How Teachers Can Support Transgender Students
Almost 1 in 50 US high school students are transgender, and an alarmingly high number of those transgender students reported feeling helpless, sad, and unsafe in their school environments.
During the pandemic, some problematic legislation has been passed that limits transgender students' access to gender-neutral facilities (such as locker rooms) and activities (such as sports). There are clear signs that this sort of legislation is seriously impacting the level of support that transgender students receive from adults in the school environment.
Overall it seems that how the staff treats transgender students varies substantially between individuals. Some teachers and staff are very supportive, whereas others are borderline abusive towards transgender students, and then there is an entire spectrum in the middle of these two extremes.
Discrimination is rife in the school environment (both from staff members and from fellow students), and numbers as high as 71% of transgender students face discrimination at school in one form or another. This does not even consider the level of discrimination against other minority groups.
There is clear evidence that support from staff members enhances the school experience for transgender youth and builds a strong foundation in their lives that extends beyond their youth. There appears to be a need for official guidelines for educators and administrators on how to help transgender students. Many of them do not want to do anything wrong but also do not know for sure what to do to help.
A major problem in school districts is that many people do not entirely understand the gender spectrum and how it is separate from sexual orientation or how it differs from sex assigned at birth. A suggested starting point for creating a supportive school environment has been awareness measures for educators and administrators. There has also been a call to include the basics of LGBTQ+ awareness into school curriculums to spread awareness among students. It won't be easy to introduce this sort of thing across the board, but at this point, if it can be done in some schools, it would be the first step in the right direction.
An inclusive curriculum is sorely needed in public schools, and it might even be necessary for school officials to receive specialized training in order to facilitate equitable educational opportunities for LGBTQ+ youth. If a culture of understanding and acceptance for transgender students and students struggling with gender identity can be created at a school level, then the future for transgender students becomes much brighter. The culture we experience at school often bleeds strongly into our adult life expectancies.
Gender Non-conforming Students and Non-binary Students
Perhaps a more difficult part of the gender spectrum to understand when you have little contact with the LGBTQ+ context is the position of gender-nonconforming and nonbinary students.
Gender nonconforming involves not adhering to culturally accepted gender norms and expectations. Nonbinary students are students who do not adhere to the binary approach to gender (male or female), and often will feel as though they have multiple genders or no gender at all (or they might move between points on the gender spectrum).
Furthermore, many people do not understand that orientation is different from gender identity. It might be pertinent to clarify the differences as a means to spread awareness. While the focus of this article is on trans students, we also recognize that improving the school environment for transgender students extends a further improvement for other LGBTQ+ students automatically (in most cases).
The reason for this is simple. If we spread tolerance and respect as a culture among school staff and students, we improve tolerance and acceptance beyond the scope of just transgender students.
At the moment, discrimination against transgender students is illegal due to a bill regarding sex-based discrimination against children by schools. The Trump administration had caused much confusion for schools when they withdrew a document explaining what US laws say about the fair treatment of transgender students in school. However, it is essential to remember that just because they withdrew a document explaining these laws does not mean that the laws have changed at all; they are still the same and still need to be followed.
Transgender youth are among the most vulnerable minority groups in the US, even more so when we consider a transgender student of color. It is vital that transgender students' mental health is a priority for school officials. Even if they are not able to implement protection for trans students, they should at least have rudimentary support structures in place for all students at risk of mental health crises. They also need to ensure that there are measures against sex discrimination in schools (private and public schools) as is stated by the law.
Furthermore, as far as possible, positive school culture and transgender equality need to be a priority. There should be efforts made to find a balance between freedom of religious expression and freedom of gender expression within educational institutions.
Adopting Gender-Neutral Pronouns in the Class Room
The first step for many educators to take in supporting transgender students can be to adopt neutral pronouns in the class room. This is a step that can be taken subtly and can be done in ways that are not directly discriminatory to other students in the class. It is then also important not to be too critical of students who get the pronouns wrong.
Any efforts made in the classroom may help transgender students feel safer in school. Teachers should never assume that just because none of their students "look" like they are transgender, that there aren't actually students who are transgender or who are questioning their gender identity. It is essential for these students to have a supportive environment, even if it is just one staff member, where they can go for support and acceptance.
Balancing Religious Beliefs of Teachers and Fellow Students
One of the biggest challenges that schools face in this climate is having to balance the rights of transgender students with the rights to religious freedom of other students and teachers. Even when schools want to support transgender students, it is not always an attainable goal as it opens them up to lawsuits from staff members and other students whose religious beliefs negate transgender rights.
