Embracing Difference: An Understanding of Transgender Issues of a High School Administrator

Embracing Difference: An Understanding of Transgender Issues of a High School Administrator

In the field of education, educators and administrators are faced with new challenges on a daily basis. One of the reasons I went into the field of education was not only to share the love and passion for my subject matter, but also to provide a safe learning environment for all students. The same holds true when moving from the classroom into administration. The idea that an administrator can help shape the learning environment and culture of a school community is a powerful, responsible, yet rewarding aspect of the profession. A day never goes by that new situations call for not only providing a welcoming and nurturing learning environment for all students, but finding ways to diplomatically face these challenges. 

Welcoming a new student

A family relocated to Northern California and was in search of a high school that would fit the academic rigor sought by the student, while supporting the student’s emotional needs and extra-curricular activities. The family had toured our high school, an alternative public charter high school allowing students the opportunity to complete self-paced independent study online in subject content areas traditionally not offered at other high schools, both public and private, along with traditional classroom based courses. The tour went well, and the both the parents and student decided they would enroll in the school.  The student was excited about starting classes the following week.

Working with the administrative team, we reviewed the student’s records, including previous school transcripts, and medical, and other supporting documentation. Only then did we learn our new student was assigned male at birth, yet self identifies as a female. Although the revelation came after the tour, an immediate concern arose: How were we, as a high school, going to welcome a transgender student?

A conversation

As the high school’s administrator, I placed a call to the parents of our prospective student, we will call Lisa, to set up a meeting prior to Lisa’s first day. The meeting and subsequent conversation was to review the documentation, discuss Lisa’s upcoming classes and progress towards graduation, along with other school procedures and policies.  During the phone conversation, I had asked the parents if the high school counselor would also be welcomed in the meeting, about which they did not object. The parents and Lisa arrived promptly the following day. The meeting was typical in reviewing the day to day operations of the school, teacher and student expectations, and answering additional questions the parents and Lisa might have. The topic of Lisa being transgender was not discussed during the meeting nor advanced by the family.  Tentatively, I approached the topic of how to welcome Lisa to the school as transgender.  The parents did not seem concerned by the question, and just stated that we should welcome Lisa just as any other student. At first I was taken aback by the comment, then considered what the family was conveying. The message was clear. Lisa was an individual just like any other student who attendes the school. Therefore, we as a school would need to welcome her without hesitation or bias.

Concerns

Based on stories in research literature and the media, misinformation and bias acknowledging transgender individuals is real. “Transgender students are vulnerable to discrimination, exclusion, and harassment” (Buzuvis ,2013, p. 220). The reality and concern as to how Lisa would be welcomed and accepted at the school was paramount for her health and safety.  Although the family was comfortable with Lisa as transgender, the concern was how would the current student body and high school community react to a transgender student?  What modifications would be needed to accommodate Lisa; for example, use of restrooms? How would the information be shared regarding Lisa? Would disclosure or non-disclosure as Lisa being transgender violate any school policies, state or federal laws?  Each of these concerns would need to be vetted, researched, reviewed, and discussed with the parents, school administration, and board.

Communication

Communication was the key to gaining a deeper understanding of the issues of transgender Lisa had faced and the avenues we would collectively need to address for her to be comfortable at our high school. What Lisa and her family might consider fair and appropriate as being transgender may not translate or be readily acceptable by school staff or the beliefs of the members of the school community (Kaiser, Seitz, & Waters, 2014). 

Working closely with Lisa and her parents, the administrative team and I learned from the family how Lisa thrived at her previous schools in dealing with the topic of transgender. In each of her previous schools, Lisa had a single point of contact, generally the school counselor, for whom she could openly discuss in confidence personal concerns or topics that may have arisen during the day. If what Lisa had expressed took place in an educational setting, then the administration and respective teacher would be contacted, and the topic would be reviewed with a prescribed course of action to be implemented. When changes were made in classroom or school protocols, the students and school community were none the wiser. Instead, the changes were seen as updates to school practices occurring throughout the school year.

The issues of bathroom and locker rooms were addressed. Since our school had individual locking unisex bathrooms for faculty, Lisa would be able to use those facilities.  All other aspects of being transgender and questions that would arise, Lisa and her family comfortably answered and would answer in the future when the need arose. As a family they volunteered to address any questions with the school community.

