Under the Dome

Durham teacher urges educators to challenge gender norms in class

Holly Jordan wore this “Public School Teacher” t-shirt when she was arrested at a 2013 ‘Moral Mondays’ rally to protest the actions of the General Assembly. Jordan is an English teacher at Hillside High School in Durham and advises the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance student group.
Holly Jordan wore this “Public School Teacher” t-shirt when she was arrested at a 2013 ‘Moral Mondays’ rally to protest the actions of the General Assembly. Jordan is an English teacher at Hillside High School in Durham and advises the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance student group. Holly Jordan

A Durham high school teacher is showing how classrooms might operate differently if educators make adjustments to accommodate their transgender students.

Holly Jordan, an English teacher at Hillside High School and the adviser to the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, urged educators to challenge gender norms at April’s Network For Public Education National Conference in Raleigh. Transgender students have become more of a publicly discussed issue since the passage of House Bill 2, the resulting lawsuits over the legislation and the Obama Administration’s recent federal guidance to schools on access to bathrooms and locker rooms.

Many of the people in the audience at the “Supporting Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Students” panel were educators.

“Gender norms and heteronormativity are being reproduced in our schools everyday despite the fact that there are many people out there who are trying to keep that from happening,” Jordan told the audience. “That is a problem happening in our schools.

“It’s our responsibility as educators – and as social justice-oriented human beings – to change that. That just doesn’t benefit LGBT students, transgender students. Equity practices benefit everyone.”

Jordan is a member of the board of Safe Schools North Carolina, a non-profit group that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Public Schools First NC and the moderator of the panel, asked the speakers to be as honest and as blunt as possible about what can be done to help transgender and non-conforming students.

Jordan answered that some teachers have big misconceptions that it will require changing a “ton of things” to support transgender students. She said using good teaching techniques will support different types of students.

Jordan said that teachers can structure their classes from bell to bell so there isn’t unstructured downtime where bullying can occur. She said teachers shouldn’t ignore incidents of teasing or bullying and should handle them in appropriate and positive ways.

Jordan said teachers need to make sure classrooms are safe spaces that are open to learning without fear of judgment or retribution.

Jordan also promoted the idea of using micro-affirmations to provide subtle everyday validations of who students are. She said that would help counter micro-aggressions such as asking if someone is a boy or a girl that, while not an outright incident of bullying, is something that “rubs you the wrong way” if you are a transgender student who hears that question every day.

One micro-affirmation, Jordan suggested, is to include on student information sheets the name on the roster and the name that students want to be called.

“Lots of kids and lots of adults want to be called by a nickname,” Jordan said. “Their name is Elizabeth and they want to be called Liz. No one ever questions that.

“So why is it a question if someone on the roster has a traditionally female name and wants to be called a traditionally male name? It’s fine.”

Jordan also suggested asking on the student info sheet for everyone’s preferred pronoun. She said it not only lets you know that the pronoun choice is different from the sex listed on the roster, but it also “subtly educates” students that it’s something that they can and should ask.

For instance, Jordan said she’s working on stopping calling people ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am.’ She said using those pronouns assume something you might not know.

Another suggestion from Jordan is for teachers to stop separating students by gender for activities. She said that while it’s fun to play battle of the sexes, teachers can divide students in other ways such as a battle of those wearing sneakers versus those wearing TOMS.

Jordan also encouraged teachers to avoid making jokes that play on gender norms.

“Girls do this, boys do this. Oh, ah, ah,’” Jordan said. “That’s a way that you might be trying to make students feel comfortable in your classroom that actually distinctly makes certain students feel very uncomfortable.”

A suggestion from Jordan that might stir up some critics is for teachers to “include curriculum about the whole LGBT experience” in large and small ways. One example, she said, is to to have a vocabulary sentence that uses the pronoun of they for one person.

While not specifically involving transgender students, Jordan also gave an example of having a math problem about two men who buy a house together and live in it.

“That just very subtly changes the quote ‘norm,’” Jordan said. “I think in lots of little ways, teachers can challenge the idea of what’s normal, what a quote, unquote ‘normal family looks like,’ ‘what a normal man looks like.’

“Normal isn’t a thing and there’s lots of ways that teachers can teach critical thinking at the same time they’re questioning those things.”

Jordan also advocated for teachers using they as a singular pronoun.

“Some people do not prefer to go by she or he,” Jordan said. “They use a different pronoun and I have several friends in my life who prefer the they pronoun. There’s this sort of ridiculous, in my opinion, backlash around, ‘like but oh grammar.’

“I just think, speaking as an English teacher, I will say that anytime we think that the rules of grammar are more important than human respect, then we are doing something wrong in our classroom.”

Jordan, who wore a ‘Black Lives Matter’ t-shirt as she made her presentation, has a history of activism. She’s a member of the social justice caucus for Organize 2020, a group formed by the N.C. Association of Educators.

Jordan was arrested at a June 17, 2013 “Moral Mondays’ protest in Raleigh while wearing a shirt that said “Public School Teacher.” Jordan made a statement on the Halifax Mall criticizing the General Assembly shortly before being among 84 demonstrators who were arrested by the N.C. General Assembly police.