“It’s a foundational thing about our culture, the first thing we hear: boy or girl. Challenging that does take a lot of thought. But it’s also really important,” said Milo Chesnut, a transgender high school science teacher at Brooklyn Collaborative. Chesnut identifies as nonbinary and uses they, them, their pronouns.
“Everybody needs to be mindful that gender is a construction,” said teacher Mitch Klages-Bombich, who is transgender and works at UFT headquarters for the Positive Learning Collaborative, a joint DOE-UFT initiative that supports schools in creating a positive learning environment.
Even many cisgender people — those who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth —find the stereotypes for their gender a poor fit. “Most people can relate to not feeling entirely comfortable” with the assumptions attached to gender identity, said Chesnut.
While every transgender teacher in New York City public schools has an individual experience, they share the desire to make the space where they work safe and affirming for themselves and for all students.
Klages-Bombich says, referring to public school educators, “educating ourselves” is key: “We need to have real dialogue that isn’t about fear and rhetoric. It has to be about making sure everyone is treated with respect and fairness.”
It’s also important to be proactive. “We should have policies and systems in place,” says Klages-Bombich, “not address the issue of having a transgender student only when you have one.”
A critical step is to honor every individual’s choice of name and personal pronouns.
Bahar Akyurtlu, a math teacher and UFT delegate at Harlem Renaissance HS, a transfer school in Manhattan, identifies as transgender. She advocates a system that respects a person’s chosen name and asserted gender pronouns and provides “opportunities to very quickly and easily” convey those. “We need to create that kind of persistent culture in our school community whether any students are transgender or not,” Bahar said.
Then there is the issue of role models.
Growing up, Klages-Bombich didn’t have any. “I was not seeing the representation of who I am in media or in anything, really.”
Akyurtlu agreed. “The only time you ever saw a trans person was on (TV’s) Jerry Springer. They were so caricatured that you’d think, ‘I can’t possibly be that person.’”
Now, these teachers are role models.
“I feel very aware that I am a model for a lot of students of how somebody with my particular identities feels about themselves,” said Chesnut.
Devon Shanley, a middle school English teacher at Brooklyn Collaborative, knew he was an effective teacher but came to believe that by sharing his transgender identity it would expand the ways he could be a “positive role model.”
Another common bond among transgender teachers: each must navigate three minefields when disclosing — the reactions of school staff, students and parents.
“The moment when you disclose, or come out, or express that your identity is anything other than what someone would have expected, is a critical moment,” Chesnut said.
Akyurtlu brought it up in her job interview. “I wanted to know, ‘Are you going to be supportive of me if something should happen?’” But she didn’t disclose to students right away.
“Teaching math is a hard sell under the best of circumstances,” she said. But it wasn’t long before students found the former activist online.
“There were certain students who were extremely supportive,” Akyurtlu said. But others made comments in the hallways and even refused to look her in the eye in class.
She made inroads by showing them “that I understand their world, that I understand their lives. I try to be very honest all the time,” she said. “A lot of the things any good teacher should be doing.”
When Klages-Bombich was teaching, he had complete support from staff. He said his elementary school students were inquisitive but accepting and almost all the parents were, too. He had just one problem over gender presentation. “My principal told me a student‘s father didn’t like the way I looked and dressed.” The principal backed up Mitch, telling the parent his objections amounted to discrimination. The parent pulled the 2nd-grader out of the school.
Shanley, who found support across the board, said he’d always wanted to be out with staff and students but didn’t want his coming out to create any barriers in the relationships he’d worked so hard to foster.
Then in 2014, Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager in Ohio, implored schools to teach about gender before she committed suicide. “That was the impetus for me (to disclose),” said Shanley, who realized he was in a position to help bring about the change Leelah longed for.
For Chesnut and Shanley, the culture of inclusion at Brooklyn Collaborative — a PROSE and Outward Bound school with a restorative justice program — has fostered a positive experience.
“Our core values are open-mindedness, courage, kindness, collaboration, persistence and responsibility,” said Shanley. “All of those allow for almost any conversation you could possibly have.”