Supporting transgender trainee teachers: information for PGCE providers

Starting a new job or training post is always nerve-wracking. And it’s no exaggeration to say that your training year is the toughest of them all. (At least, until your NQT year!) But for some students, there are hurdles beyond the fears of classroom disruption, lesson plans and getting your head around the latest marking criteria.

it’s evident that few organisations have even entertained the possibility that they might need to support transgender student teachers: whilst seeking advice for a transgender about-to-be PGCE student, I have been passed from pillar to post, with Ofsted, the Department for Education, the Teaching Line and major LGB charity Stonewall all unable to advise beyond “contact your university”. Entering a new course uncertain as to your rights or how well your ITE provider will support them is, at best, daunting.

Make sure your university is known as a safe environment

Students report finding “very few resources” on selecting a university – with even word of mouth or specialised LGBTQIA+ lists proving unreliable. “There’s a joke that most LGBT resources are actually LGB…t.” Indeed, a recent guide to ‘LGBT friendly colleges’ listed women’s colleges that refused to even entertain admittance to trans women. Little wonder then that students say “it’s hard to know what you can trust to be accurate.” Students even report looking for clues as small as “if they use the word ‘transgender’ rather than ‘transgendered’ or – *gulp* – ‘transsexual’ on their equalities policy”. Institutions which are providing the support needed to existing trans students are clearly missing the opportunity to advertise to potential future trans students.

There is, of course, a difference between “not actively transphobic”, trans friendly and actively supportive. One of the most common complaints we’ve heard about any educational institution is, “They’re supportive but clueless.” Whilst this is definitely a step up from unsupportive or downright transphobic, it’s still decidedly unhelpful for transgender trainees.

“Discrimination does not have to be deliberate and intentional. You can discriminate indirectly with working conditions or rules that disadvantage one group of people more than another.” - gov.uk

Ensure safe spaces for transgender trainees

As a trainee teacher, it can be hard to build a firm community: often, by the time a trainee has been in a school for long enough to determine how safe it is for trans teachers, it’s time to move on – it took me the majority of my first placement to even dare broach the rampant homophobia that seemed to go unchecked in the school. The same applies within the training cohort, with just ⅓ of PGCE time spent in university. And in PGCE groups that splinter according to subject, your chances of finding someone with similar experiences are mostly down to sheer luck, rather than numbers.

Unlike undergraduates, or even university based postgraduates, solace in societies and clubs can be hard to find. Whilst my university LGBT society was friendly and welcoming, it was impractical as a source of support. With university societies aimed at young undergraduates, many students report an excessive proportion of meet-ups being alcohol-and-night-club centred – and with most student nights taking place mid-week, this obviously is unsuitable for trainees for whom it is, quite literally, ‘a school night’. Even ‘dry’ meet-ups and more formal meetings tend to be impractical for trainees, often taking place within school hours. Perhaps most pertinently, undergraduate run societies tend to offer little by way of support to postgraduate professionals: my own limited involvement with the LGBT society involved being the advisor to third years considering a teaching career.

There are of course online communities. Indeed, in the research not only of this post but of Rainbow Teaching as a whole, Twitter and Facebook LGBTQIA+ and trans-specific networks have been invaluable sources of both information and support; but these are rather dependent on pre-established networks. And teaching specific networks aren’t always the most supportive: for example, following the death of transgender teacher Lucy Meadows, several ‘debate’ topics arose on teaching forums – many horrifically transphobic, and arguing that children should be ‘protected’ from ‘inappropriate’ topics; in short, not places a trainee would necessarily feel safe seeking advice with regards to transgender issues.

What this boils down to is the basic fact that transgender trainees will be particularly reliant on course leaders and organisers as a source of support. It’s crucial that all tutors and mentors – anyone who serves as a first port of call to trainees – are adequately trained, sensitive to diversity and the issues that can arise , and fully equipped to deal with such matters.

