves represented anywhere inside that world. They won’t feel safe. They won’t feel valued. They won’t feel ready to learn.
But a teacher who integrates and celebrates diversity, every day, with purpose and clarity, has the ability to make every single child in the classroom feel safe. Valued. Ready to learn. It’s never just about catering to the “one trans kid.” Gender and gender-based stereotypes impact all students.
Thanks for reading! I’m Martie Sirois: flawed human; gen X; laughter addict. A mom of 3 who kneels for #BlackLivesMatter and stands for trans rights. Writing at the intersection of culture, politics & equality, w/work featured in HuffPost, Scary Mommy, etc.; heard on NPR affiliates, SiriusXM, TIFO Podcast, and elsewhere around the ‘net. Feel free to connect with me further: