Nonbinary Beginning Teachers: Gender, Power, and Professionalism in Teacher Education


Source: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 9

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Drawing from a larger study, the author analyzes interviews with six nonbinary beginning teachers about their initial teacher education and early teaching experiences.
He notices how, in the course of their teacher education, they are called upon to take on more normative versions of gender.
He pays close attention to how they resist and challenge the systemic expectation of gender normativity in their teacher education programs and the schools where they teach.

Study design
This article explores the experiences of six educators who participated in a more broadly framed study involving qualitative interviews, based on a modified version of Seidman’s (2013) structure for in-depth phenomenological interviewing, with 16 nonbinary PK– 12 educators in Canadian and American schools.
The study explored how these educators navigated being nonbinary in a profession that has historically been tasked with the regulation and production of normative gender and sexuality (Blount, 2005; Foucault, 1990).
Following Seidman (2013), the intent of the interviews was to explore this topic by focusing on “the experiences of participants and the meaning they make of that experience” (p. 16).

Study participants
This article focuses specifically on the experiences of nonbinary beginning teachers.
“Nonbinary” is an umbrella term that refers to genders outside a man/woman binary (Richards et al., 2016; Slovin, 2020) and includes an infinitely diverse array of experiences.
Many people who are nonbinary also consider themselves transgender, but some do not.
The author connected with most participants through responses to a recruitment flyer sent to the Trans Educators Network, and others through advertisements shared on social media.
In 2018, he conducted single semi-structured interviews lasting 1–2 hours with each participant.
These were a mix of in-person, phone, and video-call interviews, depending on the participant’s preference and location.
One participant provided written responses to an interview protocol, as was their preference.
The protocol comprises open-ended questions meant to encourage participants to reconstruct narratives about their work, their feelings about their work, and their relationships with students, colleagues, school leaders, and their broader communities.
Here, the author focuses on six teachers.
He considers these six together because each was completing their teacher education at roughly the same time—between 2014 and 2018— although all through different institutions, and each spoke extensively about their teacher education in their interview.
Participants in this subsample and the broader study are predominantly white, and most did not describe themselves as transfeminine.

