Published June 11, 2021
Creating a supportive and mindful learning environment where all students can be their true selves is vital--but today's gender-expansive identities and language can often seem overwhelming for teachers. Meet Amber Joseph, a middle school teacher in New York City with over a decade of experience, who will provide you with real-world advice and reasonable, actionable steps to honor and include all of the identities your students bring into the classroom.
This History UnErased podcast is funded by the New York City Council Committee on Education. It was developed by History UnErased in partnership with Making Gay History and produced by Deb Fowler; Inge De Taeye; Ali Lemer; and Eric Marcus.
Deb Fowler: Hello, and welcome to UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities — A Podcast for Teachers. I’m Deb Fowler, executive director of History UnErased.
Our collective awareness of gender and sexual diversity has grown dramatically in the past decade. But honoring the lived experience of individuals whose gender identity doesn't match the sex they were assigned at birth is an ongoing learning process. It means reassessing our language, assumptions, and unconscious biases.
How do we, as teachers, navigate the spectrum of gender identification in schools? And regardless of what subject we teach, how can we create a supportive and mindful classroom space where all students can be fully themselves?
To address this issue, I am speaking with Amber Joseph, who has more than 10 years’ experience as a New York City middle school teacher. Welcome, Amber.
Amber Joseph: Hi Deb. Thank you so much for having me on today.
DF: Oh, we're so excited to have you. Uh, Amber, before we dive in, let's perhaps define a couple of terms that are bound to come up in this context. What, for instance, does cisgender mean?
AJ: So cisgender is a gender identity where a person identifies male or female, um, and that gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. Uh, I personally identify as a cisgender woman.
DF: And when we talk about non-cisgender identities, we might be talking about transgender people and people who identify as nonbinary. Now, most people will be familiar with the term trans, but what does nonbinary mean…?
AJ: These are people who do not identify either as a man or a woman, or they may identify as being both, or neither, or somewhere in between. So that identity really, I think, encompasses the idea that gender is a spectrum.
DF: Yeah, and it seems that a lot of young people today are kind of resisting the labels, and, and referring to themselves as having nonbinary identities relating to gender as well as sexual orientation. So, Amber, as many educators share with us their uncertainty about approaching topics related to trans and nonbinary identities with students, what would you say to those teachers?
AJ: First, I, I would say to them that you are not alone in navigating these different identities that students are bringing into the space. Uncertainty or, like, discomfort around what these identities mean I also think is very common. Uh, I think as teachers we are always trying to get things right or create a safe space or do a good job, um, and so I think in exploring gender identities with students, I think it's really natural to worry about saying or doing the wrong thing, especially for teachers who come from generations and cultural identities where maybe discussion around gender as anything other than a binary is not familiar to them.
So what I've learned over the years, um, is that popular understandings of gender, um, it's rapidly evolving. Um, and I'm not that old and yet I feel often like I really need to ask students what they're talking about. Um, whether it's things they're seeing on TikTok or memes they're sharing, or just, you know, different lingo they’re dropping in a chat on Zoom. So I, I want to acknowledge that this is rapidly changing.
Uh, you really have to be kind to yourself. Habits don't change overnight. So even with the best of intentions, if a student has been in your world, in your classroom, and that student has been he/him, um, with, you know, a typically masculine name, and that change is happening, and the student says, you know, “I am now she/her, and this is a new name I have,” it, it doesn't necessarily change overnight, um, that you will address that student with, with, with the correct pronouns. So, you know, it's just really a learning experience. Um, you know, as the student is exploring their gender identity, you also, as the teacher, are exploring your own, um, understanding of gender.
And so I would really emphasize, you need to be ready to learn. Um, and, and part of the learning is, is listening to your students. Um, asking them questions about what feels comfortable to them. Um, as a, as a Black woman, I'm very aware of what it feels like to have the burden of, um, educating other people about race. And so I would never want to duplicate that experience for my students. So I think seeking out information for yourself is important.
DF: That is such terrific advice, Amber. And how can teachers convey to all of their students that their classroom is a safe space to allow them to express themselves, and be respectful and mindful of each other?
