Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Teachers: Stop Grouping your Students According to Sex

"We'll play this game boys vs. girls."
"All the boys can read on the floor today, girls at your desks."
"Girls line up, boys line up."

How often do we hear these phrases in a classroom on an average day? Pretty often, in my experience. It's incredibly common to separate kids by their sex. It makes grouping them simple, and it's something most people don't think twice about.

As an elementary school teacher, I have made the conscious choice to stop categorizing my class between boys and girls. I have always been an LGBTQ ally, and am passionate about advocating for those that belong to that group. However, it wasn't until I officially began my teaching career that I realized how I could unknowingly contribute to the pain and hurt that LGBTQ kids might experience.

It was the summer before I officially became a classroom teacher, and I was going to teach summer school to upcoming 3rd graders. I could not have been more excited to start my journey. On the very first morning of summer school, the kids came in and ate breakfast in the classroom. After calling roll and introducing everyone, one student came in late. It was time to line up for specials, and without thinking, I said, "If you are a girl, line up." The new student (I'll call them Taylor) lined up with the girls. This student did not present as a girl, and I had just barely met them. Taylor was wearing camo shorts, a black t-shirt, and sported a short haircut. Again, without thinking, I said, "Taylor, why did you line up with the girls?" thinking Taylor was a boy. Taylor looked at me and said, "Because I am a girl!" My stomach dropped to my feet. I couldn't believe I had been so thoughtless, and then on top of that, called them out in front of other kids about it. I knew better, and yet I did not act better.
After that day, I was careful not to divide our class based on sex, and Taylor had a great summer. I didn't know Taylor very well before, but after asking some teachers about them, I heard that before Taylor got their cool, short haircut, they were a different kid- shy, withdrawn, glum. That haircut changed that kid's world and their entire demeanor. It was clearly an important change for Taylor.
I don't know Taylor now, or who they grew up to be, but I hope that my thoughtless mistake didn't cause too much hurt or embarrassment for them.

Here is something I know to be true: many trans adults recall that the first time they felt dysphoric about their gender was in elementary school when a teacher required them to stand or be grouped with their assigned gender. They recall that it was the first time they felt out of place or uncomfortable with that classification.

So here is my plea to teachers: stop dividing your students by sex. Simply make a conscious effort to stop. There are lots of other ways to make teams or groups quickly: color of t-shirt, length of hair, birthday month, type of shoe, number of siblings, favorite color, etc.

Even if there are no students who "appear" to have gender identity issues, that doesn't mean they aren't there. If you can save a student from a little bit of heartache, why wouldn't you want to? Kids struggling with gender identity or feeling out of place have enough things to worry about. Let's let them cross this off their list of troubles.

Make the shift. Decide to change. Be inclusive to all students. Every teacher I know has a desire to love and accept all different kinds of kids. This is part of it.