As Christians in the classroom we can encounter things that challenge our worldview. What do we do when that happens?
If I am honest, I have lived an unchallenged life. I am white, straight, middle class and a Christian. These things have a power to them. I am likely to earn more than my female colleagues. I am likely to be listened to, believed, respected. I am likely to be represented positively in the media, treated favourably by the justice system, and hold positions of political power. With all of these things comes a responsibility to push our society past these advantages. Especially as a teacher. As a teacher it is my responsibility to support my students in overcoming any obstacle that prevents them from fulfilling their potential.
It is with this responsibility in mind that I was saddened to hear of teacher Joshua Sutcliffe leaving his job after he was found to be in contravention of the school’s equality policy. The incident he seems to have been investigated for was the misgendering[i] of a student during a lesson. It has been reported in such a way to suggest that this was an act of absent mindedness, an accident- a mere slip of the tongue. It is also often reported that Mr Stucliffe was sacked. However, it is clear that Mr Sutcliffe resigned because he does “not believe that young children should be encouraged to self-select a ‘gender’ which may be different from their biological sex” or that “everyone at school should adjust their behaviour to accommodate such a ‘transition’” (note the inverted commas). In his resignation letter he also refers to the “ideology of transgenderism”.
Five years ago I might have held a similar position as Mr Sutcliffe. Five years ago I’d never met a trans person. I held a position that was apparently sympathetic, but ill-informed. Five years ago I moved to a school with a trans student (A) and my views had to change. I had to be informed. I had to be a good teacher.
But change was slow in coming.
Four years ago, a trans student (B) joined my tutor group. And, quite honestly, I was a bit of an arse about the whole thing. Actually, I was a massive arse about the whole thing. I was careless to avoid misgendering; I have a habit of reading the register on auto-pilot, so I deadnamed[ii] him regularly. I had conversations with colleagues where I expressed the belief that he was confused or that he was just gay and hadn’t accepted it. My teeth itch at writing this. I know how awful these things are. How ignorant and backward. How much they belie the fact that I wasn’t living up to my responsibility to help this student overcome the obstacles placed in front of him. Thankfully, he’s an incredibly open and honest lad and has spoken to me a lot about his journey. His frankness is one of the things that has pushed me to examine my own beliefs and behaviours.
A and B are not the only pupils that I work with, and they won’t be the last. I’m writing this for them. To atone for my own ignorance and to help others overcome theirs. Hopefully, I can address some of the myths we have about gender and provide a way to meet the needs of trans pupils in a meaningful way.
Myth 1: Gender is a simple choice.
Just to be clear there is a difference between gender and sex. Gender is the social and cultural differences between male and female, whereas sex is the division based on reproductive function.
As noted above Mr Sutcliffe’s letter refers to the idea that “not believe that young children should be encouraged to self-select a ‘gender’ which may be different from their biological sex”[iii]. There’s an idea here that somehow someone can make a choice about their gender in a willy-nilly manner as part of a fad or fashion.
Now I hate to be a bad Christian about this – but that’s a dangerously unscientific idea to lead with. I’m not going to unravel all of the problems with that idea here, but I’ll take a stab at pulling at the thread a little bit.
First of all there have been studies that have revealed that the brains of trans people are different. Results of a Spanish study in 2013 showed that the brains of trans people held similarities with their experienced gender[iv] before treatment. A study published in Amsterdam in 2014 revealed that adolescents with gender dysphoria responded to an odorous steroid in line with peers of their experienced gender rather than peers of their sex assigned at birth. Further studies out of Amsterdam showed that adolescent boys with gender dysphoria responded to specific sounds in the same way peers of their experienced gender would.
These studies are important because they reveal that there’s more going on neurologically with trans pupils than we often understand. Our understanding of gender is often linked to the presence of a penis or a vagina – but these studies show that we are more complex than the sum of our parts (awful pun intended).
It should be clear that these students aren’t making a simple choice; they are experiencing a complex neurological condition (on top of what is already happening with their teenage brain) and to diminish that to a ‘choice’ is both dangerous and irresponsible.
If you need more convincing that gender identity is more than a simple choice I would like you to consider the case of David Reimer. David Reimer is sadly an infamous case in the world of gender theory. Reimer’s penis was destroyed by a botched circumcision at 6 months old. At 22 months he underwent gender reassignment surgery based on the flawed idea that gender came about as the result of social learning. He was renamed Brenda and he spent the next fifteen years living as a girl and being treated as a girl (to the point of being given hormones during adolescence). Around the age of nine David was aware that he was not a girl and had transitioned back to male by the age of fifteen. This was after years of living as a girl without knowledge of what had happened to him, intensive psychological intervention and hormone therapy.
