When Sir becomes Miss – How I Ruined my Teaching Career by Changing Gender

I graduated from a small teaching college attached to Lancaster University with first class honours in 1996.  I worked as a primary school teacher for three years before leaving to be head of English at a prestigious preparatory school in Nairobi.  After a year back in the UK, I became head of house at an international school in Mexico City.  Following that adventure, I moved to London as a secondary school English teacher, where I was promoted through middle- and senior-leadership at the same time as studying for an MA; gaining a doctorate in sociology from University College London; and completing the startlingly parochial National Professional Qualification for Headship – a diploma stating that I would, on the day I graduated, be ready to manage my own school within eighteen months.  I had enjoyed a smooth (if not exactly meteoric) rise to greatness within my chosen profession; I was confident in my abilities; and I thought that I had varied and exciting options about what I could do next…  But then my career came to an abrupt and ignominious halt.  In February 2014, I decided I was ready to live full-time in female role and ‘came out’ at school.  The process went swimmingly: I managed it with consummate skill (even if I do say so myself), but, soon after, I was included in a round of compulsory redundancies at the west London school where I was an assistant head-teacher.  Suddenly, I found myself able only to find supply teaching work in schools that hadn’t been told in advance about my gender history, and which, therefore, hadn’t had the chance to turn me away before I got to the school gates.  After twenty years of (pretty much) being offered every job I applied for, I was now finding out what it felt like to be excluded from the career to which I had dedicated almost twenty years.  Am I still bitter about it?  Not ’alf!  Am I still baffled by my spectacular fall from favour?  Not as much as I was, and in this blog entry, I hope some therapeutic venting will address why I think it is that, in the twenty-first century, transgender teachers face considerable professional discrimination – not from pupils, I should add, but from the adults who manage schools.

 

It was testimony to the esteem with which I was held at the school where I held my most recent full-time teaching post, I like to think, that my first day as ‘Miss Robinson’ was such an anti-climax.  In the last few days before the previous half-term holiday, I had held a series of assemblies with the school’s 1,200 students to tell them of my intentions.  I invited them to think about people they might have seen in the media who had changed from male to female (or vice versa), and told them that I was one of those people.  I explained that this merely meant that I wanted to start dressing like a woman, and that I wanted the children to get used to calling me Miss instead of Sir.  Nothing else was required of them, I said, except to continue to work hard in my lessons; trust me to teach them as well as I always had; and show me the respect they had throughout the five years I had worked at the school.  By way of a finale, I pointed out the protection from discrimination granted me under European law, and bade them a good holiday.  The children applauded.  Seriously.  Not the stilted, slow clap of a bored audience, but an actual ovation; a display of support and admiration for my courage and honesty, and of gratitude for the faith I had placed in them to embrace difference and accept me as I am.

Advice for school managers in a Times Educational Supplement article of May 2013 (which can be read at www.tes.com/article.aspx?storycode=6332441) recommends that transgender teachers absent themselves for the last couple of weeks of term.  By taking the actual teacher out of the picture, the TES suggests, a head-teacher can inform students and staff in circumstances where the likelihood of press attention is reduced, opportunities for the member of staff in question to be subjected to uncomfortable questioning by pupils (and their parents) can be negated, and, consequently, there is much less potential for harmful gossip to circulate.  I was eager to do the telling myself, however: after all, I was the one who was making the transition, and that, I remain convinced, put me in the best position to control the official line on what I was doing.  By making sure the message came directly from me, I was able to ensure that the signals given were the right ones.  By trading on my existing popularity at the school, furthermore, I was also able to deflate any disapproval of my decision.

Informing the students and their parents of my wish to start coming to work in female role was the last step in a process that began with me consulting a solicitor specialising in employment law about the accepted way of fulfilling my intentions.  For a fee (of course), that solicitor talked me through what I should say when dealing with parents, school governors, officials from the local education authority and my head-teacher, and told me which legal precedents and protections I should refer to during any conversations I would be having about my decision to transition.  I also grew my hair, pierced my ears, occasionally wore nail polish to work, and started taking feminising hormones, so the actual announcement of my transition came as a surprise only to the least observant of my students and colleagues.

Training B
Drag queens are drafted into British schools to take teachers through a rigorous training programme of transgender awareness

I contacted my trades union representative and the head of human resources from the local council, and arranged for both of them to be present at a meeting with the head-teacher.  At this meeting, I told them what I wanted to do and outlined the process of communication with the school community as I saw it working best.  I drafted a letter to parents containing the same assurances and citations of European law that I would make when I held assemblies with pupils, and set the process in motion with an announcement to the teaching staff one Monday after the children had all gone home.  (During this meeting, I found myself in the new and vaguely embarrassing position of needing to explain which toilet I would use.  In some American states, a student can legally carry a gun on their college campus; in England, the government is about to grant itself access to every citizen’s internet browsing history; but heaven forfend a transgender woman who tries to use a ladies’ public convenience.)

It would be naïve to assume that I was liked by everyone in an organisation as large as an English high school (or, indeed, to think that everyone cared), but the response to what people called my honesty and courage was so positive – so kind and so open – that I felt, for want of a better word, loved.  Only one parent called the school to complain, and even their ire fizzled out fairly quickly; I received letters of support from students that I will keep and cherish; and, on the first day of the summer term, Miss Robinson started work without experiencing any of the teenage unpleasantness that many of my colleagues had feared.

When my name was included in a round of redundancies, therefore, why didn’t I sue for unfair dismissal?  The school governors were canny about that: they offered a pay-out equal to slightly more than the amount of money I would have taken home had I successfully taken my head-teacher to a tribunal, and I was nervous of acquiring the reputation as the one who sues – which would, I feared, guarantee that I would never find employment in a school again.  When it came to a choice between scoring a moral victory and taking the money and running, I felt I needed the exercise.

When, after taking a two-month mini-sabbatical to finish my doctoral thesis, I threw myself earnestly into trying to find a job, I had a bit of a shock.  For almost twenty years, I had had the teaching world at my feet: I rarely applied for a post I didn’t get; had collected qualifications like a diva collects handbags, and used them to teach my way across continents.  In September 2014, though, all that changed.  It wasn’t just that I would be interviewed for a classroom teaching post – often teaching dazzlingly good lessons as part of the selection process – only to be turned down that upset me.  It wasn’t just that I’d be vetted via Skype by school managers for posts overseas and, irrespective of how capable, qualified and competent I showed myself to be, fail to secure the post.  What irked, more often than not, was not hearing whether I’d been appointed or not until I badgered them for an answer!  I was invited for interview by every school that received my CV, but, when they met me, they couldn’t turn me down fast enough – if they bothered to communicate with me at all following the interview, that is.

Line-up B
Pick me! – Candidates line up in the hope of securing a much-coveted teaching post in west London

An (ex-) friend of mine who is head of a private school in Spain was frank enough to tell me exactly why my offer of employment there was withdrawn when he realised that I’d changed quite a bit since he’d last seen me.  The issue, he said, was that parental disapproval of having their children taught by a gender deviant could lead to them taking those children out of the school, and, for a fee-paying institution, that would lead to a significant loss of income.  Why parents might object to their offspring having a transgender teacher (whatever that teacher’s abilities) is a more complex issue to unravel, but I suspect it has something to do with the nature of transgenderism itself: because gender is something we enact through our choices of clothing and behaviour (as opposed to biological sex, which is an internal phenomenon), transgender is easily interpreted as something you do rather than something you are.  By that twisted logic, it follows that, if a biological man wants to wear dresses, then there must be something wrong with that biological man, and who knows what other forms of deviance they might be capable of?  This is the epitome of transphobia – the mistaken belief that children need protecting from transgender adults – and I got a real taste of what it is like to be the victim of discrimination.

By persisting in my search for work, I did find myself in the right place at the right time on a couple of occasions.  I spent a very happy term at a primary school in north London before moving to a secondary school just inside the M25.  I was no longer in positions congruent with my qualifications and experience, but I was daring to believe that I might not have turned myself into as great a professional pariah as I’d feared.  I was fortunate enough to work for a head of English who still clung to enough of her seventies’ hippy bohemianism not to mind when the supply agency through which I had found the post had told her they were sending a transgender person to the school.

…Wait: what?

Even remembering, a year later, what the head of English told me next causes me a shiver of anger and disbelief: an agent from Prospero Teaching (of 6-8 Long Lane, London, EC1A 9HF) had given the school the option of overlooking my application on the grounds that I was transgender so they could avoid making an appointment they might regret.  To compound this appalling gesture with cant of spectacular insincerity, another agent from Prospero Teaching (of 6-8 Long Lane, London, EC1A 9HF) later contacted me to ask if I would be willing to participate in a focus group for developing the company’s LGBT policy.  Crikey.  It astonishes me that people of such crass hypocrisy are allowed access to a telephone.

It is difficult to think of a comparable situation where that sort of knowledge about someone should, on moral or practical grounds, be shared.  I suppose if I was a wheelchair user, or if I was bringing my guide-dog with me, the school would have needed to make a material accommodation to my needs; but I’m not, and I wasn’t.  Indeed, the inference that being transgender is somehow disabling is offensive to every group implicated in such a suggestion.  Would the school have been forewarned in such a way if I had been diabetic, colour-blind, or Canadian?  Of course not, but the agent’s behaviour wasn’t just disappointing (and, I suspect, illegal): it was an uncomfortable reminder that I was not born a woman, and proof that, in some corners of the society in which I live and work, I’m still not – and probably never will be – perceived as female.

(I turned down the invitation to join the focus group.  I realised that I want to normalise my gender identity as much as I can, and to participate in a working party in which my transgenderism is taken as the most salient thing about me would be a retrograde step on my ongoing journey of transition, I reckon.)

Whisper B
An agent from Prospero Teaching Agency (of 6-8 Long Lane, London, EC1A 9HF) does her professional duty by telling potential employers about my gender history

British schools work very hard to project themselves as inclusive organisations predicated on notions of care, mutual respect and the celebration of difference, and espouse these ideals in terms titivated with metaphors of community and the family.  The promotional literature schools produce about themselves repeat messages of inclusiveness and equality in such a blasé, non-specific way that it becomes difficult to differentiate one institution from another.  Very rarely – apart from perhaps a Diwali assembly, a session of Ghanaian drumming, or the installation of a wheelchair ramp – do schools adumbrate what their principles of inclusiveness and equality actually mean, or how they translate into practice.  As I saw for myself, it is the exception rather than the norm that these values have been internalised by members of the organisation to the extent that they govern behaviour, inform thinking, and can be taken for granted – at least where transgender teachers are concerned.  Schools don’t shape social trends in the way that many like to think.  In truth, they are led by the attitudes of insularity, uniformity, conservatism and knee-jerk discrimination that permeate the wider world.  Schools perpetuate social structures and strictures, and, therefore, serve as instruments of entrenching prejudice.

…Or rather, the adults who lead them do.  It is the gatekeepers of schools who have led me to question the moral values on which the profession I have practised for almost twenty years is based.  The children, meanwhile, remain models of polite curiosity, magnanimity and tolerance, and at no point over the last two years has a student said or done anything to me that could be considered mean or prejudicial, or that shows any sign that they were afraid of – or confused by – me.  When head-teachers say that they are reluctant to hire transgender teachers because they are concerned about these things, they are lying.  My heart sinks when a conversation with a head-teacher post-interview begins with the words, “It’s not me, but…” because I know that they are limbering up to project their own bigotry onto children and their parents as a convenient way of abdicating responsibility for not hiring transgender staff.

Initiatives aimed at promoting LGBT awareness in schools are usually targeting the wrong audience.  Primary school children haven’t yet learned prejudice, and, as a result, their behaviour isn’t governed by fear of difference.  The teenagers I taught didn’t care how I looked or what pronoun I wanted them to use, provided I taught interesting lessons and worked hard to help them achieve academic success.  It isn’t young people who need to reflect on their attitudes and assumptions about transgender teachers: it is the people who manage schools, appoint staff, and make decisions about how schools are run who need educating in how to embrace diversity, celebrate difference, and take the occasional brave decision.

Teaching – in the UK, at least – was a profession founded on traditionally feminine precepts of care, nurture and love.  In England, women primary school teachers currently outnumber their male colleagues by five to one.  In the 2010s, when the financial crash saw many bankers and financiers suddenly out of work as companies went bust, and previously impervious economic institutions had to close when their debts were recalled, many of those affected turned to teaching as a fall-back career.  If they were to even come close to matching the salaries and bonuses they had previously enjoyed, these men (and they were mostly men) had to apply for jobs in schools at middle- and senior-management level.  When they were appointed, they brought with them an inappropriately hard-nosed, competitive, survival-of-the-fittest, greedy corporate set of values.  From their positions of influence, in short, they made the way schools try and operate – and, more relevantly, the way they treat their staff – more masculine.

West Wing B
Walk with me! – Managers at a north London secondary school hold a high-powered, testosterone-pumping meeting about how they can maximise the achievement of every child’s individual potentialities

Suddenly, school corridors had men in pin-striped suits strutting down them with Bluetooth devices in their ears and tablet computers under their arms, barking examination statistics at each other in the way characters in ‘The West Wing’ used to brief one another on their way to meetings with the President.  In such an environment, maverick teachers have no place.  An ex-company manager needs to reduce their staff to the status of functionaries in order to be able to control them: having to adjust their managerial approach to get the best out of people from a wide variety of backgrounds – with different ambitions, opinions and beliefs about the world – is, at best, inconvenient; at worst, beyond their capabilities.  To cope with pressures for examination results imposed on them by an equally managerial central government, this new generation of head-teachers needs a teaching staff that is as homogeneous as possible; that they can manage with a one-size-fits-all approach.  I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn, therefore, that my new, female face no longer fitted.

To my shame, I ain’t no tranny Rosa Parks.  I could’ve stayed in the UK and chipped away at the system until I got noticed, appointed, and could fly the flag for transgender teachers, but, to be honest, I just didn’t have the stomach to engage in a long campaign of attrition with an opponent – the culture of English schooling – for whom I had lost all respect.  Instead, I have taken what’s left of my redundancy payment and moved here – to Bucharest – to open a school of my own with my best friend and partner.  We have a long way to go yet before we can consider ourselves profitable, but we can at least rest easy in the knowledge that our professional conduct is based on a belief in equity and inclusiveness that is more than skin deep.

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2 thoughts on “When Sir becomes Miss – How I Ruined my Teaching Career by Changing Gender

  1. Being shut out of career opportunities seems to be an unfortunate reality for a lot of trans people. It is something I worry about with respect to my spouse, who has a stellar resume and is used to being snapped up wherever she (formerly he) applied. She’s applying for new jobs now, and we’re on tenterhooks thinking about how it will go when she discloses her status. (She is in the middle of a legal gender change, so it says “M” on the application, but it will be “F” by the time she starts working there, should all go well.) Good for you for finding your own path! It’s disappointing that students are the ones missing out on the valuable experience of interacting with gender-diverse people. After all, statistically, some of those students are likely to be trans themselves, and need role models in their community.

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  2. Hello Abigail! I served at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest in 2010-13, transitioned in place while serving at the Embassy, and came to think of Bucharest as a second home. (FWIW, see http://attitude-analyst.blogspot.com and elsewhere.) I serve in Kazakhstan now, but I spend a week in Bucharest each time I head home to the US on vacation. I would love to hear from you and also put you in touch with some fantastic people in Bucharest, including a good friend who is one of the best teachers I have known in my life. — Multumesc! Robyn

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