Table of Contents

    Cover Theme
  • Free Celebrating Transgender Students in Our Classrooms and in Our Schools

    By the editors of Rethinking Schools

    What can teachers, schools, and districts do to meet the needs of trans students? To make them visible? To keep them alive? To celebrate them?

  • Free On Behalf of Their Name

    Using They/Them Pronouns Because They Need Us To

    By Mykhiel Deych

    The staff advisor for their high school’s Queer-Straight Alliance delves into the complexities of a student-led training for teachers on the importance of using students’ preferred pronouns. >>> Adrienne Rich’s quote illuminated the projector screen welcoming teachers as they entered the library for a 90-minute training on gender and sexuality acceptance led by the Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA) — a student organization that I am the staff advisor for. Our large urban school holds about 100 staff members. Maybe 3 percent looked forward to this training. The rest sat with their arms crossed, present only because admin mandated their attendance. . . .

  • Free Teaching Them into Existence

    By Mykhiel Deych

    A high school English teacher (also the QSA staff advisor) wrestles with the suicide of a transgender student and calls on heterosexual and cisgender teachers to integrate LGBTQ authors, themes, and history into their classrooms. >>> Teaching isn’t supposed to include life-or-death consequences, but it does. When it comes to LGBTQ students, we fail to hold space for their existence. Heterocentric, cisnormative curriculum writes out the existence of LGBTQ lives. Campaigns such as Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better,” spur and go viral precisely because we aren’t actually reassuring youth that their existence is acceptable, real, normal. We need an “It Gets Better” campaign because high school is awful for LGBTQ kids, high school is fatal. . . .

  • Free Queering Black History and Getting Free

    By Dominique Hazzard

    A Black freedom organizer demands that teachers and activists radically change their frameworks around Black history by lifting up the stories of Black LGBTQ people like Marsha P. Johnson. >>> Queering Black history means canonizing Marsha P. Johnson as a matriarch of Black America. Putting her face on those calendars and poster collages right next to Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Coretta Scott King, and Michelle Obama. It means studying her ACT UP campaigns in high school classrooms. It means mourning her too-early death just as we mourn the deaths of cisgender men like Malcolm and Medgar. It means examining why it took 20 years for the NYPD to investigate that death as a murder, and having conversations about the role of the Black freedom movement in bringing about trans liberation today. . . .

  • Free "What Kind Are You?"

    Transgender Characters in Children’s Literature

    By Lora Worden

    A school librarian describes children’s books with strong transgender characters and themes. >>> Some of those who wished to remove George denied that it was because of the book’s transgender protagonist, and instead cited concerns over passing references to dirty magazines and characters who erased their internet search history in order to hide that information from their parents.

  • Features
  • Free Teaching Social Activism in Prison

    The Leap Manifesto and Incarcerated Youth

    By Rachel Boccio

    A Connecticut educator who taught English to incarcerated young men for 20 years describes what happened when she introduced her students to the Canadian “Leap Manifesto.” >>> Manson Youth Institution is a maximum security correctional facility for adolescent males tried and sentenced as adults in the Connecticut Department of Correction. Its population is composed mostly of poor men of color with histories of abuse, detention, and truancy. Education is mandatory for the majority of Manson’s inmates: boys file up to school — right side of the yellow line, no talking, IDs out, shirts tucked, heads down — bearing the anger, frustration, fear, and loneliness that inheres to incarcerated life. . . .

  • Free You Need Rank and File to Win: How Arizona Teachers Built a Movement

    By Noah Karvelis

    An elementary teacher who helped organize Arizona educators to strike explains how their movement formed and operated, and how it can inspire other teachers’ movements. >>> Across the nation, from Puerto Rico to Kentucky and Colorado to California, a powerful teachers’ movement has been growing. The potential of this movement first became apparent when West Virginia’s teachers went on strike in February and ultimately won a 5 percent raise for all public employees. Following this, Oklahoma’s educators mobilized and won raises and additional funding. After that strike, teachers in my own state of Arizona went on a six-day strike and won $406 million in funding. . . .

  • Free My First Year as a Teacher of Color

    Teaching Against the Grain

    By Juan Córdova

    A middle school teacher of color writes about obstacles he faced during his first year in the classroom and the support he received — and did not receive — from other teachers and administrators. >>> Interviewing for my first teaching job out of school, I arrived excited in a suit and tie as I was walked to a sunny corner office to meet the principal. A charming middle-aged white woman with a bright smile, a bubbly personality, and contagious excitement, she seemed eager to get to know me and asked to hear my story and find out how this man of Color decided to go into teaching. . . .

