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May 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 8

“Be Ready for Us”: Gender-Diverse Teachers Share Advice for School Leaders

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New survey research illustrates how to better support gender-diverse staff.

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Much scholarly and news media attention has recently focused, appropriately, on the needs of gender-diverse (transgender and nonbinary) youth in schools. Far less attention has been devoted to the needs of gender-diverse teachers. While these educators often experience silencing and discrimination, they are increasingly speaking up: coming out at school, openly advocating for gender-diverse students, and challenging anti-trans school environments. The responses they receive from school leaders vary widely, as illustrated by three stories from our research on gender-diverse educators.
When Lonnie, an elementary special education teacher, came out as transgender, his principal simply replied, "Oh, that's great! What would you like me to call you?" That response signaled a level of administrative support that Lonnie said has been ongoing.
By contrast, after Kaylie came out at school, she found herself facing constant classroom observations from administrators. Her observation reports had always been strong before, but now she felt like she was in a "fishbowl," constantly being "nitpicked." In response to this shift and other experiences of prejudice, Kaylie decided to leave the field.
And after Ms. Domo disclosed her gender identity to a trusted administrator, he publicly outed her. Like Kaylie, Ms. Domo faced newly negative classroom observations. In response, she disclosed her identity as a "proud Black trans woman" to students in a Google classroom post, then wore a "Black Trans Lives Matter" shirt to school. In retribution, she was escorted to her car by security and placed on unpaid leave.
Kaylie and Ms. Domo's stories illustrate the fears that keep many gender-diverse teachers from coming out at school, while Lonnie's illustrates the possibilities for support in simple but crucial ways. To better understand the issues these teachers face, we recently collaborated on two studies exploring the experiences of gender-diverse educators across the United States. In a qualitative study she led, Heather interviewed 30 gender-diverse teachers. In a mixed-methods study, Matt surveyed 134 gender-diverse teachers and interviewed 12. (For background, Matt is a white trans guy with 16 years of classroom experience as a high school science teacher and an instructional coach. Heather is a white, cisgender, lesbian professor of English.) One question we both asked teachers was, "What advice do you have for administrators regarding how to support you?" Below, we present their answers.
But first, let's address the elephant in the room: we understand the external pressures school leaders are under. Nearly 400 anti-trans bills, many targeting education, had been filed by the end of February of this year (Reed, 2023). Much of the current "culture wars" center on policies and practices related to gender-diverse youth. This debate is rocking schools: two-thirds of principals in a UCLA survey reported "substantial political conflict with parents or members of the community" last year—conflict one principal described as "rough as hell" (Turner, 2022).

These teachers face extraordinary rates of discrimination, both inside and outside schools. That prejudice has consequences.

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Yet leaders must understand that school environments can be "rough as hell" for gender-diverse teachers, too. These teachers face extraordinary rates of discrimination, both inside and outside schools. That prejudice has consequences: Matt's study found alarming rates of non-suicidal self-injury, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts. These rates were even more remarkable, considering that the educators in the study were all well-educated, employed, and had stable housing. Twenty-five percent of the 12 participants Matt interviewed left education within a month of the interviews, many citing a lack of support from colleagues and administrators. Those decisions represent irreparable loss, both for the teachers and their schools.

Simple (But Critical) Steps for Supporting Gender-Diverse Teachers

Surely, schools need gender-diverse teachers. Their existence is an antidote to the despair and isolation of other gender-diverse educators and students. Gender-diverse adults serve as proof-of-life to LGBTQIA+ students—evidence that an authentic and productive future is possible for them. Straight and non-transgender students also benefit from seeing gender-diverse teachers and students being supported; when gendered expectations are challenged, possibilities expand for everyone (Kumashiro, 2002).
Here is what our survey respondents had to say about how school leaders can create more supportive environments for gender-diverse teachers:

1. Educate Yourself

Participants in both our studies urged leaders to recognize when they need additional information to support gender-diverse teachers effectively. Leaders can seek information and guidance from within their own communities—for example, from local LGBTQIA+ community organizations. GLSEN, a national organization, also offers free educator guides, resources, and an educator network. It's important to note that, while some gender-diverse teachers want to play a role in educating their colleagues and administration (and should be compensated for that work), others grow tired of the expectation that they will educate adults at their own emotional expense.
In addition to lacking knowledge about gender-diverse people and their needs, school leaders often are not adequately prepared to interrupt bias among staff members, or staff and students (Boyland et al., 2016). Yet the teachers we surveyed told us one of the most powerful ways their leaders could support them was by correcting people who misgender them.
According to Learning for Justice, when leaders overhear someone being misgendered—whether a student or staff member—there are several ways to respond:
  • Correct it in the moment.
    "The other day I saw Jess and he was saying …"
    "Oh right.
    They were saying?"
  • Model the correct pronoun afterwards.
    "Yes, I remember Jess saying that. They were just telling me …"
  • Address it directly.
    "Yes, I definitely remember that. And Jess uses they/them pronouns. Just wanted to let you know." (Collins & Ehrenhalt, n.d.)
The most important thing is to interrupt bias and misgendering every time it happens, the moment it happens.

2. Recognize Gender-Diverse Teachers' Strengths and Needs

Leaders should learn and champion the strengths gender-diverse teachers bring to their communities. In our research, we asked teachers what strengths they attributed to their gender identity, and we also identified strengths as they described their work. These strengths included deeper empathy for students facing any form of oppression, the ability to effectively support LGBTQIA+ youth, and the ability to model self-understanding and self-acceptance.
Leaders must also listen to and respect the needs of gender-diverse teachers on their staff. They should recognize that teachers' needs may differ depending on their identities and experiences. For example, new staff may need support ensuring the use of preferred pronouns and honorifics, support that might already be in place for a trans teacher who is a veteran at the school. Issues related to race, class, socioeconomic status, ability, etc. may also impact a teacher's needs. Darrin, one of the teachers Heather interviewed, suggests that leaders ask staff directly what forms of support they need.

Cisgender administrators may not be able to fully grasp what these educators are going through—but they can be strong advocates on their behalf.

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Crucially, participants in our surveys encouraged administrators to trust and believe teachers when they describe their experiences with discrimination. Marty, a trans man interviewed by Heather, said cisgender administrators should start by acknowledging that they may not be able to fully grasp what these educators are going through—but they can be strong advocates on their behalf.
Marty emphasized the importance of not separating intent and impact. "It doesn't matter if people meant to hurt me [or] … marginalize me. [Certain] situations can marginalize me." When discrimination or marginalization happens, especially repeatedly, Marty and other trans teachers need leaders who can recognize the problem and act. Equity activist Aiko Bethea (2020) reinforces this sentiment, arguing that administrators must "build in accountability measures and enforce them for aggressions and discriminatory behavior—and completely do away with excuses like, 'They didn't intend to do that. They didn't know.'"

3. Hire Gender-Diverse Teachers

Schools need gender-diverse adults, so hiring practices must be inclusive of gender identity and expression. When asked about her advice to administrators, Kaylie, interviewed by Heather, began, "Number one: Actually hire trans teachers." And signal your openness to doing so. Of the 12 teachers Matt interviewed, none chose to disclose their gender identities during the interview process in their districts. All believed that if they did, they would not be hired.
Steps like highlighting the school's GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance) or including a nondiscrimination policy in recruitment materials that protects gender identity and expression can help put candidates at ease—from the beginning. As Ari told Heather, "I don't think I would apply to a school if I couldn't find" an anti-discrimination statement that addressed gender identity explicitly.

4. Provide Proactive Support

By "proactive" support, we mean steps administrators should take even if no one on their staff has disclosed a gender-diverse identity. As Olive said to Heather, "Be ready for us." Assume gender-diverse teachers are already among your staff—they probably are. Recognize that those teachers may not feel comfortable coming out at school. Then, design an environment that communicates clearly that they can. First, make optional pronoun-sharing a regular part of introductions—and not just at the beginning of the year, because pronouns change. Especially if you are not gender-diverse, include your pronouns in your email signature and encourage staff to do the same.
Second, educate your faculty on the needs of gender-diverse people by bringing in trained consultants—and do so in a way that assumes gender-diverse teachers are in the room. Use language that does not assume all participants are cisgender. Avoid activities that require teachers either to lie or to out themselves, or that highlight individuals' gender expression. And allow gender-diverse staff to excuse themselves if the discussions addressing their right to thrive would be too triggering.
Third, recognize that student-centered policies and practices about bathrooms, prom dates, and school libraries clearly signal to gender-diverse teachers how safe a space is for them. For example, does your school offer access to gender-neutral bathrooms for all students and staff? In Matt's study, nearly 60 percent of 134 trans and nonbinary teachers reported difficulty accessing safe, affirming restrooms. Safety for some may be a single-person, gender-neutral restroom; for others, a safe restroom might be labeled one gender or another but be designated solely for adults separate from their students. Several teachers described facing pushback from colleagues regarding their bathroom use or felt uncomfortable with expectations that they would use the same bathroom as children, in light of rhetoric that inaccurately links trans teachers to child predation. Bathroom use is a basic right, one codified by OSHA. Leaders have the power to set the policy and to create a climate within which gender-diverse teachers have genuine access to comfortable bathrooms.
Leaders also need to ensure that IT teams quickly accommodate both legal and affirmed name changes and that insurance options cover gender-affirming physical and mental health care. In places where discrimination is the policy—where state and federal limitations prevent supporting gender-diverse staff and students—leaders should work to change those policies. Yærf, whose state has implemented restrictive policies regarding sexuality and gender identity in schools, said their administrators are personally supportive. Yet, that support doesn't feel meaningful when they can't meet Yærf's needs. "[At this school], it's very liberal, like, 'How can we support you?' [But then] I tell them, and they can't do that." Yærf would like to see greater collaborative work between education leaders and state policymakers toward policy change beyond the school level.

