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Teachers in transition

news | Published in TES magazine on 3 May, 2013 | By: Irena Barker

Coming out as transgender is daunting for teachers, and can have tragic results. We look at what schools can do to help

Shortly before Christmas, St Mary Magdalen’s Church of England Primary School in Accrington made an unusual announcement in its newsletter.

Nathan Upton, a well-loved teacher at the school for children aged up to 11, had “made a significant change in his life and will be transitioning to live as a woman after the Christmas break”.

“She will return to work as Miss (Lucy) Meadows,” it said matter-of-factly.

And, showing enormous courage, she did. But local newspapers and the national press were soon tipped off and picked up the story. One high- profile columnist, Richard Littlejohn, claimed her actions would have “a devastating effect” on her students.

He was right - but not in the way he was suggesting. Less than three months into the term, on 19 March, Meadows was found dead. She is believed to have taken her own life.

Those who were in contact with her in her final few months suggest that she felt lucky to have a supportive principal, but she was suffering stress from the negative press attention she had attracted.

Littlejohn, a columnist at one of Britain’s best-selling newspapers, the Daily Mail, was attacked for his commentary on the story, in which he claimed the teacher had put her “selfish needs” ahead of the children.

“Children as young as 7 aren’t equipped to compute this kind of information,” he claimed in his now-infamous column.

Meadows was part of a new wave of transgender people “transitioning” in the classroom. While her case may have illustrated that the consequences can still be unbearable, there is some evidence that social attitudes are changing, and in some countries transgender people are increasingly protected by strict anti-discrimination laws.

Indeed, widespread access to the internet is allowing transgender people across the world to support each other, emboldening some to come out.

In many countries, there is also much-improved access to healthcare for people with gender dysphoria - extreme discomfort caused by a conflict between one’s physical and mental gender.

Fear of violence

In the UK, the Gender Identity Research and Education Society says that the number of people presenting for treatment at gender identity clinics is rising by about 20 per cent a year, and 20,000 people have sought treatment so far.

While estimates vary widely, around 1 per cent of the world’s population is thought to be transgender. This means that a school with 100 teachers is statistically likely to employ one person who is affected. Numbers of male-to-female and female-to-male transgender people are thought to be about equal.

Despite the new-found courage of many transgender people in coming out, surveys have shown that many people are still scared they will lose their jobs if they attempt to transition in public. And in less tolerant nations, teachers with gender dysphoria can feel unable to be open about their status for fear of violent attacks.

Between January 2008 and December 2011, 831 murders of transgender people were documented across 55 countries. While the majority of reported deaths were in Latin America and Turkey, there were also murders in countries with a reputation for tolerance, such as Germany, which recorded two in that time.

And whatever a government’s attitude to transgender rights, teachers’ careers can still suffer if parents complain and schools take their side. It was the objection of a parent that allegedly led to the dismissal of teacher Marla Krolikowski from a New York Catholic school last year.

Krolikowski, who was born male, lived a double life for 32 years. While she worked at St Francis Preparatory School in Queens as Mark, in her private life she was Marla.

“I valued the job so much that I was willing to internalise everything, because the job meant so much to me,” she told the local media.

But five years ago Mark started coming to school with a few feminine touches: long hair, painted nails and earrings, along with a suit and tie. In October 2011, a parent of a new student complained to the school.

Krolikowski, who is now suing her employer for unfair dismissal, says that school officials confronted her, asking if she was a drag performer or a female impersonator.

She told US television reporters: “I said, ‘I’m transgendered and I identify as a woman.’ Then everybody’s jaw dropped, and then I said, ‘Oh God, what did I do?’”

Court papers filed by Krolikowski’s lawyers say that one member of senior management told her that being transgender was “worse than (being) gay”. She agreed to remove her hooped earrings and French manicure and was told she could not appear at public events as a woman.

She continued to work and was awarded straight As in her teacher observation and praised for giving up so much free time for school activities.

But in June 2012, she was told she had not toned down her appearance enough and was “insubordinate”. Officials then demanded that she resign.

Lawyers for the school said the dismissal was for “appropriate non- discriminatory reasons”.

