Teaching Transgender in Elementary Education: A Look at the Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8 (2015)
This past year has been a big one for the LGBTQ community in North America, particularly for the “T” portion of that community. New, positive and more honest portrayals of transgender role models and experiences are becoming accessible to international audiences. This new accessibility in the media has resulted in a bigger push to teach youth about transgender identity and the potential barriers someone who struggles with their gender identity may encounter in society. The changing social landscape of today dictates this need to educate our youth, some of whom may struggle with their gender identity. This brings us to my original research question; ‘who should be educating youth on such a delicate and important subject, and is there a ‘right way’ to do it?’ Although many would prefer to relegate this potentially awkward and confusing task to the discretion of parents, the reality is many youth will not receive adequate, if any, accurate information on transgender identity and related topics from parents or guardians. For this reason, governments have bestowed this task on teachers and educators, in some Canadian and American schools beginning as early as elementary school. This paper will first establish the case for teaching transgender identity as part of elementary health education, and examine the potential issues teachers and other officials may encounter in their teaching transgender experience. Finally, this paper will make curriculum suggestions using the new Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: Health and Physical Education, 2015 (revised) as a framework of reference.
Why Teach Transgender in Elementary Education?
Knowing what we know today about transgender prejudice should provide ample reasoning alone for educating the wider population about gender identity and the barriers it can create for people who struggle with it. A national study conducted by Eli Green amongst American university students found, “that education can and does play a substantial role in reducing anti-transgender prejudice.” Given the efficacy of education in reducing prejudice, through facilitating dialogue, and creating safe space, ‘teaching transgender’ and gender identity is a lesson that everyone should learn at some point. However some claim it is a far leap from agreeing people should learn about gender identity and the associated struggles, to being on board with elementary education including gender identity as part of health and physical education curriculum. Such opponents claim school is a place of innocence, free of adult concerns like sexuality and gender identity, especially in elementary schools. However, “whilst sexuality is supposedly absent in the primary-school classroom, it is also fully present both through that absence and the implicit presence of heterosexuality.” As an institution elementary schools rely upon gendered, often heterosexual binaries, for day-to-day activities that also impact students’ social identity. These binaries can often cause microaggressions to LGBTQ community members and negatively impact their gender or sexual identity development. Additionally, studies have found that youth are coming out as transgender at younger ages, and that of those who were “out” in kindergarten through grade 12, 78% were harassed, 35% were physically assaulted, and 12% experienced sexual violence. Given these facts, the case can easily be made for why it is important to sensitively and accurately educate youth on gender identity, but also be mindful of the use of gendered constructs. Beginning this education in elementary school will not only provide resources for youth in a time when they are forming their gender identity as part of their social development, but also reduce prejudice through open dialogue and mutual respect. The issue I have however, is not with whether or not we should incorporate gender identity, specifically lessons on transgender identity in elementary schools. Rather, it is with how we have gone about incorporating this in elementary curriculum, or in many cases have not.
The Ontario 2015 Curriculum: A Closer Look
The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: Health and Physical Education, 2015 (revised) is particularly useful for a frame of reference, as it is indicative of the direction modern, comprehensive, sexual education in North America is taking. For the purposes of this paper, I will use the Ontario Curriculum to highlight potential issues that may arise in teaching transgender, as well as make suggestions for curriculum improvement. As a result of the content changes in the 2015 edition, the Ontario Curriculum has received a lot of attention in recent months from outraged parents and community groups. Opponents to the new curriculum claim it is too explicit for elementary students, citing lessons on; masturbation, same-sex relationships, contraceptives and gender expression as particularly problematic. On the other side of the debate are policy writers who argue the revision, which is the first of its kind since 1998, “is necessary in a digital age where pornography is easily accessible and children can get lost trying to wade through the onslaught of sexual information flooding the Internet.” Caught uncomfortably between these two sides, are the teachers. The ones who work with the children these policies are written for, and who are given the seemingly impossible task of meeting curriculum expectations, while simultaneously pacifying parents and delivering effective lessons. It is here we arrive at the first major issue of teaching gender identity in the elementary classroom; those who are doing the teaching lack resources and familiarity with the subject matter.
Teaching Transgender, Whose Job Is It?
Teaching transgender identity is a topic many university Gender Studies scholars struggle with, so it should come as no surprise that one of the biggest complaints teachers have with the new Ontario Curriculum is a feeling of unpreparedness. The Ontario Curriculum dictates by grade 8, students should be able to,
“demonstrate an understanding of gender identity (e.g., male, female, two-spirited, transgender, transsexual, intersex), gender expression, and sexual orientation (e.g., heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual), and identify factors that can help individuals of all identities and orientations develop a positive self-concept.”
