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When Sir becomes Miss – how I harmed my teaching career by changing gender

30.03.16

 Photo by Torbak Hopper/ CC BY-SA 2.0 

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Author: Abigail Robinson

My appearance in school as ‘Miss Robinson’ was something of an anti-climax after the intense preparations beforehand. Just before the previous half-term holiday, I held a series of assemblies to tell the school’s 1,200 students that I intended to start dressing as a woman. I invited them to think about people they might have seen in the media who had changed gender, and told them I was one of those people. I explained this merely meant that I wanted to start dressing like a woman, and that they should get used to calling me Miss instead of Sir.  Nothing else was required of them, I said, except to continue to work hard in my lessons; trust me to teach them as well as I always had; and show me the same respect they had ‘Mr Robinson’. When the day finally came the children applauded: not a stilted slow clap, but an ovation; a display of support and admiration for my courage and honesty, and of gratitude for the faith I had placed in them to embrace difference and accept me as I am.

When my name was included in a round of redundancies, I was tempted to sue for unfair dismissal, but as I was offered a pay-out slightly above the amount I would have taken home had I successfully taken the governors to a tribunal, I was nervous of acquiring a reputation as the one who sues – which would, I feared, prevent me from ever finding employment in a school again.

After taking a two-month mini-sabbatical to finish my doctoral thesis, I threw myself earnestly into trying to find a job and had a bit of a shock.  For almost twenty years, I had rarely been turned down for a post; I’d collected an impressive roster of qualifications, and used them to teach my way across continents.  In 2014, all that changed.  It wasn’t just that I would be interviewed for classroom teaching posts – often teaching dazzlingly good lessons as part of the selection process – only to be turned down that upset me.  What irked was not hearing whether I’d been appointed or not until I badgered them for an answer!

An (ex-) friend of mine who is principal of a private school in Spain was frank enough to tell me exactly why my offer of employment there was withdrawn when he realised I’d changed quite a bit since he’d last seen me. The issue, he said, was parental disapproval of having their children taught by a transgender woman.  The reason why parents might object is, I suspect, linked to the nature of transgenderism itself: because gender is something we enact through our choices of clothing and behaviour (as opposed to biological sex, which is chromosomally determined), transgender is easily interpreted as something you do rather than something you are, and, by implication, as a form of sexual kink.  This is the epitome of transphobia.

Schools work very hard to project themselves as inclusive organisations predicated on notions of care, mutual respect and the celebration of difference, and espouse these ideals with metaphors of community and the family. Schools’ promotional literature endeavours to convey messages of inclusiveness and equality, without necessarily outlining how these translate into practice.  As I saw for myself, it is the exception rather than the norm that these values have been internalised by members of the organisation to the extent that they govern behaviour and inform thinking regarding transgender teachers.

…At least in the case of the adults who lead schools.  The children, meanwhile, remain models of polite curiosity, magnanimity and tolerance, and at no point over the last two years has a student said or done anything to me that could be considered mean or prejudicial, or that shows any sign that they were afraid of – or confused by – me.  My heart sinks when a conversation with a head-teacher post-interview begins, “It’s not me, but…” because I know that they are limbering up to use children and their parents as a convenient way of abdicating responsibility for not hiring transgender staff.  Initiatives aimed at promoting LGBQT awareness in schools are usually, therefore, targeting the wrong audience.  Primary school children haven’t yet learned prejudice, and, as a result, their behaviour isn’t governed by fear of difference.  The teenagers I taught didn’t care how I looked or what pronoun I wanted them to use, provided my lessons were interesting and I worked hard to help them achieve academic success.  It isn’t young people who need to reflect on their attitudes and assumptions about transgender teachers: it is the adults who manage schools, appoint staff, and make decisions about how schools are run, who need educating in how to embrace diversity, celebrate difference, and take the occasional brave decision.

Abigail Robinson currently lives in Bucharest with her wife, where the two of them founded the English language school, the Ross-Robinson Centre. She was an assistant head-teacher at a London school until July 2014, holds a PhD in Educational Sociology from the Institute of Education, University College London, and writes an occasional blog about her experiences of being a transgender woman that can be found here.
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