By: George Braun
I was driven to teach by a love for learning, and a passion for my subject: science. I was entranced with flashy science experiments I would demonstrate for my students, and was eager to share my knowledge and love of the natural world with others. In retrospect, I was setting up unreasonable expectations. Students are not always going to buy into what you’re teaching, especially when confronting sensitive and political topics. There is a delicacy to how a person teaches lessons that I didn’t understand until I started my student teaching practicum, and while it has nothing to do with the content that teachers want our students to master, the way a lesson is taught is critically important.
Towards the end of my practicum, my 7th grade science class was completing a unit on genetics, one of my favorite subjects. I had been treading wearily through this unit. I knew that many students in my 7th grade were adopted, in foster care, or else not living with their whole biological family. My cooperating teacher (CT) recounted to me that in her early days of teaching she would assign homework for her students, where they made pedigrees to track genetic traits through their family, but stopped the practice when she realized that it ostracized a lot of her class.
Similarly, I taught sex determination and sex-linked traits with some sensitivity. Trans-rights were an active topic of discussion in the news at the time. For this unit I used language that suggested a difference between sex and gender, choosing to say “genetically male” and “genetically female”. Although I never shared my reasons explicitly I knew that there was at least one student in the school who was known to be transgender, and there is always the possibility of other students who weren’t ready to open up about it. I didn’t want to call-out these students, but neither did I want to reinforce heteronormativity in my classroom. The city that these students came from has a reputation of being liberal and progressive, but in practice I found it very polarized. So while my CT and I commiserated over the election of President Trump, there were many students who were very happy about it. Though I disagreed with them politically, it was my duty as a professional teacher to ensure that every student in my class felt welcomed.
All of these factors converged one day when, after reiterating that “people with XX chromosomes are genetically female and people with XY chromosomes are genetically male” a student spoke out. With arms folded and a look of validation on her face, she said “and that’s why boys are boys, and girls are girls”. This was a moment I had worried about all through my student teaching. This student was calling out transgendered people, essentially saying that sex is a simple black and white, and that anything else is wrong. I briefly considered letting the comment slide; maybe I was overthinking it because I have transgender friends and follow LGBTQ issues closely. Maybe if I ignored it, the class would continue on as if nothing had happened. Then another part of me took over. I began thinking of all the trans people who would be hurt by this comment, and comments like it, throughout their lives. This part of me wanted to overwhelm this student with research I had done on LGBTQ issues and shut this student up. But what would that accomplish? One student would shut up about LGBTQ issues for one class, and would probably leave to discuss how wrong I was later on. It would also make me ‘just another bleeding heart liberal’ in the eyes of some of my more conservative students for good, and I needed to keep their trust and respect. It didn’t help that this student and I had butted-heads for months and I had finally built up some small, tenuous amount of report with them. I had to be delicate with my response. If I really wanted to change this student’s mind, then I would have to let her make the change herself.
And so I introduced a new term; intersex. I pointed out that “having XY chromosomes is male and XX is female” does not cover 1% of the population that is intersex. Some women are born with one X chromosome (Turner Syndrome). Some men are born with XXY chromosomes (Klinefelter Syndrome). And some women are born XXX chromosomes (Trisomy). A person with Klinefelter Syndrome has the anatomy of a man, but also has two X chromosomes, so are they male or female? I also pointed out that there are women who are anatomically female but have XY chromosomes (Swyer Syndrome), and there are men who are anatomically male but have XX chromosomes (XX Male Syndrome). I did not address gender identity, but neither did I leave any room to believe that intersex people ‘don’t count’. Just as my students had no choice to be blond, brunette, or red-headed, intersex people simply are who they are and should be treated with respect like anyone else. I didn’t dwell on it, and before long we had moved on to a different topic entirely.
One of my biggest frustrations with science is that for every answer we discover, many more questions arise. I think it’s this muddiness that scares some people away from science, and also away from taking LGBTQ people at their word. It’s a lot easier to say that “boys are boys and girls are girls”. I think that is just part of human nature. But that doesn’t make the simple answer true, and it doesn’t make the simple answer right at the cost of other human beings.
I don’t know for certain the effect that lesson made on my students. I hope that I blurred the black-and-white views of that particular student, at least a little bit. I hope that if I had a transgendered student in my class that they felt a little bit more normal and a little bit more comfortable with who they were. As for myself, I’m a little less nervous about tackling controversial issues in my classroom. I know that there will be many cases like this to come, and I trust myself to do what’s right for all of my students.
(If you would like to know more about intersex people, check out the Intersex Society of North America, or other examples of how blurry the terms “male” and “female” really are, have a look at our Prezi: “Biology, Neurology, and Gender Neutral Bathrooms”)