One could argue that this proves that what we are born as is what we are. David was born a boy and nothing could change that.
I would counter that with the argument that it is what is happening inside that is important. Reimer was male internally and no matter how much he was forced to live against his experienced gender his true gender identity emerged. For trans people it’s somewhat inverse. They know their body is wrong, but biology forces them to remain trapped. Bad medicine and bad science forced Reimer to live in the wrong body. It might be an oversimplification to say this, but for trans people it is nature that has trapped them.
As a Christian it might be important to note that we are often reminded of our lack of understanding in the face of God and that he has created all things. It is our responsibility to seek out wisdom and understanding in the things we may find confusing or challenging. Gender identity, as complicated as we may find it, is not a simple choice. It is hardwired into us and it may not always align with the bodies we are born into.
Myth 2: It is not the responsibility of the Christian Teacher, or anyone else for that matter, to accommodate the transition of a trans pupil.
This is where my anger as both a teacher and a Christian rises.
As part of his resignation Mr Sutcliffe suggests that he does not believe that “everyone at school should adjust their behaviour to accommodate such a ‘transition’”.
Well, he’s wrong.
And here’s why: The Teachers’ Standards[v].
The Teachers’ Standards (TS) are what govern our professional lives. As a Professional Mentor I refer to them a lot. The standards “define the minimum level of practice expected of trainees and teachers from the point of being awarded QTS” and “headteachers (or appraisers) should assess teachers’ performance against the standards to a level that is consistent with what should reasonably be expected of a teacher”. As such, we should look to the standards (in addition to our Christian beliefs) for guidance as to how to behave in the classroom.
So, here’s what I think applies to a teacher and how they should, as a professional, meet the needs of trans students in the classroom. And I do not apologise for the repeated reference to failure.
TS1: Set high expectations which inspire, motivate and challenge pupils
1:1 establish a safe and stimulating environment for pupils, rooted in mutual respect
If a student doesn’t feel safe in your classroom because you insist on misgendering them (something that I found out a colleague had done regularly) or deadnaming them – well, you’re not living up to your professional responsibilities. If your behaviour leaves a child feeling anxious and unsafe, then you have failed as a teacher.
If we demand our employers and colleagues respect our Christian beliefs (which are completely a choice) even if they disagree with them, then we should absolutely do the same for our pupils. If you cannot provide your students with mutual respect then you have failed as a teacher.
1:3 demonstrate consistently the positive attitudes, values and behaviour which are expected of pupils.
If you are misgendering or deadnaming students in front of other people – especially pupils, you are sending a message that such behaviour is acceptable and students will respond to your example. They too will deadname and misgender, and this has consequences. You may not understand what a trans student is experiencing, but if your behaviour is making a child’s life harder then you have failed as a teacher.
TS5: Adapt teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils
5:3 demonstrate an awareness of the physical, social and intellectual development of children, and know how to adapt teaching to support pupils’ education at different stages of development.
If you cannot demonstrate that you understand that children are developing in unique ways that requires you to adapt your teaching then you are failing as a teacher. And take a look – that involves physical development. If you have a trans pupil and you haven’t taken any steps to develop your understanding of how to meet their needs you have failed as a teacher.
5:4 have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils, including those with special educational needs; those of high ability; those with English as an additional language; those with disabilities; and be able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them.
As a teacher you are called to understand the needs of all students, not just the ones you understand or agree with. You are called to support them. If you cannot work to understand the needs of trans students, or support them by using their preferred pronouns and name then you have failed as a teacher.
TS7: Manage behaviour effectively to ensure a good and safe learning environment.
7:1 have clear rules and routines for behaviour in classrooms, and take responsibility for promoting good and courteous behaviour both in classrooms and around the school, in accordance with the school’s behaviour policy.
It is good behaviour and courteous to meet the needs of trans students by using their preferred name and pronouns (regardless of if you understand and agree or not). As teachers we model good and courteous behaviour so that students can act as we act. If you cannot model good and courteous behaviour to trans students in the same way as you would any other child, then you have failed as a teacher.
7:4 maintain good relationships with pupils, exercise appropriate authority, and act decisively when necessary.
If you cannot use a trans students preferred name and pronouns you cannot have a good relationship with them. One trans student (C) explained to me how demeaned he felt when one of my colleagues repeatedly deadnamed him in front of his peers and repeatedly asked him to use his “real” name on the front of his book. Sadly, that member of staff left before they could be challenged. C hated that lesson and that teacher. If you can’t build a good relationship with a trans student simply because they are trans, then you have failed as a teacher. Likewise, it is not in our authority as individual teachers to decide if we follow our school’s equality policy based on personal beliefs or understanding. We act within the authority we have – we do not have professional authority to make a value judgement on a person’s life (unless it falls under child protection, and then we must act). If you act outside of your authority simply because a child identifies as transgender, then you have failed as a teacher.