  • Free Deportations on Trial

    Mexican Americans During the Great Depression

    By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca

    A social studies teacher describes the role play trial she developed around a largely forgotten period: when during the Great Depression the United States deported thousands of Mexican American families. >>> From the late 1920s to the late 1930s, men, women, and children, immigrant and U.S.-born, citizen and noncitizen, longtime residents and temporary workers all became the targets of a massive campaign of forced relocation, based solely on their perceived status as “Mexican.” They were rounded up in parks, at work sites, and in hospitals; betrayed by local relief agencies who reported anyone with a “Mexican sounding” name to the Immigration Service; tricked and terrorized into “voluntary” deportation by municipal and state officials; and forcibly deported in trains and buses to a country some hadn’t lived in for decades and others never at all. . . .

  • Free Who Is Allowed to Teach Spanish in Our Public Schools?

    Documenting the Consequences of the edTPA

    By Sarah Jourdain

    The director of a world language teacher preparation program argues for an end to the edTPA because it bars native Spanish speakers from public school classrooms. >>> Maria found a position in a local private school, but she is still not eligible to teach in the New York state public school system even though her program’s teacher education faculty, as well as both of her cooperating teachers, were unanimous in deeming Maria qualified to begin her career as a Spanish teacher. . . .

  • Departments Free
    Commentary
  • Tax the Rich, Fight Climate Change

    Column: Earth, Justice, and Our Classrooms

    By Bill Bigelow
  • Resources
  • Our picks for books, videos, websites, and other social justice education resources.

On Behalf of Their Name

Using They/Them Pronouns Because They Need Us To
On Behalf of Their Name

Alaura Borealis

“When someone with the authority of a teacher describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.”
—Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich’s quote illuminated the projector screen welcoming teachers as they entered the library for a 90-minute training on gender and sexuality acceptance led by the Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA) — a student organization that I am the staff advisor for. Our large urban school holds about 100 staff members. Maybe 3 percent looked forward to this training. The rest sat with their arms crossed, present only because admin mandated their attendance.

The QSA youth pushed for this training all year. At last, late February, here we were. In my final year of probationary teaching, I stood mere weeks away from receiving my permanent contract. Job security slinked at the brink of my reach. And I feared ruining it all.

I felt panic at the thought of losing my job for being a transgender and queer teacher leading transgender and queer students. This “liberal” community and its wealthy, demanding parents held power and sway that made my nerves pulse irregularly. I woke some nights in a sweat from nightmares of tantrum-throwing parents and their hate-inspired monologues directed at me: “What even are you?! Despicable! Unfit to be around kids — how dare you. Stay away from my kid!” When you are a member of a marginalized group — especially one that’s been villainized and degraded — safety is not an automatic privilege, even when you’re white. Although my whiteness does provide shelter that trans and queer teachers of color are not afforded.

The students and I met to plan the staff training for several weeks before the February meeting. Youth were both gung-ho and noncommittal. The students really wanted to yell at the staff, misgender, and ridicule them. These students hurt and wanted to lash out to ease some of their pain. Many of them felt strongly, but few of them wanted to stay after school for two hours and say anything into the sea of mostly heterosexual, entirely cisgender teachers. They were great balls of fury and they wanted to pitch fire in every direction at once. Few had the energy necessary to face the staff in a meeting.

These teachers were supposed to be theirs. Students say, “My teacher.” This simple possessive pronoun makes the pain of not being seen by that same teacher feel like a self-inflicted wound. Some teachers ridiculed students in front of the class, scoffing at the idea or trouble of using they/them pronouns. One teacher told our VP: “Well, what is the kid biologically? That’s what they are to me.” The incredulousness of this statement essentially translates to: “What’s that kid’s genitalia — students are equivalent to their genitalia.” No teacher needs to be thinking about children’s genitalia.

During the weeks of planning for this training, I floundered in a borderland where I wanted/needed to be with the youth — really have their backs and support their lived experiences, listen to them, validate them. But also being an adult and a colleague, I worried that yelling at staff wouldn’t change anything. And we really needed staffwide change. Students skipped classes, students hurt — each other and themselves — students avoided their education because adults couldn’t just get their names right. Everything begins with a name. We exist because we know each other by name. Youth change their names because this gives them the power to exist. To refuse to call a student by their painstakingly chosen name — whether it matches the gradebook or not — denies a student’s right to be wholly present. This erasure snatches away identity just barely emerging.

I kept asking the QSA these questions: “What outcome do you want? What is your purpose in this training? Do you want to educate the teachers? Share your stories so they’re known?” Aliya said, “We want to be seen. We want them to try.” Sal added, “How is it so hard to use my right pronoun? Why?”