Weekly staff meetings were held as part of regular administrative prorocol to review the current topics at hand, upcoming events, student concerns, and to review incoming students. It was during the staff meeting prior Lisa’s arrival, I had informed the staff of our new student, Lisa. Surprisingly, the questions posed by the staff centered around Lisa as a student, her interests, career goals, and plans after high school. The topic of Lisa being transgender was moot. The meeting proceeded to focus on how collectively we would welcome Lisa to the high school community, with the respect and compassion she deserved, thus modeling for our students our expectations.

The goal in learning about Lisa’s previous educational experiences and sharing with staff was not to single out Lisa but to come up with a strategy in how to communicate openly and effectively by disseminating information regarding transgender issues in a compassionate and diplomatic manner. In so doing, the issue no longer was that of Lisa’s gender identity, but who Lisa was as a student and person.

Policy in Action

In the state of California and more so in Northern California, there is a greater acceptance of transgender issues. Even though The Education Amendment Acts of 1972, known as Title IX, states “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance” (para. 1) underline discrimination still exists within school communities. Discrimination is based on prejudice (Thompson, 2016); a person’s individual religious beliefs, cultural norms, or basic misunderstanding of another person, situation, or life experience.

The California State Supreme Court recognized in Serrano v. Priest (1971) students have a fundamental right to equal education opportunity under the California State Constitution. Additionally, the California state legislature has gone one step further in addressing the issue of student rights and non-discrimination. The School Success and Opportunity Act of 2013 (AB-1266) provides for students to use facilities and participate in programs and sport activities based on the gender for which the student identifies.

With this information in hand, understanding Lisa’s situation, and how she self-identified, made the implementation of school policy seamless. All current school policies and those governed by state and federal law would be enforced. Lisa would have the choice of using the bathroom accommodation provided or could use the bathroom for the gender she identified with. Lisa, as her parents expressed, would be treated just like another student attending our high school.

Revelation

The cultural of our high school was one of acceptance without judgement. The students who attended the school were a microcosm of the world at-large; young adults who were openly gay, students with special needs, socially awkward with extremely high IQs, independent thinkers who challenged the status quo, junior Olympians, apprentices at the city’s ballet company, professional actors and models, science or math nerds, musicians, and just average kids. Knowing the student body, welcoming a transgender student should not have been a concern. Yet, the administrative team and staff were prepared for anything that could happen.

At the beginning of each week, students met in their respective “house” groups. Each house was supervised by a staff member where students worked in small groups on weekly life skill activities based on grade level. For example, students who were seniors would focus on the college process, applications and essays. It was during a “house” meeting that Lisa was first introduced. The students were warm and welcoming and wanted to get to know our new student. Lisa felt immediately welcomed, then announced to her group that she was transgender. None of the students seemed to blink an eye.

Lisa felt comfortable explaining what it is like to be transgender and was willing to openly discuss the topic with her peers. Immediately, she put her classmates at ease. She answered each of their questions directly with great care and respect. No question posed seemed to put her off balance or insurmountable. She moved throughout her first day at our high school effortlessly with grace.  At the end of the school day, as I did with all students, I met with Lisa to see how she liked her classes, the staff, and students. She stated that she felt at home and loved the caring environment of the school along with her class schedule. Lisa just fit right in.

Conclusion

As an administrator, I have the responsibility to provide a safe learning environmental and positive educational experience for all students. Preparing for situations that may arise and considering each possible outcome has been part of the training and life experience of an administrator. Throughout my educational career, whether in the classroom or in the main office, flexibility is essential, being comfortable and accepting of all students, and communicating honestly and openly has fostered a school community that is thoughtful, respectful, and caring of all who attend. However, in this situation, I was totally taken by surprise. It was my students, staff, Lisa’s parents, and ultimately Lisa herself who taught me the best lesson of all, do not underestimate the power of compassion and acceptance of our young people.

Lisa is a tall, 6’3”, vivacious and graceful young lady who has a modeling career and travels the world. What Lisa taught me and all of those who have gotten to know her, embrace her as the person she is, learn from her life experiences, and share those lessons with others was to cultivate a community of tolerance and acceptance, and above all live and learn from others that are not the same as we. For without this, our educational system and world would be a very dull place.

Comments

Julio C. de Carvalho's picture Julio C. de Carvalho | March 27, 2017 1:14 pm MST

Cheryl,

This topic has been very problematic. One cannot say whether or not we are moving forward or backward. I firmly believe in people's rights. But, in this case, I must say the government is not providing clear guidelines

Kimberly Underwood's picture Kimberly Underwood | April 4, 2017 12:45 pm MST

Great insight!  I applaud the level of compassion and thoughtfulness reflected in your plan of action. Through lenses of social and professional responsibility, you have provided timely best practices for other administrators, teachers, and school personnel. Much appreciated!