Contemporary Classroom Advice from a Transgender Student

contemporary classroom

In August, Ashton Black and I began a new school year at Piedmont College, he for the first time, and I for the Nth time. I have been teaching since I was 21, and now, as the French say, I am a woman of a certain age. This is only important because there’s no male equivalent in discussions of being middle aged. Identity is so firmly rooted in gender stereotypes that we can hardly free ourselves from invisible habits. That was until Generation Z made those of us simply going through the motions look up from our college-ruled notebooks and take note.

Ashton approached me as we walked into class together. With an elegant confidence, Ashton looked me in the eye and introduced himself.

“But that’s not the name you’ll see on the roll,” he indicated.

“OK…no problem. What pronouns do you use?” I asked.

“Male: he/his,” Ashton replied directly.

And so began our friendship—with frank discussions of pronouns in an entirely new context; an English teacher’s dream.

Piedmont is a small, religiously affiliated college nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its roots in the Congregational Church are deep, evidenced by a weather-vane replica of the Mayflower perched on the chapel steeple. At Piedmont, faculty and staff encourage students to find and follow their own personal paths. We are, I believe, an accepting institution, where students can join both the Gay-Straight Alliance and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Ashton and I are collaborating on this piece because, although not the first transgender student I have taught, Ashton sparked an important shift in my teaching. The morning we met, I realized that I could and should do a better job making all students feel welcome in my, nay, our classroom. To this end, Ashton and I have developed this list of contemporary considerations for faculty seeking to create a tolerant and inclusive space in which all students might thrive. Ashton has helped me this semester to grow as a professor, and we hope the ideas presented here encourage others to have frank discussions at their own institutions.

  • Start with the syllabus; identify the pronouns that you use for yourself. Positioned after your name on the syllabus, include your preferred pronouns (she, her, hers; he, him, his; or they, them, theirs) to indicate the way you express your gender. This isn’t necessarily for you; instead, it indicates to your students that you are aware of and comfortable with discussions of gender identity.
  • Don’t call roll. Invite students to introduce themselves and their pronouns. This affords transgender students a natural opportunity to navigate around their “dead name” (abandoned birth name) appearing on the official roster. Cisgender students, whose name, pronouns, and birth gender match societal expectations, could also take this opportunity to share a preferred nickname. Make sure to introduce yourself as well with your name and pronouns. If you are a cisgender faculty member, you might feel silly stating what you believe to be obvious; however, for many students, faculty, and staff alike, this may not be the case.
  • Build class rapport and respect. Remind students that yours is an open, safe, and respectful classroom. You have already modeled this on your syllabus and during attendance, but now invite your students to the spirit of hospitality, trust, and tolerance. Always use students’ preferred name and pronouns in direct address and class discussions.
  • Honor naming stories. Naming has power. Some people create separate, private ceremonies where they change their name to one that better suits their identity. Students who are in various stages of transition, names, clothing, hormones, and/or surgery have gone to great lengths to identify themselves, and often, quite literally, save themselves. Naming is a significant step in transition and transformation. If you know that a student has changed his/her name, privately encourage the student to share this with the college as well. Public rituals such as pinning, ring, or senior cap ceremonies, where students are formally invited into the college community, should be happy memories that forever tie alumni to their alma mater. No student wants to be on the receiving end of a “dead name” faux pas.
  • Consider re-introductions if a student comes out as transgender during the semester. If you have heard about a naming story or ceremony, you might consider, with the student’s permission of course, reintroducing the student to the class. This eliminates the awkwardness for some who might sit and wonder; and in a stronger example, the reintroduction might offer timid students hope and courage in the knowledge that others are living authentic, happy, and successful lives.
  • Talk to students. Be honest and open with students, but as Ashton so eloquently reminded me: “Don’t make a big deal out if it.” You can always ask students if they are comfortable with a little give and take. This way, they can choose with whom and how much they share.

Of course, it’s the students’ responsibility to share facts with you if they want you to know about their transition or new name. If and when you do know, make it as easy and as comfortable as possible, especially for first-year students who don’t yet understand the lay of the land. Your school might not participate in the Safe Space program, but your classroom can function that way. I need Ashton to develop his critical thinking, reading, and writing skills; I don’t need him to break concentration because I used his dead name. Thus, as I invite students, cis or transgender, to my world of books and ideas, they inevitably shape me, too.

Ashton Black (he, him, his) is a freshman Technical Theater Major at Piedmont College, Demorest GA, and Dr. Stephanie Almagno (she, her, hers) is his professor of English.