While politicians and professionals and teachers argue about the morality of gender variance, real children are disappearing in the classroom — figuratively and literally. Two trans students dropped out by second semester, another was on the verge, QSA members barely hung on, and our school later lost a transgender student to suicide. And this in a very liberal district at a high school with gender neutral bathrooms.

I let them hash out their ideas for a couple meetings without much of my own input. I would nod and say yes and affirm. I’d empathize and I meant it all, but inside I was kind of freaking out. Will this implode? Is staff just going to scoff and roll their eyes? Will they even listen or just be on their phones the whole time? What if students don’t show? What if my colleagues blame and hate me for all this? What if I get fired? Am I really going to come out to my whole staff in this training?

Yes, I am. 

As soon as the staff settles into their seats we start off with a video of Olive, the vice president of the QSA. Olive nods at me with tightened lips, and I hit play: “My name is Olive Reed and I use they/them pronouns.” The video follows Olive moving through their day and discussing their experiences with school being safer than home but that they are called a faggot nearly every day. Olive says, “Everything in our society is binary, it’s not just gender. But when you don’t fit into that binary, take a step back and you’re like, but what about me? And it’s just — it feels like — there’s not a place for me in this society.” Teachers are watching, rapt with attention. Olive believes that “no one should have to hide who they are because of fear. No one should have to be afraid of being able to be who they are.” When I first saw this video, I knew I couldn’t support the students in this training and not come out to my colleagues. I owed them the overcoming of my own fear, I owed them my vulnerability. Olive’s video ends with a quiet call to action: “People are accepting enough that you can come out, that you can openly be who you are, but people are not accepting enough for everyone to be safe. Yeah, we’ve made a hell of a lot of progress, but no, we’re not anywhere near resolving anything.”

At the video’s end I instruct staff to write down striking thoughts and questions before sharing out at their tables. Many of the responses reveal appreciation for Olive’s bravery and vulnerability. To not overcook Olive’s anxiety about being the center of attention we move on to our intros. Three (of several) students and I give our names and pronouns:

“My name is D’Angel, I use he/him pronouns.”
“My name is Olive, I use they/them pronouns.”
“My name is Asuna, I use she/her pronouns.”
My heart pounding against my vocal chords, I finish us off: “My name is Mykhiel Deych, I use they/them pronouns.” Shuffle, shuffle. Swallow.

A pulse of invisible energy ripples through the four of us and out over the crowd. Air shimmering like the waving heat over an open grill in summer. D’Angel says with a smile, “Now please go around at your tables and say your names and pronouns.” Some eyes roll and lips snarl, yet most of the staff conform to the simple task. A QSA member is seated at nearly every group table to help with intros. I mean, it is simple, isn’t it? Just state your name and pronoun. Not far from the common instruction to state your name and birthdate or name and subject you teach. The norm of introductions at the start of a meeting feels familiar. Why the resistance to pronouns then?

The prefix “pro” means on behalf of. In English, we have gendered pronouns, so to use a pronoun in place of a person’s name imbues onto the person a slew of gendered meaning that acts to define and/or limit the identity of that person. Students struggle to come into their identities no matter what. Becoming a self challenges everyone. One’s gender should be a given, right? The easy part, the part of identity you’ve had since you were a kid, right?

Along with a handout, the next video, Sex & Gender Identity: An Intro, briefly defines and explains key terms: Sex is the biological classification of being female or male or intersex and is assigned at birth. Gender Identity is one’s deeply held sense about gender and is not the same as sex. Gender Expression is the external manifestations of gender expressed through a variety of ways including but not limited to clothes, hair, name, pronoun, voice, behavior, etc. Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and gender expression differs from their sex. Cisgender is a term for people whose sex at birth matches their gender identity and gender expression. Genderqueer is a term for people who do not identify as part of the female/male binary and may experience themselves as both or neither. Genderfluid is a term for a gender identity that varies over time. And lastly, the verb that brought us into the room: Misgender. To misgender someone is to identify a person with a gender that they aren’t. For example, when you call me a lady or ma’am you have misgendered me.

Teachers start sharing out about any newfound understandings or questions on the video. One teacher shares a painful incident. Mr. Xon says, “I don’t know about these things but what I know is that I let a student go to the bathroom and they take a very long time and when they return I ask them where they’ve been and the student says, ‘I had to go to the gender neutral bathroom.’ OK, but I don’t know if that’s really what’s happened or not.” He stays standing for a moment palms open, facing up. He is trying to understand.