Krolikowski’s popularity among students has been highlighted by a 13,000- signature petition started by a former student, calling for the school to formally apologise to her.

Positive experiences

It is not all doom and gloom, however. There are teachers with very successful stories to tell as well.

Kate Ainsworth* made a daunting but successful male-to-female transition at the school where she worked without attracting any public opprobrium.

She worked up the courage to come out at her school only two years ago, a whole year after starting female hormones and telling friends and family.

This meant spending a year teaching as a man, Sam*, and changing clothes on the way home from school in her car to become Kate.

But this state of affairs couldn’t last. “Eventually all the feelings were building up and I couldn’t take it any longer,” she said.

When Ainsworth informed the principal, she was supportive, and they arranged to tell staff and students, who were from 4 to 11 years old, a few weeks later.

“On the day of the announcement, I drove to the school and drove round and round - I was dreading there being TV cameras or something there,” Ainsworth says.

Wearing a simple women’s top and trousers, she walked into school to curious looks. “I was nervous as anything. I was really, really worried about the reaction, but everyone was really good,” she says. “Students did sometimes call me Sir and not Miss, but they corrected each other. They wanted to do the right thing.”

Ainsworth says that since the day she came out as a transgender woman she has had “no hassle” from the press, teachers or parents. And she doesn’t regret the move. “You have to be strong, but I don’t think you should hide yourself away,” she says.

Natacha Kennedy, who taught for 20 years in southern England, did not feel as though she could come out as a woman until she left teaching and went into academia six years ago. But she says the situation is changing fast, and it may be easier now.

“I felt I didn’t want to risk my job or my career,” she says. “The people I talked to all thought that I wouldn’t be able to come out at school. I felt that the schools I was working in just weren’t ready for me.”

Her real fear did not concern students - who tend to be very accepting - but parents, who she worried might withdraw their children from the school.

“You don’t need that many conservative parents to create a problem,” she says. “I was good at teaching, popular with parents. I didn’t want to risk it: I had a mortgage to pay.”

Despite these worries, she is optimistic that society is becoming more accepting of transgender people, pointing to the fact that Prince William invited a transgender helicopter pilot to his wedding, for example. And a lot has changed in terms of laws and social attitudes in the past few years. Younger generations, she says, are growing up “more accepting” of diversity in general.

“But teachers still tend to keep their heads down,” she adds.

Eventually, Kennedy found that teaching under her previous male persona “wore thin”, and being in the closet for so long left her feeling increasingly stressed.

“I’m not the sort of person who likes secrets and deception. That really got to me,” she says.

In the end Kennedy decided to switch to a career in teacher education, where she felt able to be honest about her female gender identity. She is now trying to set up a transgender teachers association, so that those who are attacked in the press have “someone to go to”.

How to help teachers

So what should a school do if a teacher says they want to transition to a different gender while at work?

In some countries where discrimination against transgender people is illegal, schools are compelled to accept their teacher’s decision and make the process run as smoothly as possible.

One principal of a high-performing 11-18 school in the South of England, who asked not to be named, says the key is planning. When one of his male teachers announced last spring that he intended to return in September as a woman, the principal and teacher hatched a carefully prepared information campaign.

It was agreed that the teacher would take two weeks off at the end of term to allow the announcement to be made without his being there, and to minimise any press attention. He would then go away over the summer for surgery and start as a woman in September.

The process started with a staff meeting, followed by simultaneous assemblies with the students. Parents were alerted by email at the same time, and were sent a 12-page document about transgender people.

The school was so meticulous that even students on a school trip were informed at the same time as everybody else, by teachers who had been briefed beforehand.

The main aim of the big, simultaneous “reveal” was to reduce gossip, rumour and misinformation. “We just didn’t want any frenzy around it,” the principal says. Students were clearly warned that negative comments, either in life or on social networking sites, would be regarded with the same seriousness as racist ones.

“We found linking it to racism was very powerful because the students know that is wrong, but whether they understand that insulting someone for changing their gender is wrong is unknown.”