This type of situation makes it very difficult for schools to do the right thing, something that would be respectable to both sides, and they often have to bend in the direction that legislation and legal precedence indicate. Schools that already have limited resources can most likely not risk expensive lawsuits as well.
The question becomes, whose rights are more important? Is it more important for people to feel comfortable expressing their religious views? Or is it more important for people to feel comfortable expressing their gender identity? You might feel strongly about one or the other, but it is a fundamental ethical conundrum for schools worldwide. Even in countries where equal rights trump individual preferences, it can be very tricky to figure out which side of a coin to support in such a debate. It is an ongoing struggle for many US school districts.
Things That Can Be Done to Protect Trans Students
Become familiar with Title IX guidelines. You can also familiarize yourself with other documents, and you can consult school district attorneys for further information.
You can also advocate for changes to legislation that serves to protect trans students.
Do a survey with your students to try and see where you might run into problems related to bias. Try to be prepared and try to keep communication open.
One good way to improve school climate and culture is to model desired behavior. Treat transgender children with respect and equality. Students should feel respected and supported, and staff and students should learn to respect transgender students' rights. Some of these students do not have support at home, so having school environments that provide a safe space for them can be extremely valuable to their mental health.
Most school psychologists can help with these ventures as their governing bodies are advocates for transgender students' rights and transgender rights overall. They can often also reach out to a national center or national association that has experience with transgender rights—for example, the National Association of School Psychologists.
Student clubs that support trans rights should also be supported and encouraged by school psychologists and the school principal.
Gender diversity should be encouraged, and discrimination should be handled accordingly. Federal law prohibits discrimination based on gender identity (Title IX).
Promote the protection of all students' rights, including the rights of transgender students. This might be a difficult task, but as long as moderation and tolerance for all points of view are modeled, it should be attainable in most cases.
Promote accessibility. Assess the resources (such as locker rooms) that you have and how that might impact transgender individuals, and then try to minimize problematic situations.
Implement a mental health crisis protocol. Transgender students could potentially require such interventions should their journey to gender expression go wrong. It is then extremely valuable to have access to services at school. It could also be a valuable resource for students who are not necessarily transgender but just need some crisis intervention for their general mental health.
Implement mirrors and windows. This venture refers to creating positive examples and encouraging positive exchanges that students can be exposed to during the school year. It should preferably be representative of their age group as well as adults to create a long-term commitment.
Understand and teach etiquette. As mentioned earlier, many teachers are not sure what is acceptable behavior around trans students and what is not. If this is the case with teachers, then it is only safe to assume the same for students who have never met someone who is transgender. For most people, the concept of sex assigned at birth is a non-negotiable concept simply because of how they were raised. They have never met someone who understood things like perceived gender identity, let alone a trans student.
Spreading awareness and understanding can ease transitions related to locker room access. If students can truly understand that a transgender student is not a boy using girls locker rooms, then there is likely to be less backlash from the student population—the same for school sports teams.
Ideally, schools should be advocating for comprehensive federal prohibition of discrimination across the board as far as possible. We have a responsibility to the future of the country as a whole.
Challenges Faced By School Officials
The truth is that school leaders have the power to create a school community that offers students a safe space where they can come to feel safe and accepted; all it takes is a bit of work and support from the school board.
Schools play a significant role in shaping the lives of students, and many schools do not take this seriously anymore. Several students exprience bullying in schools on a daily basis, school staff are overworked, school facilities are neglected (because of underfunding), and students are left to their own devices, as many of them are at home.
That being said, school leaders cannot manage these ideals on their own. A school district is dependent on funding. They are also at the mercy of anti-transgender legislation and contradictions or grey areas when it comes to civil rights.
Organizations like the Human Rights Campaign can offer them some support, but at the same time, they need to go through institutions like the Department of Education's office, which is an unfortunately lengthy and tedious process that takes up precious time in staff's time.
These kinds of culture changes ideally need to be implemented at an elementary school level in children's lives. Secondary school principals then have to take over, and finally, the buck is passed to high school leaders. It is unfair to expect these changes to start at high school level and still be successful. Gender identity issues need to be bought to people's attention long before they reach high school age because this kind of social construct is formed early in life.
Furthermore, while there are supreme court rulings that support the civil rights of trans students, it is still difficult for schools to implement such rules, especially for allowing transgender students to use the locker room of the student's preferred gender identity because the parents of other students tend not to understand gender identity. This sort of problem causes a lot of pressure on school staff.