We Have to Treat Every Student Like They’re Our Own, That Includes Transgender Students

Our job is about a promise to every parent who leaves their child with us. We promise to watch over their children and teach them. We promise to do no harm and to stand in harm’s way to protect them. We are bound by best practice to strive for the very best for our children. I say “our children” for a reason. Because the second a child walks through the door to your classroom, or into your school, they are your child. And not just your child but the child of the entire chain of command above you. The teacher, the principal, the superintendent, the governor and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos all share the same promise. We will do best by your child, we promise. It is my duty to stand up to anyone who is willing to harm one of my children. And the simple fact is this. The education system is failing transgender children. Transgender people are at astonishingly high risk for suicide—a 2014 study found that 41 percent of transgender adults had attempted suicide at some point in their lifetime. A 2018 study found rates of attempted suicide among transgender teens ranging from 30 to more than 50 percent. It was because of these and other data showing the challenges transgender and gender non-conforming students face, that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama put into place guidance to protect these children. Under the Trump administration, many of the Department of Education rules and guidance protecting the rights of marginalized children, including this one, have been pulled back or eliminated entirely. And that is why the Education Civil Rights Alliance and their Leading Educator Advocates for Equity recently published a letter asking Betsy DeVos to leave in place existing policies that protect transgender students in schools and to oppose any effort to enact a restrictive definition of “ sex at birth” that would undermine supports for transgender and gender non-conforming students. These supports are the only hope many transgender students have. To take them away now would be a blow to the souls of so many youth. There is no excuse for the education system to harm children like this. [pullquote position="left"]We violate the very core of our education system to turn our backs like that. I am very proud to have been chosen to serve as a Leading Educator Advocate for Equity and to have signed our letter. I am even more proud that every single one of us was ready and willing to sign the letter to Betsy DeVos. I invite you to read it. I invite you to make it available to your students. I invite you to let them know that there are teachers ready to go to the mat for them. I hope you will join us by being one of those teachers. I can tell you what this will mean to transgender students. In 2014, when I was Oregon Teacher of the Year, I met with a Gay Straight Alliance club at a local high school. We planned to talk about teen suicide prevention. But my supervisor sent me an email telling me I could not meet with these students. I was told that meeting with LGBT students “had no value to the district.” I took a personal day and went anyway. What ensued was six months of headlines when my district fired me when I refused their directives not to say I was gay in public and to bring all personal mail from home for them to open and read to make sure, even in private, I wasn’t writing anything gay. My firing got a page in the London Daily Mail, and suddenly every LGBT kid in my state knew they had a champion. There was a teacher saying he would rather lose his job than to turn his back on them. In the middle of this I visited another GSA at a different high school. After my speech, a student hung back, fidgeting, staring at the ground. And my teacher alarms went off. This was a fragile kid. This was a kid who had probably been bullied, picked on and treated like garbage by a whole lot of mean people. And then this kid edged closer until they were staring at my feet, and I could hear the fast breathing and see the sweat on the forehead, and then this sweet little face looked up into mine, and I saw the worry of someone who had seen too much flit across that face, and then the words tumbled out. “I feel like what you did, you did for me… and you made me feel important.” That’s what transgender kids need from you. You have to be the balance for all the hate and cruelty that is going to come their way. It has to be you, because too many LGBT kids are kicked out of their homes. Too many LGBT kids are kicked out of their churches. Please, I beg of you, don’t let them be kicked out of your heart as well.
Brett Bigham
Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He is the only Oregon special education teacher to be named Teacher of the Year and to win the NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence. He is the creator of Ability Guidebooks, a series of support books for people with autism that give step-by-step directions how to ...

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