Guest blogger Alison Cupp Relyea brings us the first in a series of three blog posts inspired by the leaders of the Gender and Sexuality Development Clinic of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). In this post, Alison dives into the role of educators in being comfortably uncomfortable and proactively affirming our students’ identities and identity exploration. As educators, we may be the first to take note of students questioning their gender and sexuality. How have you responded when you’ve seen these signs? How have you been able to support your students’ in having a positive experience with their gender and sexuality development? We welcome you to join us in this conversation!
In January, I had the opportunity to kick off the year with Team Finch Consultants at a conference sponsored by ADVIS, the Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools, called Beyond the Binary: Exploring Gender and Sexuality at Independent Schools. The conference was full of educators from the Philadelphia area who ranged from early elementary school to high school, and in roles including counselors, coaches and classroom teachers. Being in a room with educators again—people who were taking the time to step outside of the classroom and broaden their perspectives on gender—gave me a great deal of insight and a chance to reflect on my own experiences as a teacher and a parent.
The other presenters at the conference were Linda Hawkins, Co-Director, and Samantha Taylor, Clinic Coordinator and Director of Education at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). They lead one of the nation’s only Gender and Sexuality Clinics for gender non-conforming and transgender youth, ages three and older. While listening to Linda and Samantha speak about the work at CHOP and about the families they support, I had several Aha! moments. For the next few Team Finch entries, I will share three of these takeaways that may resonate with other educators. This entry is inspired by an experience I had early in my teaching career—a moment that could have been significant had I chosen to explore it further.
As the CHOP team described the signs teachers can use to identify a child who might be gender questioning, I recalled a moment early in my teaching career when Sarah sent a clear sign of gender questioning. We were on a field trip, and Sarah—whose sex assigned at birth was female and who had always been called a girl—was mistaken by the field trip educator as a boy. While Sarah’s gender expression was more masculine, it had not occurred to me that she might be gender-questioning and might want to use different pronouns. When the educator called her a boy, Sarah’s face lit up with validation and pride. The other children were quick to correct the educator, and the binary lines were drawn again. But, for that moment, Sarah felt recognized, and I was a witness to it.
At the time, I was teaching at a progressive school in New York. This child had open, supportive parents and her closest friends were boys; she seemed content, was thriving in school and it was early in the year. My co-teacher and I had barely discussed her gender with each other or with the school counselor. We were teaching elementary school, and since she appeared happy with who she was, we had not thought of our role as one to offer more support. On a more critical note, this was an overnight field trip. While her parents may have discussed that she would be sleeping in a room with girls (when most of her sleepovers and playdates were with boys), we had not discussed that and had assumed it would be fine. This child was not one to reach out, and without any attention to her gender identity, I had not put myself in the child’s shoes to better support her.
Linda and Samantha reminded teachers of the role of educators in supporting and referring gender non-conforming students. While parents or guardians are the only people who can formally refer a child to the clinic, teachers are often among the first to see the signs and signals that children send. Sarah’s shy smile and eye contact when she was called a boy should have been a door opening for me: a chance to explore further with her and an opportunity to learn more as an educator. I remember noting with surprise that she seemed happy being called a boy. Like the other students, however, I felt a moment of discomfort and then relief when she was put in the correct box. My feeling came from my own knowledge and bias at the time. I thought she might be uncomfortable being mislabeled because that is how I might have felt as a child, or how another child might feel. It wasn’t clear to me until now, years later, that for a rare and fleeting moment, Sarah felt fully seen.