A goal that on paper can be summed up in a few short lines, but in practice poses a lot of anxiety for teachers and educators. The source of this anxiety by in large is the lack of resources available, and teacher’s varying degrees of familiarity and comfort with the subject matter. The Ontario Curriculum itself offers very little in the way of direction for accomplishing this loaded learning goal. Outside of a formal definition and a single example of teacher-student discussion prompt, the only other resources provided to teachers is a link to the Ontario Human Rights Commission on transgender rights. This lack of resources paired with the fact that many teachers do not have the education and training themselves to address issues pertaining to mental health and social development, leaves many feeling underqualified and overwhelmed. An additional problem with the Ontario Curriculum lies in the fact that like previous curriculums before it, the 2015 version allows a considerable amount of discretion to be used by teachers. This allows teachers the latitude to pick which curriculum goals are most important based on time and personal bias. This of course can have a profound impact on what youth learn across school board to school board, school to school and even class to class. For teachers who feel underqualified to teach gender identity, this can mean the subject is never taught, is taught with harmful bias, or presents inaccurate information. When asked for suggestions to remedy this issue of, ‘who is most qualified to teach transgender and gender identity?’ many teachers and parents respond with, ‘public health officials’.
If the people we trust day to day to educate our youth feel unprepared to teach them about gender identity and transgender issues, who then do we turn to? Public health officials such as nurses and doctors, are often thrust into the foreground on this debate, as to say their medical expertise makes them somehow more qualified and empathetic to discuss issues of gender identity and sexuality. This of course could not be further from the case in most situations. As a population,
“people who self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender face significant risks to health and difficulty in obtaining medical and behavioral health care, relative to the general public… [and ] within this population, transgender people are far more likely to express concerns about how they will be treated when they seek health care.”
Many of those risks and concerns stem from prejudice, disrespect or inadequate knowledge, expressed by medical staff, which result in greater LGBT health disparities. The scholarship investigating healthcare access for transgender people is relatively new, however it is consistently demonstrating public health officials are in many ways just as unprepared to address gender identity with patients, as Ontario teachers feel teaching it to their students. A recent study conducted across the US using Bachelor of Science Nursing students determined, 69% thought LGBT health issues were “important or very important in nursing”, yet “a majority of respondents reported knowledge limitations and more than one third indicated a limited awareness of LGBT health issues.” Unsettling statistics, but their findings and other similar studies, are critical for developing comprehensive curriculum for medical professionals, teachers, and students.
Curriculum Corrections: How to Teach Transgender in Elementary Classrooms
There are many studies examining the effectiveness of teaching gender identity and transgender issues across university faculties, yet few address the issue of elementary health education curriculum. Given the new push for gender identity education in elementary schools, it is time we address the barriers and potential solutions for curriculum. Although these previously mentioned studies, are not conducted on the same age group, they do tell us some important information on how to effectively teach transgender identity both to teachers and by teachers in the classroom. The national study conducted by Lim et al., (2015) found the
“high importance that faculty placed on integrating LGBT health into the curriculum [was] matched by the expressed readiness and comfort discussing these issues by the majority of respondents.”
This of course is not a shocking finding. It does suggest however, the efficacy of gender identity teaching will be mirrored in students understanding and familiarity in elementary classrooms as well. For this reason, I make my first suggestion for improvement to the Ontario Curriculum. Gender identity and LGBTQ centered workshops for educators. These workshops should be developed by qualified gender studies and health care professionals with the input of teachers, to present consistent, accurate, and easily redistributable information to teachers for lesson plans.
To address the anxieties of parents, or simply to refresh their health education, the Ontario Curriculum should also include a guide for parents, detailing the information students will learn in health class. Although some parents may find this an affront, research tells us educating all parties is instrumental in facilitating dialogue across demographics, thereby decreasing transgender prejudice across society, not just the classroom. One Ontario school board has already implemented such a protocol with their 14 page “Facts Matter” guide for parents and community groups. Additionally, studies suggest, “personal contact and empathy may be key strategies in successful educational interventions toward reducing anti-transgender prejudice.” How can teachers incorporate personal contact and empathy in lessons while still maintaining professional distance? One study suggests “spatial transgressions,” that is letting identities and language reserved for ‘adult spaces’ or the school yard, ‘leak’ into the classroom so that they may act as a springboard for conversation, “to unpack the meanings and implications” of sexual health and gender identity. Examples would include; reframing personal anecdotes using language such as “partner” rather than “husband” or “wife” and facilitating discussions centered on healthy relationships, free from traditional norms or binaries. All of these suggestions would help ensure consistency, accuracy and sensitivity in the materials used to teach transgender and gender identity, while also helping educators and parents feel more comfortable with facilitating dialogue about it.
Teaching transgender and gender identity in elementary health education poses a lot of concerns for parents, teachers, students, and public officials alike. This paper has first demonstrated the case for teaching transgender identity as part of elementary health education, in order to combat prejudice and prepare students for the realities of social development. Second, it has addressed the question of ‘who should be teaching gender identity?’ by raising the issues and concerns teachers and public health officials face in teaching transgender and facilitating discussions on gender identity. Finally this paper has made suggestions for improvement to the new Ontario Curriculum Grades 1-8 Health and Physical Education 2015 (revised) using previous studies on the efficacy of teaching transgender lessons in universities and youth spaces. These suggested corrections include; school board facilitated sexuality education training for teachers and staff, preparing a parent’s guide outlining the curriculum information and expectations, and reframing discussions through ‘spatial transgressions’ at school and at home, would be instrumental in better integrating gender identity into the elementary classroom and decreasing transgender prejudice.
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