The room hushes; I take a slow breath, and another. But before I say anything, Asuna steps forward to respond, “The only gender neutral bathroom is far from your classroom, and there is almost always a line for it. This is really hard for us. We need you to believe us.” This raw bravery and unapologetic vulnerability inspires me and I shiver. Are teachers that most need to hear this absorbing anything? All the students’ hard work — is this going to change anything?

To provide a few tangible tools we put up a slide that has problematic phrasing replaced with simple solutions. Sally reads off, “Instead of calling the class to attention with ‘ladies and gentlemen’ try ‘scholars’ or ‘mathematicians.’ Instead of dividing by ‘boys and girls’ use ‘favorite foods’ or ‘wearing blue,’ etc. Avoid blanket statements like ‘all boys this’ or ‘all girls that.’” 

A teacher shares out apologetically, “I don’t use the they/them pronouns because I just know I’ll mess it up.” Griffin replies, “Messing up isn’t the problem, we know it’s hard to get used to, we actually just want you to try.” They don’t say it with a smile, but it comes out calm. An audible and affirmative “hmm” sounds out at a few of the tables. After sitting for a long time we shake things up.

Kaitlin instructs into the mic: “Please stand up and if you are a dog person stand over here and if you are a cat person please stand over there. She points to the far ends of the room and a gap in the middle widens as teachers move to where they belong. A few students and teachers vacillate between the two sides and end up in the middle with furrowed brows and heads tipped to one side. One teacher raises her hand and says, “Well, I don’t like either.” Another says, “I used to like dogs but now I’m more about cats, where should I go?” And another asks with a deep shrug, “But I like both. Where do I belong?”

Where do I belong? The question hangs in the air as several teachers release audible gasps as they catch on to the metaphor they’ve just played out. “Wait, I get it, students maybe feel like this about their gender. Or sexuality too, right?” Ms. Smith says and taps a finger to her lips. Some eyebrows furrow. Some grins appear. Nods slowly bob through the clumps of solidly “dog people” and solidly “cat people.” If only gender was a simple choice. 

Teachers chat it out as they return to their seats to try role plays where they practice four important interactions: asking for someone’s pronouns, using they/them pronouns in a conversation, correcting someone misgendering someone else, and correcting themselves misgendering someone. I circulate around the tables. At least one student sits amongst each of the table groups. The role plays open a flurry of activity at each table. The air full of electricity, my breathing feels steady until suddenly, one table gets superheated. I rush over to intervene and arrive in time to hear Kaitlin nearly shout, “It is grammatically correct, we already use they/them pronouns when referring to one person when we don’t know a person’s gender.” I lock eyes with Kaitlin and she grins, “I got this M. Deych. Thanks, though.” She is proud of herself. Proud to debate a teacher we already knew going into this training would be a wall to take down brick by brick.

When we come back together as a whole group, another teacher asks, “Are we really expected to keep track of when it is and isn’t OK to use a student’s preferred name or pronoun?” After so much of the training going well, the hostility in this question stuns me speechless. My head races. You know how we have all that training about getting to know students, building relationships?! Well, this is that! To my appreciative surprise, another teacher responds, “Well, we’re not talking about a huge percentage of your class here. This comes down to a few students on your whole roster probably.” Thank you, allies, I need your help — students need you.

The training finishes with a panel that responds to teachers’ anonymous questions written on scraps of paper that were at each table throughout the whole training. Three students, a parent of a transgender student, and I sit on the panel. Unfortunately, the final question deflates a lot of the gains we’d made: “I just can’t use they/them pronouns, it’s wrong, and I just can’t. What do I do?” I probably don’t hide the irritation when I reply, “No one is expecting the grammar to change. It isn’t wrong. You use it grammatically, not ‘they is home sick’ but ‘they are home sick.’ And if it helps to know, the reason many of us — the reason I — use they/them pronouns is because it reflects the multiplicity that I experience in my gender. So it is actually very right.” Griffin relays their story of battling depression and ends with their head held high, “We actually just need you to try.”

The students left feeling hurt by this last statement/question. It haunted them. And though issues persist with certain teachers, overall progress accumulates. Multiple teachers thanked me for supporting the students in that training. One said she felt defensive at first but then it really was good to hear about the students’ experiences. Another came to me to hash out and discuss the issue with “ladies and gentlemen.”

It’s ongoing, the work of showing up for students how they need us to show up. With 41 percent of transgender people attempting suicide (compared to 1.6 percent of the general population), we have to because they actually need us to.

Mykhiel Deych (mykhieldeych@gmail.com) teaches high school English language arts. Alaura Borealis’ work can be found at alauraborealisart.com.