Ensure all trainees and staff members have full LGBTQIA+ training

Indeed, full LGBTQIA+ training is an essential part of a teaching education, at all levels. Under Ofsted guidelines, all teachers need to be equipped to:

  • challenge homophobic, biphobic and transphobic language
  • explain in age-appropriate ways why the above is “wrong, scary and unpleasant”
  • tackle gender stereotypes and bullying/teasing as a result
  • teach about LGBTQIA+ issues (“different families” is cited directly, as is “homophobic/transphobic bullying and ways to stop it happening in school”)

Ofsted also ask school pupils if:

  • there is any homophobic bullying or derogatory language about staff
  • any transgender pupil or teacher would/does feel safe and free from bullying at school.

With regards to ITE providers, inspectors will also look at “how the ITE partnership meets the statutory initial teacher training criteria and requirements, and all relevant legislation, including that related to promoting equality and diversity, eliminating discrimination, and safeguarding” and, “[t]he extent to which trainees benefit from high-quality training and support that prepares trainees with the skills they need to [...] develop strategies to promote and manage good behaviour successfully and tackle bullying, including cyber and prejudice-based bullying.

As in schools, teaching LGBTQIA+ issues in ITE is not just a matter of ticking an Ofsted box, nor is it solely about equipping teachers with strategies to deal with LGBTQIA+ inclusion, vital as this is. It’s about sending a clear message about your own organisation’s LGBTQIA+ inclusion. Behind-the-scenes policies are all very good and well, but for students, knowing you are openly committed can knock down that first hurdle of having to assess the inherent risks.

Understand the DBS process for transgender applicants

It is also important to support students with practicalities, such as DBS check applications: for many students, it may be their first time applying – and for transgender applicants, the process can be more complicated than usual. Take initiative, as students may not be aware of the rights they have.

Applicants have a right to keep their ‘dead name’ (the name given to them as an infant, under their gender assigned at birth) private if they have legally changed their name. (For applicants who have yet to change their name, completing a DBS check requires you to produce a certain amount of ID. If time permits and they wish to, a name change and, for example, a driving license reissue is one option; otherwise, they will need to provide their legal name.) Applicants can follow the process as advised by UK Trans Info.

Whilst a change of name does not necessitate a new DBS, it is good practice to offer this option to students who change their name mid-course.

Select appropriate school placements

For placements, preparation is key: send more vulnerable teachers to schools you have established links with, where you know the mentors and department are supportive – and ideally where you know the school is LGBTQIA+ supportive – rather than trialling new links on vulnerable trainees. Talk to mentors, link teachers and headteachers to determine if they would be supportive of transgender students (and if their answer is ‘no’, this should raise questions about their willingness to support other aspects of diversity, and your willingness to place students in unsupportive environments).

“Having no control over the school you’ll be sent to is terrifying; especially when you know your safety as a trans person probably isn’t top of universities’ lists when trying to juggle hundreds of student placements.”

Be prepared to step in and fight your trainee’s corner: everyone has the right to attend work and study free from harassment and discrimination. You should be prepared to find alternative placement provision for a student if their original school proves discriminatory – and this should be according to your trainee’s measures, not your own.

Listen, and seek advice where needed

Listen to trainees: they know what they need; your job is to facilitate this. Make no assumptions about their identity or presentation, and be careful you do not accidently out a student without their consent. Ask – and adhere to – what names and pronouns students want to be known by – and be aware that students may not be out to mentors on placement. Non-binary students in particular may wish to use different names and pronouns according to different situations.

Be prepared to do some research, or to redefine policy if you come across new situations. It’s also important to know when to seek help yourself: we are available to support with this, or see our links section for further information on organisations and charities who can be of assistance. Use your university network too – often trainee teachers, especially when on placement, forget they are entitled to access university resources: having a list of helpful contacts can be crucial.

Ultimately, with a solid training programme of LGBTQIA+ awareness, and a supportive network of LGBTQIA+ friendly mentors, link teachers and schools, ensuring your university is a safe place for transgender students should be no arduous task.