Supporting trans students in your classroom

Written by: Adele Bates | Published:
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I have a trans student in my class – what do I do? Expert Adele Bates advises

This article addresses misconceptions and barriers that our trans students often face at school, key terms and how your classroom can be a safe space in which our trans students can learn and thrive.

You have heard that increasing amounts of students are identifying as trans, one seems to have seeped into your class and now you’re being told to use pronouns that feel strange to your grammarian tongue.

This didn’t exist when you were at school: what’s going on? What should you be doing as the teacher? What are you supposed to call them? Does it make a difference to how you teach them? How can you best support trans students in your school and why is it so important for best practice?

Trans people have always been a part of human history, in many cultures, periods of time and countries, but it is a part of history that is nearly always missed out. How often have you referred to trans people in your curriculum? How does it make your trans (or any minority group) students feel in your classroom when they are left out of the role-models and people of inspiration in your subject?

In the majority of the world today, being trans is seen as a negative thing, this negativity is affecting the mental health and wellbeing of our trans students: more than four out of five trans people have self-harmed (84 per cent) and two in five (45 per cent) have attempted to take their own life. The message is clear: our young trans people do not feel safe.

Transphobic bullying is rife in our schools: 64 per cent of trans pupils are bullied at school for either being trans, being perceived to be so, or being perceived to be LGB. The bullying can be verbal abuse, gossip, being ignored or isolated, physical abuse, stealing or damaging belongings, death threats and sexual abuse.

Statistically other pupils are more likely to intervene in trans-bullying than school staff members who are present. Nearly 30 per cent of pupils say the bullying happens during lessons. Almost half of LGBT pupils who experience bullying do not report it.

To protect our students in our own classrooms we need to consistently intervene – no matter where we see or hear the bullying. In addition, we need school-wide policies that line up with the Equality Act 2010 specifically to protect our trans students against bullying, systems that make it easy for staff to record and follow up incidents, consequences and re-education for bullies, LGBT safe spaces and resources, LGBT staff allies and wider training and education for all that promotes the inclusivity and safety of our trans students.

It is our duty in schools to protect and support all our students to feel safe and included. This begins with our language.

Key terms

Here is an explanation of some key terms as taken from Top Tips for working with Trans and Gender Questioning Young People (January 2014):

  • Trans: an umbrella term for people whose gender identity does not line up with the gender they were given at birth.
  • Transition (social/medical): transition is a process which is personal to each individual and can take many forms, from changing the pronoun which one uses, to changing the style of one’s dress, to taking hormones and/or undergoing surgery.
  • Assigned sex: the sex that a person was assigned with at birth.
  • Intersex: someone born with a combination of female and male genitalia.
  • Gender identity: how a person feels in relation to being female/male/both/neither. A cognitive process of recognising one’s identity.
  • Genderqueer: a gender diverse person whose gender identity is neither female nor male, is between or beyond genders or a combination of both (sometimes referred to as non-binary or genderfluid).
  • FTM/trans man or transsexual man: someone assigned female at birth, but who has transitioned or intends to transition to male.
  • MTF/trans woman or transsexual woman: someone assigned male at birth, but who has transitioned or intends to transition to female.
  • Cis-gender: a person whose assigned sex matches their gender identity.
  • Sexual orientation: attraction to people, e.g. bisexual, lesbian, gay, straight, pansexual.

Gender identity

A person’s gender/gender identity does not necessarily link to their sexual orientation, for example: a trans man can be straight; a cis-gender woman can be bisexual. It can be helpful to view gender as a spectrum rather than binary – human beings’ gender is not black or white, but many combinations.

Additionally, just because a young person may change their name or identify differently from their assigned sex, this does not automatically mean they will have surgery or hormone replacement therapy.

In schools, one of the main issues that trans students report makes them feel excluded is not being called by their preferred names/pronouns.

For a young person exploring their gender identity it can be deeply empowering to use a name and/or pronoun that suits who they feel they are. As the English language doesn’t provide a gender-neutral pronoun, some students may ask to use: they, them, their, hir, sie, ey, zie – for the singular. Respect the student’s choices and understand that they may also change over time.

Don’t worry if you make a mistake, just the same as when you accidentally forget that Elizabeth now likes to be called Izo – apologise, and remember next time.

Most trans students will understand that mistakes happen and would far prefer you trying and making the occasional error, than refusing to try at all.

Students do not need permission from parents/carers to be referred to as a different name than the one they registered with (again, think about Izo). Legally, school books, the “preferred name” option on management information systems, email addresses etc can all be changed. If the student is taking exams, then their birth name will be required, unless they have changed their name by deed poll.

Toilets and changing rooms can be a very difficult place for young trans people, and media representation has brought this to be an issue that many non-trans people feel they have a right to direct. Mixed gender or gender-neutral facilities should be available. However, this is not always possible. Trans pupils have the right to access the facilities that they feel best reflect their gender identity. There is nothing in safeguarding or child protection law or practice that prevents this right (see contact details below if you require further support on specific cases).

As with all young people, questioning around identity can be a confusing and stressful time; in addition trans pupils must face widespread prejudice and intolerance. If a young person shares their thoughts and feelings, respect where they are at that time. Telling someone that they are in a phase is not a helpful response, even if it does turn out to be the case for some pupils.

Confidentiality is vital too, trans people’s birth name, gender assigned at birth, or transitional process are private information. Trans young people should not be discussed out of work: it is not our place to “out” a trans person to anyone, including their parents/carers.

Finally, don’t assume. If you are uncertain how to address or accommodate a student’s needs then ask them or seek further support. As mentioned previously, it’s better to ask than to say nothing. Mistakes will happen – rectify them swiftly and concentrate on creating a safe, inclusive environment in your classroom so that your trans pupils’ learning can thrive.

  • Adele Bates is an education consultant for schools on equality and diversity, LGBT+ awareness and human rights. She has taught for 16 years in primary, special schools and PRUs, and was a full-time English teacher in secondary schools. Get in contact at www.adelejbates.co.uk

Further information

Further reading

  • Can I tell you about Gender Diversity? CJ Atkinson
  • Trans Like Me: A Journey for All of Us, CN Lester
  • Trans Voices, Declan Henry
  • Transmission, Alex Bertie


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