Let me begin with a caveat. I’m not an expert on PSHE or sex education. I’ve taught it for many years, but have never played a leadership role in the area, nor am I fully up-to-date with the latest research and thinking.
I am, however, I hope, an expert in teenagers. And I’m also insatiably curious about other human beings: their motivations, their fears, their hopes and their self-esteem. I’m also pretty wordy. If a child (or indeed an adult) comes to me all clammed-up with a problem that is clearly tying them in knots, I will frequently reassure them that I am not easily shocked or surprised, and this usually turns out to be true. I hope that, with a bit of age and experience, I know how to listen, how not to judge, how to tell when someone needs a coach more than they need a mentor. Or when they just want somebody to listen and pass no judgement at all.
To be honest, I thought I’d pretty much seen and heard it all. I know many people who have struggled with depression, questioned their sexuality, experienced bereavement or abuse or betrayal. I have friends who have gone from happy heterosexual marriages to happy homosexual relationships. Friends who think it’s none of anybody’s god-damned business who, if anyone, they sleep with, and friends who are happy to share and share.
This holiday, I have had to look in the mirror and acknowledge that there’s a whole group of people for whom, up to now, I’ve had no proper experience or understanding. If travellers represent the last bastion of acceptable racism, I wonder if transexuals, people with gender dysphoria, people who don’t wish to be known as he OR she, nor who are keen to joke about the contents of their underwear… I do wonder if this group represents one of the the last bastions of intolerance amongst those of us who consider ourselves liberal, accepting, tolerant…
And I am looking in the mirror and I am slightly dismayed. I have, of course, taught students whose gender was obviously not all it appeared to be. I have tried to to group in ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ or make stereotypical teacher comments like, ‘boys like competition’; ‘girls are less likely to be kinaesthetic learners’.
Have I, up to now, really taken the time or sought the opportunity to speak to these students about their preferred pronouns, their relationships with others, the name they really wish to be known as? I’m afraid to admit I haven’t.
And then, this summer, I met someone who made me think differently. Someone very close to one of my closest friends. Someone who was willing to talk about his experiences as a homosexual female, a transgender male, a teaching assistant, a daughter then a son. Someone who has plumbed his very soul – and that of those who love him – to examine what matters, how he wishes to be perceived, what surgeries and hormones might be involved and how he wishes to present himself to the world.
Someone who speaks frankly about his struggles with depression, self-harm and marginalisation but admits to wanting to stick with his bubble of people he trusts rather than stand up publicly to tell his story, after he saw his friends humiliated and belittled – and their cause trampled into the ground – by Piers Morgan on breakfast television.
This is omeone who, frankly, has every right in the world to feel furious, bitter and twisted, who spoke to me so frankly and honestly and did what I thought was pretty much impossible at the ripe old age of 43.
So I asked him about young people. I talked to him about how we teach students about identity, alcohol, drugs, and self-esteem in our compulsory PHSE lessons. I thought about the wide variety of quality of these lessons – I’ve always quite enjoyed teaching them, but have seen many teachers shrivel or leave the room completely when we have the sex education training that means we get to think of as many words for genitalia as we can think of as a starter…
I described to him how we lay out a smorgasbord of drugs, political preferences, philosophical approaches and options for gender and sexuality with he ostensible aim of making them feel they have a choice – making them feel that anything is acceptable as long as it’s not dangerous to them or those around them.
And my head hurt. There is so much apparent choice – in every element of their lives, and yet we know, quite honestly, that teenagers can be as cruel and judgemental as they have always been. We know that they will speak before thinking and we know, if we remember being one, how deep marginalisation can cut.
And then my new friend (I hope I can be so presumptuous as to call him that) said, ‘start with them’ – don’t start with all the choices. Start with them. Their values, their self-esteem, their fluid and flexible identities and values. Don’t tell them, but give them the tools to recognise what’s right and what’s wrong. Help them find their moral compass, but don’t tell them what it should be. Teach them about kindness and tolerance and the sheer pace of intensity of change – and help them build the tools to cope with it. Teach them how to truly believe that what other people think really is ‘none of their business’. That being kind, and good, and tolerant is far more important.
I’ve learned this summer that there is a community of people about whom I, as a teacher of 20 years and someone who prides myself on acceptance and knowing others, know almost nothing. I plan to do something about this. Because being a good teacher (and being a good person) is about learning – always learning.
There’s a long way to go. But I do know my current, past and future students whose gender is non-binary, non-typical, non-cliched, have some wonderful role models out there.
For more information on gender diversity, please see this excellent website: