As I was tucking my daughter into bed last spring, she suddenly turned to me. “Mama,” she blurted, a little wide-eyed. “Did you know that Ms. R. used to be a boy?”
Ms. R, our daughter’s favorite teacher, had transitioned from male to female the summer before we arrived at the school. In one of those rare strokes of staff scheduling luck, our daughter had Ms. R. for the next two years as well, as teacher retirements and changing enrollments affected grade-level assignments in the school. Our family has thus had the somewhat unusual experience of working with Ms. R. for three years in a row.
During those three years, there have been periodic parent and community protests across the country about transgender teachers in the classroom—and even more prominent protests and legal drama around transgender students and bathrooms. At school board meetings and in petitions across the country, parents have expressed concern that transgender teachers will confuse children, psychologically damage them, or violate their religious beliefs.
Our experience says these parents are wrong. In fact, I’ve come to suspect that much of what makes Ms. R. such a terrific teacher is influenced by her own experience with difference—particularly in terms of how she integrates empathy, kindness, and understanding across the curriculum.
The children love Ms. R. for a million reasons, all of them wholly unrelated to her gender identity; she is fun, tells jokes, and lets them call her a dinosaur (for being so “old,” at not even three times their age). When a fourth grader asked a question about the Pyramids and hieroglyphics, Ms. R. demonstrated the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian” dance with her arms, and the whole class ended up dancing to the song; the kids adopted the movement for the rest of the year, giggling as they changed classes walking “like an Egyptian.” But what I came to appreciate most is the way she has helped her students learn to navigate understandings of diverse perspectives.
“Ms. R’s own fears and worries about the future for transgender communities in the post-election climate surely made her more attentive to her vulnerable students.”
For example, when the fifth grade class did a unit on slavery, Ms. R. had each of the kids research and write about the experience of one small community from eight different perspectives: a slave-owner, a young girl born into slavery, a slave dealer, a slave family split apart as they were sold to new owners, and more. This encouraged the kids to contextualize America’s history of slavery in ways that conveyed core curricular content about American history while also teaching empathy and an approach to understanding difference that these kids will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
This empathy has been especially meaningful to our family this past year, as our girls have faced particular challenges as Muslim kids. During recess last May, my daughter’s best friend ran up to her to report—with great concern—that a man named “Tom” was running for President and was going to “make all the Muslims leave the city.” In the fall, a third-grade classmate told my younger daughter that our family would have to leave the country if Trump won. The morning after the election, she cried inconsolably, because she had heard from another classmate that her father would not be allowed to return from London, where he was on a business trip.
The fact that none of these things were exactly true didn’t matter: they caused stress and anxiety for our children. All of the teachers and staff have been compassionate and supportive, but Ms. R. stood out for the frequency with which she checked in with our older daughter—and us—during those post-election weeks, asking if she had questions and making sure she was doing ok. Ms. R’s own fears and worries about the future for transgender communities in the post-election climate surely made her more attentive to her vulnerable students. In this sense—and combined with her curricular interventions that build empathy and a transformative approach to difference across each unit—it is precisely Ms. R.’s gender identity that makes her such a great teacher.
““Maybe that’s why she’s always so nice to me,” she said softly, “because she knows what it’s like to be different.””
So when my daughter asked me if I knew Ms. R. used to be a boy, I told her I did know, and asked if she had any questions. She asked me a technical question about biology, and I answered it as best I could. Then she went silent, her little mind clearly spinning. She spoke up again.
“Maybe that’s why she’s always so nice to me,” she said softly, “because she knows what it’s like to be different.”
My heart caught. “Huh,” I said lightly, “you might be right.” She was quiet again for a minute, thinking, and I wondered what else she would ask. This must be a huge revelation for her, I mused, my mind scrolling through possible questions she might ask and how I should answer them. While I waited, I thought about how many kids struggle with feeling different—some to tragic ends—and how lucky my daughter was to land with a teacher who intrinsically empathized with that.
After a couple of minutes of what I assumed was deep and reflective contemplation on her teacher’s gender identity, my daughter turned to me again with some urgency. “Mama,” she said, expectantly. I nodded patiently, waiting for what would come.
“Can I have a playdate with Ruby tomorrow?”
I laughed out loud, wishing more parents would get what my ten-year old has already discovered is most important to her own development: the empathy, compassion and support of her teachers, and the chance to make great friends. Their gender identity notwithstanding.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss is Associate Professor of Education and Sociology at American University in Washington, DC and is the author of The Extreme Gone Mainstream, forthcoming from Princeton University Press. She shares this story with the permission of her daughter and Ms. R.