5. Provide Responsive Support

The proactive strategies described above are important in every learning community, whether gender-diverse teachers are out at school or not. Responsive support, by contrast, refers to support offered when a teacher is out as gender-diverse.

Leaders should support teachers' rights to disclose their identities at school, recognize the value of that disclosure, and model that support publicly.

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When a teacher discloses their identity, "Be as welcoming as possible, as warm as possible," said Ms. Domo. Think back to Lonnie's principal's response: Oh, that's great! What would you like me to call you? By contrast, when Elliot came out, his administrator "tried to delay me [from] telling … students for as long as possible." Elliott's administrative team had "a lot more focus on what could go wrong than what's good about me being out to the students." Leaders should support teachers' rights to disclose their identities at school, recognize the value of that disclosure, and model that support publicly. The first step? As noted, use teachers' affirmed names and pronouns, and correct others who misgender a teacher. "I never saw admin correct anyone, ever," said Emrys. Speaking from experience, Briar urged administrators to "get it right with parents, please. If parents use the wrong pronouns, correct them. … Don't use the wrong pronoun for me in an IEP meeting, or in an email to a parent." By contrast, Josie, who had recently transitioned at school, said, "I don't get misgendered. At all." That kind of environment is possible, and leaders set the tone.
Crucially, leaders' responses to anti-trans bias from anyone—students, colleagues, or parents—must clearly signal that such actions are unacceptable. One study confirmed that trans teachers with supportive administrators are more likely to have supportive colleagues (Hart & Hart, 2022). With people unwilling to extend affirmation, administrators can convey the message: "I can't tell you what to think, but I can tell you what you can't say out loud at work."
So, what if someone slips up? The person who slipped up should apologize quickly, move on, and practice the use of affirming language to prevent future mistakes. For example, rehearse addressing the teacher as Teacher Smith instead of misgendering them with Miss Smith. Too often, teachers said, leaders extend infinite grace regarding slip-ups, rather than holding others accountable. Nicole described the power of accountability: after an administrator had misgendered Nicole repeatedly in their first meeting, her colleagues let him know how valuable she was to their team. They shared her correct pronouns and honorifics and emphasized the importance of using them with other staff. Later, Nicole heard him correcting a teacher who misgendered her. "He learned and moved on," she said, "which was all I could hope for."
And, while our survey participants urged leaders not to focus exclusively on what could go wrong if they came out, they also wanted leaders to develop a plan for responding to transphobic parents and community members. S's administrators told S that if parents complained, "We're not gonna put you in the middle of it because it's literally not your problem." Skip's administrators told parents they were free to remove their children from Skip's music class—but they needed to supervise them during that time, as the music class took place during other teachers' contractually obligated prep time. This response placed the onus on the parents for their decision.

Interrupting Bias at Every Turn

To effectively support gender-diverse teachers, listen to those teachers' voices. Leaders should understand the value that gender-diverse educators bring to learning communities—and the loss suffered when teachers like Kaylie, Ms. Domo, and others choose to leave schools that are either openly hostile or subtly unsupportive.
Even in the face of community pressure, comprehensive and inclusive policies for supporting all staff need to be in place. Leaders must interrupt bias at every turn, and address issues of mistrust, tensions, doubts, and fears. Even incremental change is welcome. All learning communities must start where they are and grow from there.
Authors' note: Most names are pseudonyms.
References

Bethea, A. (2020, June 1). An open letter to corporate America, philanthropy, academia, etc.: What now? Medium.

Boyland, L., Swensson, J., Ellis, J., Coleman, L., & Boyland, M. (2016). Principals can and should make a positive difference for LGBTQ students. The Journal of Leadership Education, 15 (4), 117–131.

Collins, C., & Ehrenhalt, J. (n.d.). Best practices for serving LGBTQ students, Section II: Classroom culture. Learning for Justice.

Hart, L. C., & Hart, W. H. (2022). "Their own personal unicorn": The workplace experiences of transgender teachers. Journal of Education Human Resources, 40 (1), 5–28.

Kumashiro, K. K. (2002). Against repetition: Addressing resistance to anti-oppressive change in the practices of learning, teaching, supervising, and researching. Harvard Educational Review, 72 (1), 67–93.

Reed, E. (2023, February 25). Anti-trans legislative digest: A rundown of what's moving [Substack newsletter]. Erin In The Morning.

Turner, C. (2022, December 1). School principals say culture wars made last year "rough as hell." NPR.

Matthew D. Rice is a high school science teacher by background and is currently an instructional coach in New Jersey. His recent doctoral dissertation focused on the experiences of trans and nonbinary teachers in K–12 education.

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