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What Do Teachers Need to Support Transgender Students?

Three recommendations from the field.

This post is in response to
What Trump’s Actions Really Mean for Transgender Students

As the Trump administration rolls back protections for transgender students, courts are deciding that civil rights protections do cover transgender youth. This post is aimed to help share lessons learned by teachers who have worked to affirm transgender and nonbinary youth in their own classrooms. We interviewed 26 educators and our full findings are available in an article titled, Teachers’ professional learning to affirm transgender, non-binary, and gender-creative youth: Experiences and recommendations from the field in a new special issue of the journal, Sex Education, on transgender youth in education. Here I present some highlights from our research.

  1. Exposure. Educators want more "exposure" to topics of gender diversity in professional learning opportunities for pre-service and in-service teachers. This meant a variety of things to our participants, but the clear message was that most teachers did not feel formally supported or prepared to work with transgender and non-binary students in their schools. The teachers in this study had to do a lot of their own learning and outreach to best support all of the kids in their schools and districts. We explore this concept more deeply in the full article and complicate what "exposure" means and in what ways it can be most productive for teachers' learning.
  2. Sacrificial lambs. Schools often waited until a transgender or nonbinary student presented themselves to the community to begin preparing to support their needs. This unnecessarily places this difficult work on the backs of the visible trans student which in many ways makes them a "sacrificial lamb" where people lay blame on a particular child for having to focus on a topic that may make some people uncomfortable. Although research (from GLSEN and the Every Teacher project) indicates that making schools more inclusive for trans and non-binary students benefits all students, when schools make visible policy and practice changes AFTER a student arrives, the community often sees that student as the reason for the changes and the source of the controversy.
  3. Cultures of conversation. Educators want more "conversation" and fewer canned or centrally-planned workshops. They wanted the space to have ongoing, informal, low-stakes discussions to have their learning be continuous, contextual, and when/where they needed it. School leaders are encouraged to find ways to create "cultures of conversation" that encourage teachers to explore difficult topics with each other and pursue "courageous conversations" to deepen their own knowledge about race, gender, and sexual diversity.

We conclude with three reminders based on the analysis of interviews with participants in this study paired with the scholarship on professional learning:

  1. Pedagogies of exposure are limited in impact but can be a helpful place to start when done ethically, intentionally, and in partnership with trans individuals and communities.
  2. School administrators and educator preparation programs must “till the soil” by creating cultures of conversation around topics of gender and sexual diversity.
  3. Meaningful and sustained change – individual and institutional – will not come through didactic presentations. Collective, ongoing interaction built upon critical self-reflection and productive dissent must be a part of the change process.

We advocate for a shift away from traditional stand-and-deliver formal professional development programs often characterized by binders, checklists, and data-driven accountability. We want to help educators get into the practice of continuous critical self-reflection, engaging in productive dissent, and building cultures of conversation in order to think beyond the trans child as the site of the problem and focus the examination back on transforming school environments into spaces that recognize and celebrate creativity and diversity of all kinds.

For more on this topic, check out the entire special issue on Transgender youth in Education.


Meyer, E. J., & Leonardi, B. (2017). Teachers’ professional learning to affirm transgender, non-binary, and gender-creative youth: Experiences and recommendations from the field Sex Education, 18(4), 449-463. doi:10.1080/14681811.2017.1411254