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Student Teaching as a Trans Person: An Educator’s Perspective

When we discuss education, we often focus on one of two directions: topics concerning students, or topics concerning teachers. But separate from those two directions lays a third: student teachers on their way to becoming tomorrow’s educators.

From a young age, we prepare students for the world by telling them they can be anything they want to be, and they learn that school and teachers are one of the keys to get them there. Well, how do teachers become teachers? And for that matter, how to trans people in particular navigate this four-year process?

My Experience

I changed my major to education during my freshman year of college in the midst of coming out to myself. The most I knew about being an education major came from the stories of my mother’s friends (my mom was an elementary school nurse for a good chunk of my K-12 experience). I knew at some point I would have to student teach, but as a college freshman the end of my senior year seemed a lifetime away. When I left my new advisors office in January 2008, I realized how fixed of a path I would be taking. I needed to get all of my content courses in and have a clean background check, all the while keeping a 3.0 GPA.

Coming Out as Trans

Fast forward to my sophomore year. I had recently come out and started the year as Alex, but would be spending the remainder of the academic year with my birth name unchanged at Penn State. My first hurdle as a newly transitioning teacher came in the form of my first curriculum and instruction class. This was the first class that had observation requirements. Part of this included two full day trips to observe classrooms in local schools. I had no idea what to do. My options were to wear a dress shirt and pants without a tie signaling that I was a masculine woman and go by my birth name or power through and hope that my name wouldn’t come up much. At this point, I was not on HRT (or had barely started) and had to get by on binding and short hair to be consistently read as male. I made the decision to push through, wear a tie, share that I went by Alex, and just hope the assumptions went from there. It was shaky, but nothing too weird happened in front of students on either trip we took. I corrected my name and let the teacher put “Mr.” in front of my last name on his or her own. I just always hated the process. I still had to raise my hand in front of the group when my name was called for attendance before we left and hope that I could make it through without comment.

My name change finalized with my university the summer leading into my junior year. As courses tightened and lesson plan submissions became more real, my transition was picking up speed. I had almost reached one year on HRT and grew ever more active in transgender visibility on campus. The further I went into my junior year, the more I realized that the social networking privacy talks and lectures about professionalism had a different impact on me than they did on other students. Other students had to delete pictures of them with red solo cups and doing keg stands, while I worried if newspaper articles and rally pictures would derail my career before it even started.

Gearing Up to Student Teach

At the end of your junior year, you find out your student teaching placement for your senior year. Education majors were placed in three different regions across the state, Philadelphia area, Pittsburgh area, and Central PA (where Penn State is located). If you were placed in a region outside of the local area, you most likely were placed where you were from and were able to live at home. I lucked out (through a desperate plea in the comments section of our placement survey) and got to stay put at Penn State.

When my senior year began, I had my last few content courses of my college career and then had my pre-student teaching. In your fall semester, you wade into what your spring has in store. Student teachers spend six weeks in the fall doing half days at their school. We teach a few lessons, but overall are there to get acclimated and used to our surroundings (and used to having to get up and not snooze our alarms). I had to get used to my 6am alarm very quickly (which is funny now that my alarm goes off at 5am). It is one thing to skip your 8am lecture, but sleeping through student teaching is a quick way to be dismissed. It felt right to be in a class. It felt right to be planning. It felt right to not have a clue what I was doing, but wanted to learn. For context, while I am currently an elementary special education teacher, I majored in secondary education – social studies. I spent my fall getting to know my mentor teacher and watching him and learning his style of teaching. I just had to figure out what my style was. I knew my world was going to change when my spring semester hit. I just didn’t know how much it was going to change.

My spring semester (my final semester of undergrad) started a week before everyone else’s. For student teachers, you are asked to start when students return from their winter break. My whole semester would be teaching, it was my only “class” I also found out very quickly that my mentor teacher and I were opposite in most every way. He was a “man’s man” and former football coach and followed every stereotype of overtly masculine men. I had no intention of connecting with someone who expected me to fit a mold and be a perfect teacher from the beginning. I knew it would be a rocky semester when he said he wouldn’t let his son grow up to be a soccer player, his son needed to be a football player. The time I spent at that school with his teacher friend group was my first glimpse into a world of heterosexual, cisgender men. None of the macho men we ate lunch with ever connected that I didn’t eat lunch because I didn’t have the funds to eat more than one or two meals a day.

Student teaching is hard

I don’t mince words about how tough every day was during that spring. Lesson planning and figuring out how to teach something with very little guidance consumed my whole life. At my placement school, the social studies department taught the traditional subjects (history, civics, etc.) for the first two marking periods. Because there was no state test (at the time) for social studies, the last two marking periods became mini-courses. Classroom teachers chose their topics and wrote their own plans around that subject. My mentor teacher taught “The Politics of Rock and Roll” during the third marking period, my main time for teaching. I loved the thought of it and it was an engaging subject, but I had no idea where to go with such an open topic. I made it through and was happy to meet my stride by the time I got to Woodstock and Altamont. Future teachers, make the relationships you can while you are student teaching. I luckily had a great student teaching supervisor that understood the unrealistic expectations of my mentor teacher. I had relationships with my cohort. I wish that I had found more teachers at the school to work with. Seek the knowledge that you can and don’t expect to get it from where you are told. Most times it works out, but sometimes you have to get creative. Creativity is one of the many great qualities of trans folks.

Tips for LGBTQ folks who wish to teach:

If you want to be a teacher or if you are currently in college to be one, know the non-discrimination policy of your college and school district front and back. Research what infractions could result in loss of licensure. There are many states that have “morality codes” on the books that result in the firing of teachers because of harmless things in their private lives.

Transitioning in any situation is hard and transitioning while teaching creates all new obstacles. I am privileged that I transitioned in college and not on the job. For anyone transitioning in the workforce, I encourage you to search for those stories and read checklists or advice. If you are someone who currently questions if who you are and “what you want to be when you grow up” can mesh, I’m here to tell you: they can. You deserve the job you want and you deserve to be who you are without choosing one over the other.

Too many words? Here are tips for staying sane during student teaching:

  • Self care – most of your time will be spent lesson planning and preparing copies, make sure you carve out time to breathe. Some of the other student teachers went from school to the gym then home. That is how they cleared their mind. I didn’t work out regularly at the time and I got home each day right as a re-run of Gilmore Girls aired. My planning didn’t start until after my sitcom escape.
  • Find your own resources – My mentor teacher dictated a lot of what I needed to produce. You can’t change the expectations of your mentor teacher, but you can find your own path to meeting them. If I went back in time to do it over, I would have utilized the knowledge of more people. I should have gotten more input from other student teachers and my student teaching supervisor.
  • Know your limits – As a student teacher in your final semester, you are in a position where you are close to a decent amount of people. Close proximity usually leads to personal conversations. You have every right to opt out of conversations that make you uncomfortable or decline to elaborate further on your gender – or anything else. I kept my life close lipped throughout the semester (mostly because the company of my mentor teacher didn’t really invite too much conversation). If you are someone that is used to talking about your life (either to other LGBTQ people or shouting to bigots), this could be a great opportunity to reach a new audience. I didn’t learn this truth until a few years into the working world.
Alex Yates

About the author

Alex Yates (he/him)

Alex Yates is a transgender teacher who seeks to create community and inclusivity through education. Follow him on Instagram @askmeaboutmycats or send him an email.