AJ: I think it's really easy to start simply. Teachers with experience pride themselves on, you know, the first couple of weeks of school as being the real place to set norms and routines. You know, this is where the pencil sharpener is, like, you raise your hand when you talk, ... And so introducing, um, gender identity in, in your classroom space could definitely be something that you can introduce fairly easily at the beginning. So a concrete way to do this is just, like, introducing pronouns and making that a norm.
So at the beginning of, you know, school, I say, “My name is Amber, and I use she/her pronouns.” And then that simple announcement opens up space then that, like, you know, if I have pronouns I identify with, I'm assuming you also have pronouns that you identify with. And I would like to know what those are.
So on my student information sheets, at the beginning of the year, I ask students to write their full name as it appears on their schedule. And then the next line is, “How do you want to be called in this class?” And then the line after that is, “What are your pronouns?” And because it's just, like, you know, I'm asking you to identify these things for me, and then I'm asking you what your favorite subject in school is, I'm asking you how many siblings you have, and I'm asking you where you live, it's not like we're spotlighting the gender pronouns as the thing. It's part of the getting-to-know-you process.
DF: Part of the package!
AJ: Yeah, exactly. And, and also, if you have a school that you feel is affirming, it's really nice to just have different images on your walls to encompass a wide range of identity, right? So there's a rainbow flag, but there's also a Black Lives Matter sign, you know, my posters have different ethnicities in them, ... So I think that's also a simple thing to do.
DF: That's huge. Environment is so important. And those visual reminders that are in the periphery always can be really impactful and empowering for all students. Now, Amber, what are some things that teachers should be mindful of if, if one of their students is transitioning or comes out as nonbinary within that classroom setting?
AJ: Yeah. Um, so because I teach middle school, the last thing that middle school age people want is to be singled out, or to feel singled out in any way, in any capacity, you know. Like, you don't want to come on a Monday morning and say, “Hey, so-and-so, I heard you have this name now.” Um, even though your intention might be to affirm, um, that's extremely, you know, in your face for, for most middle school students. So this is where I really rely on my team. If the student is not in my homeroom or, or, or, you know, other, other adults have a relationship with the student and they find out, um, we have a pretty strong communication network to say, “Hey, these are the, the pronouns the student’s going by, and this is the name they want to be called.”
Sometimes students will tell you—and this is I think very brave and it's really important to recognize their courage—a student will ask you to have a private conversation and say, “Hi, my name is now this, can you call me this?” And when that has happened to me, the immediate response to that is, like, “Thank you so much for sharing that with me. And, yes, I will call you by this name,” and then say, “In the event that I call you by the wrong name, can you please correct me?”
I think it's really important if a student privately tells you this to say, “I'm acknowledging it, I might need some help, can you please help me?” Because then it also makes them feel like if you do something wrong, it's not intentional.
I think at the end of the day, like, any middle school kid, any person, that, that student just wants to be seen by you. And so saying that, like, you're here to guide them and witness it is really helpful.
DF: That’s so true, Amber. Because teachers really play a crucial role as arbiters of acceptance and affirmation of a student's identity.
AJ: I think it's really important to recognize nonbinary and trans identities as also something to celebrate, um, and embrace because you don't want your students to come into the space thinking that this is something that has to be, quote, unquote, dealt with. Like, oh my gosh, how am I going to deal with a trans student? Or like, how am I going to deal with the student who goes by they/them pronouns.
For our students who are trans, transitioning, nonbinary, they don't see themselves as a problem. It's the world that, unfortunately, in, in many spaces tells them that they're a problem.
And so I think if your room, if your interactions, can be the space where, like, they don't feel like they are a problem because their identity is just being celebrated, I think that's an amazing thing to aim for. And so affirmation is the way to go, not tolerance. ‘Cause kids will catch on really quickly if you're just tolerating them. And so I think it's the celebration aspect that's really key here.
DF: Thank you so much, Amber.
AJ: Thank you so much.
DF: Amber Joseph is a New York City middle school history teacher with more than a decade of classroom experience. Thank you for joining us for UnErasing LGBTQ History and Identities — A Podcast for Teachers. This History UnErased podcast series is funded by the New York City Council Committee on Education. It was developed in partnership with Making Gay History and produced by Inge De Taeye, Nahanni Rous, and Eric Marcus. The music you heard is “1986” by BrothaD via Tribe of Noise.
I’m Deb Fowler. Thank you for listening.