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How Teachers Should Handle Gender Issues in the Classroom
By Brian P. Gatens
It’s safe to say our society’s perceptions on marriage equality, transgender issues and anti-discrimination legislation to protect same-sex relationships have evolved tremendously over the past several years. If you’re not dealing with these dramatic changes in your classroom today, you will be soon, and you’ll need to address them appropriately.
Younger children are bound to be confused about gender issues; it’s up to the teacher to help them without being judgmental.
For feedback and thoughts on this phenomenon, I turned to Michael Tozzoli, an expert on adolescent gender issues and CEO of West Bergen Mental Health of Ridgewood, N.J., to learn more about the best strategies for teachers to address gender issues in the classroom.
“No one was able to predict the sweeping change that has taken place on these issues,” Tozzoli said. “The general response by society has been much more opening and welcoming than anyone could have expected.”
This openness means teachers can expect students to bring gender issues into their classrooms, so they need to prepare for the questions that are bound to come up.
Normalizing Gender Relationships
Tozzoli and I discussed a scenario in which an elementary child making a class presentation mentions a family member who is married to someone of the same gender. What should be done if that attracts questions from the class?
“It’s important for the teacher to normalize the relationship,” Tozzoli said. “Through the use of age-appropriate language, that information can be presented as one example of the different types of relationships that people have today.”
Tozzoli recommends that teachers do their best to strike a balance in discussing these relationships.
“Don’t spend too much time focusing on the unique nature of the relationship. Instead, acknowledge its existence and move onto the next topic. Don’t dwell and don’t rush through it.”
What if Children Have No Knowledge Of These Relationships?
Another situation teachers may face: Some children may not know about the existence of same-sex relationships because the topic has never come up at home. If children reveal this lack of knowledge in the classroom, Tozzoli suggests that teachers do the following:
- Provide a low-key response; Do not to draw attention to the child’s lack of understanding. “Offer the child basic, age-appropriate information and then move onto the next topic,” says Tozzoli. “That moment is not the time to offer detailed information or opinions.”
- Offer factual information: While society has shifted dramatically on these topics, they still can generate strong emotional reactions. “It is best for the teacher just to offer factual and well-known information,” Tozzoli said, “and don’t even appear to be inserting personal opinion into the discussion.”
- Contact the parents: All good teachers should have worked diligently to establish regular communications channels with the parents of their students. Following your conversation with the child, Tozzoli recommends that, “it is best to give the parents a call and let them know that the topic came up in class, review how you addressed it and let them know that you’re available for further conversation as necessary.” It is best to assume that a phone call is needed and a teacher won’t go wrong by making the extra effort.
Tozzoli also made it a point to emphasize that there is a larger issue at play here. “Odds are that there is a child with gender issues sitting in your classroom right now, and the way that a teacher treats this topic will either help or hurt the child tremendously. Caring adults can never forget that.”
An educator for two decades, Brian P. Gatens is superintendent/principal at Norwood Public School in Norwood, N.J. Gatens has worked at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. He has been a classroom teacher, vice principal, principal and now superintendent/principal.