From the Editor - Schools should be as brave as transitioning teachers

3rd May 2013 at 01:00

Very few schools employ teachers who have changed gender. Although it's estimated that one in 100 people worldwide have gender identity issues and the number seeking gender reassignment has risen sharply over the past few years, nobody really knows the true picture. The average school, some would say, has more chance of being hit by a meteorite than being faced with this particular issue. So why devote time and a cover story to dealing with it (see pages 24-28)?

One simple answer is that, however few transgender teachers there are, they deserve support. A few weeks ago, Lucy Meadows, a transgender teacher in the North of England, was found dead after a particularly venomous newspaper article publicised her transition and claimed that it would have a "devastating effect" on her students. It is believed that she took her own life.

Her school had been supportive. It had calmly told parents and children that Mr Upton would return after a short break as Miss Meadows. It did not make a big deal of the issue. Unfortunately, the media did and now the school is having to comfort children who are coping with the very public death of a very popular teacher.

As with so many contentious issues, children are rarely the problem. Adults are. One transgender teacher, when asked why she did not come out as a woman until she had left the profession, cited likely parental reaction: "You don't need that many conservative parents to create a problem ... I didn't want to risk it: I had a mortgage to pay."

A principal who dealt successfully with the transition of one of his colleagues agrees: "It takes only one parent with a dodgy attitude to whip it all up."

What can and should schools do to forestall a public frenzy? The answer, according to the same principal, is planning. Plan meticulously, work closely with the teacher, inform students and parents simultaneously, provide relevant literature to reduce misinformation. "We found linking it to racism was very powerful because the students know that is wrong," the principal says.

In this case, things went smoothly and there was no wider backlash. The hounding of Lucy Meadows shows that not all schools and teachers will be so fortunate.

Many schools will never have to deal with a teacher who wishes to change gender. But most will face unreasonable parental outrage on some issue or other. The strategies for dealing with it are the same: agree a position, communicate calmly and effectively, stand firm in the face of the mob.

This takes guts. It helps if schools have the full weight of the law behind them. In the UK, most of Europe and Australia, for instance, it is illegal to discriminate against transgender people. In the US, the legal situation varies by state: 16 offer some form of protection.

But the response of schools should not ultimately be a matter of legal compliance. Schools should support transgender staff not because it is the law but because it is right. After all, if schools can't react well to difference, what kind of lesson will they impart to their students?

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