By Kate Flowers, SJAWP Associate Director
If you’re a teacher, you know the Law of Pajamas, which is this: any teacher who dares an early Sunday morning milk run wearing her pajamas and looking a hot mess will most definitely encounter at least one student or parent.
You also know that The Law of Pajamas extends to any time a teacher sneaks into her classroom to steal a few hours of the kind of sweaty, messy work we can’t do when the kids are there: setting up our classroom, purging our stuffed file cabinets, setting up bulletin boards. If you look terrible, especially if you might SMELL terrible, plan on being exposed.
And so it was yesterday, as I finished unloading the handcart piled high with notebooks and binder paper I’d scoured the city to buy on sale. Just as I heaved the box of notebooks onto a desk, I heard my door open and voice call out. Resigning myself to the fact that I looked like I’d been mowing the lawn, I plastered on my happy face and turned to welcome my first visitor of the year.
It was my colleague Hao (who did not look like he’d been mowing the lawn). He was accompanied by a new student, who, based on the student’s hopeful and wary face, I guessed was a freshman. Hao gave a quick but careful introduction, explaining that Sam was a freshman and would have either me or my colleague Cory for English (how could he know already, I wondered?), and finally I got it: Hao wanted me to meet one of our incoming transgender freshman.
This past year, Cory and I led an ongoing voluntary faculty study group we called Supporting Transgender Students, and Hao was an important participant who thought long and hard about what we can do to make things a little easier. Hao is the kind of guy who works tirelessly to help struggling kids find success.
Together, this group worked to gain a better understanding of how we can support our transgender students, who are at highest risk of suicide of their peers. The driving question: How can we make our school and our classrooms safe and healthy places for our transgender students?
And while we don’t have all the answers, we did learn some important first steps. Today, in this first of what I hope will be a series of blog posts, I want to focus on one that can help set the tone for a great year: Don’t accidentally out your transgender student during the first five minutes of school.
We don’t mean to do this, of course. But if you have your new students file into the room, and you stand at the front and take attendance by reading the names from the roster, chances are that you will out a trans student.
Our information systems that generate our rosters still operate on the gender binary and rely on legal documents, and so most trans kids are still listed by the gender and legal name on their birth certificate. While many universities have followed the lead of University of New Hampshire in creating information systems that allow trans students to use their identified gender and name, secondary schools have been slow to do this for a myriad of reasons.
So what can you do, my fellow teacher, to avoid accidentally outing a transgender student on the first day of school? Here’s one idea:
- Stand at the door, and ask students to show you their schedules–I use this as an opportunity to both mark my attendance and assign seats.
- Ask for their preferred name, and make a note on your roster.
- Not only does this ensure you are calling students by their preferred name, it helps you learn difficult to pronounce names, which was the motivation that led me to move to this method ten years ago.
- Later, mark the preferred name on your seating chart.
- If you aren’t sure if a student is transgender or not–and it isn’t always obvious–make note, and send the student’s counselor a quick email asking for more information. (I suggest doing this before contacting parents. Some students aren’t out to their parents yet, or if they are, it may be a difficult and complex issue for the family and could potentially out a student to a resistant parent, provoking an unsafe situation for the student. More on this in a later post.)
We have the power to harness these moments of meeting so that they become moments that validate and empower. Whether it’s sucking it up, smiling and waving hello while you wait in line at the grocery store in your pajamas, or those foundational first minutes as eager new students file into your classroom, we ultimately have the power to use these moments to establish relationships that respect the rights and dignity of all students.
This is the first in a series of blog posts on supporting transgender students. What other ways have you found to create a safe and positive experience for transgender students at your school?