TS8: make a positive contribution to the wider life and ethos of the school.
If the ethos of the school is to be respectful and inclusive then you are respectful. It is not our calling as Christians to rebel against authority (as seen in Romans 13). If you do not support the ethos of your school simply because of your personal biases then you have failed as a teacher.
As teachers we are also called to follow a number of standards regarding our Personal and Professional Conduct.
As you can see as teachers we are supposed to treat our pupils with “dignity”, “respect their rights”, respect the value of “individual liberty”, and show tolerance for “different beliefs”.
If you can do none of the above simply because a child has identified as transgender then you have failed as a teacher.
But all of the above only matters if your primary concern is your professional conduct. If your Christian faith comes first you might be able to readily put all of that aside. So I’m going to present one simple argument for treating trans pupils with compassion whether you agree with the concept of transgenderism or not.
I love John 3:17. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Christ didn’t come to condemn us. He came to save us. As such, our aim should be to save rather than condemn. I fear that when we misgender or deadname transgender pupils out of our Christian beliefs then we are condemning them.
The attempted suicide rate for young transgender people in England is approximately 48%, much higher than the attempted suicide rate in the general population[vi]. Suicide rates remain high in young transgender people regardless of whether they come out or not. Young transgender are more likely to be discriminated against and more likely to be attacked than other members of society. They are also more likely to experience severe depression.
And the primary driver in all of these things: societal rejection. The study the revealed such high rates of attempted suicide went on to state that “the high prevalence of depression and suicidal tendencies among transgender persons seems to be highly influenced by societal stigma.”
If, in some misguided attempt to preserve our Christian beliefs and avoid discrimination (something Mr Sutcliffe argues he is a victim of after being “forced” to resign), we knowingly push transgender pupils towards a life of mental illness, attempted suicide, physical and sexual violence and worse – then we are condemning them. Personally, I could not stand before Christ and say I was satisfied that I had acted justly by pushing a trans student into that life. I have witnessed the horror of self-harm and I will not be responsible for a child enduring that. I will not condemn them to that.
And if we pause and consider Mr Sutcliffe’s original contention, that all of this is a choice: who would choose this for themselves? Who would endure all of this out of choice? Who would face all of that rejection and suffering willfully just to part of a fashion or fad?
If you really cannot see a way of understanding a trans person or agreeing with their lifestyle (which is not a choice remember) then you can still behave in a way that Christ expects us to behave.
We have His own example of his encounter with the woman at the well. He did not agree with the woman’s lifestyle, she was from a different culture, and the disciples found his behaviour surprising – but He met her with love and respect and brought her the truth of God’s love. That, surely, has to be the least you can give: your love and your respect in the power of God.
We also have the instruction to “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31) and “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36). And we are to do these things for our “enemies”. Personally, I don’t see the trans community as my enemy, but I suspect Mr Sutcliffe does. If that’s the case he is still called to this behaviour, and I see no mercy in misgendering or deadnaming a student.
Finally, as Christians James reminds us of the power our words have:”The tongue is also a small part of the body, but it can speak big things. See how a very small fire can set many trees on fire.” (James 3:5) and “with our tongue we speak bad words against men who are made like God.” (James 3:9). When we speak as Christians we can bless or curse – and my fear is we have to be especially careful of our words with children. We must lift them up and empower them in Christ, not crush them. As James goes on to say, “Those who plant seeds of peace will gather what is right and good.” (James 3:18). I’m not sure how we plant seeds of peace by misgendering our pupils, resigning publicly and then only telling our side of the story to the press.
Like me, Mr Sutcliffe is a white, straight, middle class and Christian man. His pupil is a trans male teenager. Where does the power to discriminate lie in that situation? Who has the power to lift up or knock down?
If you are a Christian and a teacher, you are doubly beholden for the safety and well-being of your students. If you are protecting your own feelings over theirs then you are doing something wrong. A child is a child regardless of their gender identity. They need your love, your respect, your compassion and your professionalism. Give them that.
[i] The use of a person’s gender at birth over their experienced gender.
[ii] The deliberate use of a person’s birth name over their preferred name.
[iii] I’d really like to know his thoughts on gender identity in intersex people.
[iv] The gender a trans person experiences over that of their sex assigned at birth.
[vi] From a study in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine