I Am Not the Same Teacher
Early in the school year I attended a meeting. I entered the room not knowing that this year, after over a quarter century in education, was to be markedly different for me. That day, I chatted easily with my fellow educators, all of us refreshed from the summer break. Looking back, I vividly remember how sunshine streamed in from the windows, how excited everyone was to meet in person, and how many were dressed in new professional attire. I had no idea at that time that the content of the meeting and events in my family life would leave me contemplating a career change.
On the agenda: equality. The presenters, district administrators, smiled brightly as they explained to us that we must use a student’s preferred name when asked; it was no different than using a nickname for a student they quickly assured us. Parents are not to be informed. That would be outing a student and putting them in harms way. Failure to do so, the administrator explained while continuing to smile, would be in violation of Title IX. This quick announcement left my mind, as both a teacher and a parent of gender questioning teen, reeling with questions.
If the students had authority to change their name and gender without parent permission, why were we asking parent permission for field trips?
Was calling a female student a traditionally male name actually akin to using a nick name?
Are these interventions something schools should be deciding without parental or expert input?
Why was announcing a trans identity being treated similarly to announcing a gay identity?
What if a student, still realizing their sexuality, was confused?
Wouldn’t families eventually get wind of the new name? Would this make it a worse situation for the student?
What expertise did the presenters have with trans youth? Who wrote the guidelines for trans identifying youth?
Why were we only hearing about new guidelines for these particular students and not for any others under the ever growing LGBTQA+ umbrella, and why now?
And, “gender support plans?”
But I am sure the many veteran educators were, like me, both stunned and in the current polarized climate, afraid of misspeaking and being deemed bigots. And I am sure that we didn’t wholly understand the ramifications of what we were being asked to take part in.
The meeting shifted gears and quickly moved on to cultural sensitivity. The same speaker asked a participant to share a story. The educator explained that her 2nd grade teacher inexplicably could not pronounce Josefina and she was dubbed Joan for the rest of her school days. Her old school friends still know her as Joan. There was an audible collective gasp.
I can’t imagine not making an effort to pronounce a student’s name. At the same time, I was finding a sad irony that we teachers had no observable reaction to being informed that if James told us he is now Sandra, we must immediately oblige. I was wondering, if referring to Josefina as Joan was life changing for our colleague, how was calling a biological male student a traditionally female name dealt with so flippantly?
And, what would happen if a teacher, all of whom are well versed in adolescent development, questioned the wisdom of this approach? It is likely we might have been escorted out of the building. So because the topic is taboo, discourse is shut down amongst people who have vast experience working with children and adolescents, and the power to affirm an identity, even if parents do not believe it is in the child’s best interest.
It’s possible that this was the day, while I was playing connect the dots in the meeting, that my own son, who had once had such extreme anxiety that he struggled to address adults, contacted school staff to request that he be addressed by a new name and pronouns. This move was against the advice of his doctor, who had known him his entire life, and his parents.
When the pandemic started, so did puberty for my son. Quietly suffering from undiagnosed depression, my tech-savvy son had turned online. In a discord chat room for coders he began corresponding with several trans identifying participants. Both his new online community and teachers found out he was going by his new preferred name before, we, his parents did.
So I had a front row seat to how schools superseding parental authority plays out. It was ugly. And it was so dangerous. Because we were in the dark regarding the name change at school, we didn’t make the connection that my son’s sudden behavioral outbursts were caused in part because he realized that after going by a new name, he was still deeply in pain and depressed. He had clung to this idea that if he transitioned it would resolve his anxiety and depression. But he was realizing it didn’t, and that he had made a very public mistake in changing his name. And we were not in the best position to support him, because for a time, we didn’t know.
When he let me know that he no longer considered himself trans, but a person who did not believe in gender stereotypes, it seemed sudden.
I never exactly had thought ahead to the day that my son would come to this realization that he no longer identified as transgender. But I am sure that I envisioned myself as feeling remarkably relieved, as this never had seemed the path for him. Instead, months later, I feel as if the sky is perpetually overcast. I find myself putting one foot in front of the other during my work day. My mind is preoccupied, as if having a small fan running in the corner of my brain at all times, thinking about the youth transdemic.
This may have led to some positives, such as my own small grassroots effort to speak to others about the sharp increase in trans identifying youth. So, I now, in small conversations speak about the unspeakable.
I spoke to an old friend, a gay, liberal librarian, regarding a social media post. A day later she contacted me for resources. A friend of hers had 8 girls in a homeschool group identifying as trans.
I spoke to an award winning teacher and highly respected community member who told me in recent years she had 2 male students who came out as gay, then trans. Both realized they were gay before pursuing a medical route. She expressed concern that gender non-conforming gay youth may pursue a medical route while not being developmentally able to understand the life-long consequences.
I spoke to teachers who discovered at IEP meetings and conferences that the parents were not informed of the student’s preferred name and pronoun update. One went home and watched a Swedish documentary and disturbed, grabbed me the next day to discuss it.
I spoke to a neighbor with high schoolers who told me of a young man in the community, just out of high school who was detransitioning, and now sterile.
I talked to another educator who spoke of a student who medically transitioned while in high school. The student attempted suicide not long after graduating.
I spoke to a high school counselor who had 5 students ask to change their name and pronouns in the first semester of this school year. And I spoke to her boss, the head counselor, who asked me what social transitioning was.
I am too angry, just yet, to speak to my son’s teachers.
I now know that a teacher messaged my son how proud she was of him coming out and living authentically. In her month of becoming acquainted with my son and 125 others, did she know he had never shown signs of gender non-conformity as a child? With her surface knowledge, did she realize what hormone therapy and “gender affirmation surgery” entails? I have had to wrap my mind around the idea that my son sits each day in a classroom led by someone excited by the idea that he was taking steps toward this.
Months later, another teacher pulled my son into a storage room to probe for details on why he was now going by his birth name again. Why on earth did she believe this was acceptable? Did it really not occur to her that trans identifying teens, like others their age are also prone to act impulsively with little regard to the consequences? Had she never seen a teen try on an identity or belief and cast it back when it didn’t fit? Or, did she believe that she knew what was in the best interest of my child, more so than the “bigoted” parents who understood his history and were looking out for his future?
As parents we are now less concerned about grades, sports, or university admittance. Life is not easy being the former trans kid at school. We now simply hope our son is happy and healthy. We hope he makes a friend again soon.
I am not the same parent, and I am not the same teacher.
At times, the idea of affirming without questioning a student’s gender identity results in me feeling nauseous on the way to work. I struggle to sleep at night. I wake up, and riddled with anxiety, I am in physical pain, disillusioned. I have the insider knowledge of how the blind affirmation by adults at school plays out in a household, how it harms young people with psychological issues and those who have not yet had the time to discover their sexuality. And I know that the decision to affirm a trans identity is being made in schools by people who are not experts, who may have only known the child for minutes.
Families are slowly waking up and smelling the coffee and realizing what is taking place in the schools. The anger of parents whose children have been introduced to the genderbread person or socially transitioned behind their backs in schools has been underestimated. Schools, a major source of affirmation, are fast becoming the next and maybe last battleground in the gender war.
From private conversations, I know I am not alone in wondering how much longer I will last in the classroom. But from wherever I am, I will do my best to spread the word on the flawed guidance for trans-identifying students, the dangerous circumventing of parental rights, and push to change it.