By: Amanda D. (’21)
On February 15, Upper School faculty attended a professional development workshop on Nonbinary and Transgender Students. The session was led by the Human Rights Council’s Welcoming Schools organization, a program primarily directed to provide LGBTQ+ and gender inclusive professional development lesson plans, booklists and resources specifically designed for educators and youth-serving professionals.
Due to COVID-19 coronavirus restrictions, the presentation was conducted through Zoom. It was then followed up with a divisional discussion for each division and the faculty, the principal and one of the central admin, all participating in an open forum conversation to ask questions and express concerns on different scenarios they might have to encounter.
“I would describe it as a good in depth first discussion,” Dean of Faculty Dr. Nathan Smith said. “So that involves defining a lot of the important terms, such as gender identity versus sexual orientation versus sex, those sorts of ideas. It also included talking about how our school’s policy plays into best practices.”
The PD day was part of a larger, long-term process to move the school in a direction that promoted greater inclusivity and consideration for students regarding gender identity and acceptance.
“I think the process really goes back all the way to the later stages of the Obama administration, because the administration issued some legal guidance that directed people to adopt a new interpretation of federal law, to be more inclusive of trans people and non binary people,” Dr. Adam Nelson, Deputy Head of School, said. “And so in accordance with that new legal guidance, the school undertook the process of adopting a policy to both meet those legal obligations, and also exceed them in order to be as welcoming and as inclusive as possible.”
The eventual goal is to embark on a journey that will promote more complex understanding about the intersectionality of identity, so that TAS can take a progressive step to its commitment to justice and diversity. With an increased focus on entertaining and requiring these conversations to happen, there can be a greater opportunity to equip students with the necessary skills to navigate the world outside of our TAS bubble.
“ It’s going to take more than one afternoon’s conversation to have people feel really comfortable that they know how to support non binary and transgender students. And I would argue, extend that to say all students of all identities”, Dr. Smith said. I think the biggest goal is to be inclusive and supportive of our entire community. No student based on who they are, should feel there’s not a place for them, or feel that they don’t have teachers who understand and appreciate them. And, this is a part of that bigger goal and objective.”
But simply assuaging fears is only one facet of the issue. Physical, tangible change, such as the increase in the amount of health education and integration of gender identity discussions in health curriculum are also necessary components in pursuing progress.
“You have to do work to make sure that school systems are fully inclusive, making sure that power school reflect accurate information about every individual, making sure that we have gender neutral facilities on campus, and expanding the number of those facilities that are available,” Dr. Nelson said.
Like any other movement toward change, especially in such a large institution, there are undeniable challenges that must be overcome. Besides the logistical difficulties of balancing school wide operations and curriculum development, and dispute over legal documentation and obligations, there are obstacles that simply require time and patience to remedy.
“I think you also have sort of more of the personal challenge that you have a diverse array of faculty, and in lots of different senses, like age, background disposition around these issues. And it takes a lot of time to have people really come to full understanding of any complex issue, especially one that I think for many people is a fairly new conversation,” Dr. Smith said. “And as you probably would know, on any issue, you can understand something intellectually, it doesn’t automatically suddenly change every behavior you make from moment to moment.”
Despite PD day being a designated time for faculty and staff, this doesn’t exclude students from the equation toward change. Students and teachers can look toward each other to learn how to better express empathy and compassion. And more than ever, students have the opportunity to present their ideas on how these changes can be implemented and incorporated into the school system.
“The administration, the Head of School, and the principals, are really big advocates for student leadership,” Dr. Smith said. “I think building student leaders is not necessarily a new idea, but an indispensable one. Seeing students take on that mantle and to take on that responsibility in working to develop kind of their own developmental programs with one another, is a really key part of the process that I want to see continue and to see fostered in our community.”