This was my first year of teaching, and even though it was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience, it was a lot of fun. I’m excited to come back, largely because of the support I found in my administrators. As a non-binary person looking for my first teaching position, it was important to me to find a school community that would allow me to bring my authentic self to school, and I’m so grateful I found it.
I know school leaders like you may be wondering what you can do to create a supportive and welcoming school environment for non-binary teachers and others whose identity falls under the LGBTQ+ umbrella.
Based on my own experience, I want to share what leaders can do to welcome and support teachers with diverse identities:
1. Convey your strong support up front.
I have been out in the open for a while. I knew I didn’t want to go back into the closet to teach, so I was grateful when I found administrators who had my back from the moment they hired me.
During my second interview, I let them know that I use “they” pronouns and the “Mx.” honorific. I wanted to make sure that my school leaders would be understanding, if not knowledgeable, about my identity, and that they would be willing to learn. Without hesitation, both my principal and assistant principal said, “We think that you would be a great addition to our school, and we would really love to have you here.” It was such a clear message that this was where I needed to be.
2. Make sure to follow the teacher’s lead.
If you’re on a team that is welcoming LGBTQ+ teachers, try to be open-minded about how they want to be presented and how they want to engage with their identity. I’m very out loud and open, but not everybody is. So, for example, maybe a teacher doesn’t want to be outed to students, but still wants to be accepted and respected as a member of the staff. Being open-minded, working to educate yourself and seeking out the teacher’s needs and wants around support are the best things you can do.
3. Offer to talk with your staff about the new teacher’s identity before they arrive.
Because my principal and assistant principal knew I wanted to be out with my colleagues and students, they offered to lay the groundwork for me with the staff. They emailed the other teachers before I arrived to say, “We have this new teacher coming, here’s how they identify, and here’s how we address them. If you have any concerns or questions, please come to talk with us first.” It helped establish a non-negotiable culture of acceptance, and it gave my team members a chance to educate themselves and seek answers to their questions even before I arrived.
4. Offer to talk with families about the new teacher in advance.
My fellow teachers were, for the most part, very welcoming. There were some who didn’t know anything about what it means to be non-binary and who approached me asking, “Can you make me understand better?” And I said, “I don’t know that I can make you understand better, but I can help you understand me.” And that was all it really took. I appreciated that they stepped out of their comfort zone to speak with me directly. There were times throughout the year when someone would use the wrong pronouns, and then correct themselves and move on. And that’s what I wanted: colleagues who are willing to learn. My administrators set the tone for that culture.
My school leaders asked if I wanted them to send a letter home to families, letting them know how I identify and offering to answer questions, and I appreciated it. Though I was nervous about the acceptance of my students’ families, I didn’t have any issues in that regard. Before the open house, I sent home a letter introducing myself. I told them it was my first year teaching, that I have two dogs, and that I use they/them pronouns. In the letter, I said, “You might hear your students say something like, ‘I’m in Mx. Moony’s class. They painted one of the walls in their room, and I like having them as a teacher.’” That was it. I think it helped that my administrators had reached out in advance, so my letter wasn’t the first time families were hearing about this.
5. Connect the teacher with district advocates.
Right after I was hired, my administrators introduced me to the head of our district HR department that deals with diversity and inclusion. They told me, “Here is your contact person. If you don’t feel comfortable coming to us, she is who you need to contact.” There was only one time throughout the year that something happened that I was worried about, and they took care of it right away.
6. Be ready to advocate for the teacher when challenges arise.
Partway through the school year, something came up that gave my school leaders the chance to really demonstrate their advocacy. In my part of the school, each classroom had its own single-stall bathroom, and these had historically been gender neutral, which worked well for me as a non-binary teacher. At some point we had a walk-through by a county official, and they said we needed to mark each of the single-stall bathrooms as “male” or “female.” I was upset, because doing that would mean I would no longer have a bathroom to use on campus unless I used the principal’s bathroom.
I immediately let my school leaders know I was uncomfortable with this, and they called the district HR person to ask what we could do. Fortunately, she was able to clear up that this was a misunderstanding, and that the county had agreed that single-stall bathrooms were all-gender bathrooms. So it worked out, but it was a stressful moment, and I was so grateful that my leaders were willing to stand up for me without hesitation and say: “No, there’s no reason for you to feel uncomfortable. We’re going to figure this out.”
7. Remember, hiring and retaining teachers with diverse identities is so important for your students.
Having a teacher who is non-binary may mean some initial learning for you or your school community, but it’s absolutely worthwhile to seek out all kinds of diversity on your staff. It’s powerful for students to see people of all backgrounds being successful and supported. When someone like me has the confidence to be authentically myself, and kids see that I can be confident as an outlier, it speaks volumes to them. When they see someone like me accepted by their school leadership, it sends the message that students can be accepted as their authentic selves, no matter who they are.