The main fear was not the reaction of students but of the press. The announcement was leaked to the local paper, which wrote a straightforward piece, but the anticipated wider backlash did not occur.

The process was made easier, the principal says, by the fact that the teacher was highly respected and well established.

“If it had been a teacher with a behaviour management issue, or struggling a bit as a teacher, a gender transition would have been more challenging,” he says. “Her status as a teacher with massive credibility helped her come to the decision that it would be possible.”

But the principal goes further, arguing that having a transgender teacher is “a very powerful opportunity” to demonstrate the school’s inclusive ethos and exposes children to diversity. He has now gone on to advise other principals on how to deal with, and make the most of, having a teacher who changes their sex.

But even after such a positive experience, he says there are school leaders who would not be able to deal with it so well.

“There are heads who are not at ease with it. They are anxious, they fear the school having some sort of reputational damage,” he says. “They don’t want to attract the wrong kind of attention to their school and they don’t trust the press.”

And, he warns, “It takes only one parent with a dodgy attitude to whip it all up.”

But schools owe it to students to put these fears behind them, says Beatrix Groves, a high-profile, transgender, post-16 teacher in England.

“The vast majority of trans people are in the closet … children will come into contact with them,” she says. “It’s more of a threat to children to keep them in the dark than to show them that the world is not just the way it looks.

“Children and institutions need to know there’s nothing offensive or nasty about being trans.”

As for her own experience of coming out in 2008, it wasn’t the outrage that she feared but the possible loss of students and subsequently her job.

“As it happens, I think I actually gained students. People were intrigued; it’s added to the colour,” she says. “I do feel like it has made me stronger. I was just an ordinary bloke in the past and now I’m a gorgeous girl.”

* Names have been changed

TIPS FOR SCHOOLS

What a principal should do when a transgender teacher wants to transition at work:

  • Listen carefully to the teacher and be as supportive as possible. Maintain a dialogue throughout the process, which will help iron out difficulties before they get out of control.
  • Work closely with the teacher to work out how and when to tell other staff, students and parents.
  • If possible, make the announcement to everybody simultaneously, to avoid misinformation and gossip.
  • Read up on the law: in the UK, for example, it is illegal to discriminate against transgender people from the moment they choose to commit to a life in the gender opposite to their birth gender, whether or not they are under medical supervision.
  • Don’t be afraid to discuss tricky topics with the teacher, such as which toilet they will use. Legally, they can use the toilet of their new gender, but in reality they may be happy striking a compromise.

RESOURCES TO PROMOTE UNDERSTANDING OF TRANSGENDER ISSUES

The TES transgender selection of resources aims to promote tolerance and raise awareness of the prejudices faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. It also offers support and guidance to schools in challenging homophobic and transphobic bullying and celebrating diversity. All our resources have been shared by TES partners to help teachers.

Gender variance

Lesson plans and activities to help students understand the diversity of human sexuality and gender variance, and how they are seen in different cultures.

Homophobic and transphobic bullying in physical education

This lesson uses case studies to highlight homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools. Students learn what homophobic language is and that it is unacceptable and how this type of bullying can be prevented.

A tent for Brighton Pride

Calculate the areas of polygons using a case study of tents at Brighton Pride, a summer event in which lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from all over Europe come to the South Coast of England to celebrate.

Same and different

Encourage your class to think about how people are all different and that difference is something to celebrate through the book Something Else by Kathryn Cave.

All kinds of people, all kinds of sex

A lesson to prompt open and frank discussion about the sexual activities of people of all orientations. An excellent source of support for anyone who finds the idea of discussing LGBT sex intimidating.

Hidden histories

A lesson for students to consider why the history of minority groups might be hidden or retold.

Stonewall

Stonewall’s education guide will give you the tools you need to prevent homophobic language being used.

The words we use

Help students understand how the words we use can affect people.

The diversity of loving relationships

A lesson plan to help your class to begin to recognise the diversity of loving relationships.

Diversity in families

Explore the diversity of and within families.

Working with faith communities

A sensitive guide for working with faith communities and managing the relationship between faith and sexual and gender orientation.


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