Results and discussion
Bailey’s and AJ’s experiences here echo those of the majority of the nonbinary teachers in the author’s broader study:
Although these teachers worried a lot about how students and students’ families would receive them, most experienced only occasional homophobic or transphobic comments from students.
Overall, students and students’ families tended to be either indifferent to having a nonbinary teacher or actively supportive.
Instead, the pressure to conform to gender norms generally came from colleagues, school administrators, practicum supervisors, and cooperating teachers.
As a caveat, most participants in his study are read by others as masculine-presenting, and most are white, so it is possible that this finding reflects the lesser social stigma accrued by white transmasculinity as compared with other versions of nonnormative gender.
As highlighted earlier, Jules did feel that some students responded negatively to their gender presentation.
While most participants’ students tended to be supportive, and all had some supportive colleagues, some participants felt that their advocacy for gender nonconforming and otherwise marginalized students was contentious for mentors, school administrators, and fellow teachers.
Bailey felt that, because they continually drew attention to the gender-regulating practices of their school, they had acquired an unfavorable reputation among many of the school staff.
Bailey refused to participate in practices that they felt further entrenched gender divisions, and they made an effort to alert colleagues to school practices that could be inhospitable to trans and gender-nonconforming students.
While Bailey felt supported by their practicum supervisor and by several queer teachers at the school, overall, they “have not felt super welcome” because their “attempts to try to talk about gender identity, or try to un-gender elementary classrooms, have not been supported” by most of their colleagues.
They explain that whenever they bring up issues around gender norms, “it is shut down immediately by teachers who have been there for 20-plus years,” who interpret Bailey’s advocacy as undue criticism.
Bailey explains that when administrators or older teachers wanted to make changes toward gender-inclusivity, it was always welcomed, but when those same suggestions came from Bailey, “it’s always seen as an attack on the way everyone has set up the school culture.”
Professional norms dictate that student teachers integrate themselves into the cultures of their host schools, not challenge those cultures.
As a newcomer to the school attempting to challenge the status quo, Bailey comes to feel alienated from the school staff.
By taking issue with gendered objects, signage, and language that others perceive as innocuous, Bailey becomes what Ahmed (2010) called an affect alien.
An affect alien is someone who becomes a stranger by virtue of not being affected by objects or phenomena in a way that is expected of them.
Further, Bailey’s critiques of normalizing gender practices seem to challenge not only those specific practices but also the logic of schooling and the identities of those who enact it.
This is willfulness as Ahmed describes it: sticking out, going against the flow of the crowd, and willing contrary to the general will.
For Ahmed (2014), mere persistence in a mode that goes against the tide can be characterized as willfulness—one might be perceived as being in error, obstinate, sticking out, or going in a direction that does not lead to where they want to go.
Several studies have shown that the potential consequences of standing out from the crowd can have tremendous sway on how beginning teachers present themselves.
In a study in which they interviewed preservice teachers who described themselves as “not fitting in” in order to understand how normative structures work in teacher education, Dennis Sumara, Brent Davis, and Tammy Iftody (2008) found that “one of the most prominent worries announced by candidates is that they might stand out in some way that is readily noticed” (p. 159) because of some aspect of who they are or how they appear.
This finding illustrates how the consequences of a charge of deviance or willfulness may feel especially severe when one is trying to secure acceptance, and employment security, within the ranks of a profession that involves a high level of social and moral scrutiny (Connell, 2015; Kahn & Gorski, 2016).
While each of these teachers perceived constraints on the way they could express their genders in schools, they also strived to loosen these for others.
They sought to make navigating school easier for queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming students—whether they actually encountered such students or not.
For Jules, Bailey, Quinn, and AJ, presenting or “coming out” as a gender nonconforming person in schools had a dual function:
On the one hand, it allowed them to be gendered correctly and be seen as they saw themselves, and on the other, it opened space for others to understand or embody gender in more expansive ways.
In a historical study of gender nonconforming and samesex-desiring school workers in 20th-century America, Blount (2005) argued that “school workers have been summoned to provide models of normative sexual orientation and gender—as well as to regulate these among their students” (p. 5)—suggesting that teachers and schools have long been depended on to re/produce the gender order.
By willing a gender future counter to the one schools have historically been tasked with creating, Jules, Bailey, AJ, Raine, Quinn, and Andy find themselves on the outside:
They feel like they are not “part” of the schools they are in.
Beyond their own anxieties about what becoming a teacher might require of them, each of these teachers’ experiences of their initial teacher education was profoundly shaped by the worry or expectation that when they would enter schools to teach, bad things would happen because of their gender non-conformity.
The idea that being gender-nonconforming and a teacher is risky—or even impossible—was evident in the actions and statements of school administrators, mentor teachers, practicum supervisors, and university professors as these beginning teachers described them.
Although this article has focused on negative experiences, the author does not want to suggest that being a nonbinary teacher is not feasible, worthwhile, or rewarding—on the contrary.
Each of these teachers has just as compelling stories of welcome and affirmation:
from faculty, school administrators, fellow teachers, and often the children and youth they encountered in their practicum schools.
For AJ, a queer teacher educator, a supportive school staff member, and a group of Black women colleagues ensured that they felt expected, included, and valued.
For Jules, it was a caring professor who always included gender and sexuality in their curriculum, and friends in their cohort who regularly met up to vent and go dancing.
Andy and Quinn found allies in their program and among their professors.
And Bailey and Raine had colleagues and school administrators who reminded them that their advocacy was necessary and important.
Despite the pressure they experienced, the participants in this study worked to craft professional identities that incorporate their nonbinary genders.
They assert that their nonbinary genders are not problematic things to be accommodated, but an invaluable and potentially transformative pedagogical resource.
Teacher educators who want to support nonbinary beginning teachers must do more than enact interventions that focus on individual attitudes and behavior, like instituting trans-affirmative policy and professional development (Martino et al., 2020).
These are important, but they are not enough.
What must be grappled with is the profession’s tacit privileging of whiteness and middleclass, Western, heteronormative gender.
The author posits that we must help teacher candidates reflect, in a meaningful way, about the workings of gender normativity in their classrooms and their teaching.

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Ahmed, S. (2014). Willful subjects. Duke University Press.
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Sumara, D., Davis, B., & Iftody, T. (2008). 101 ways to say “normal”: Revealing normative structures of teacher education. In A. M. Phelan & J. Sumsion (Eds.), Critical readings in teacher education: Provoking absences (pp. 155–172). Sense.

Updated: Jan. 25, 2022