Trans teacher and trans caretaker explain why school system struggles with gender identity
Shantel Ivits has what it takes to be a a terrific elementary-school educator: a teaching degree, a master of arts, a bachelor's degree in English literature, and a diploma to teach English as a second language.
Layer onto that a sharp mind, a pleasant demeanour, an impressive grasp of the language, a scholarship from the dean of education, and the outstanding practicum award, and one would expect that school boards would be clamouring to hire such a candidate.
"I've received recognition from the people who've seen me teach as an outstanding teacher," Ivits told the Georgia Straight. "But to this day, I remain without a job. And I think that my identity as a trans person has something to do with that."
Ivits discussed her predicament on July 29 as about 100 people gathered at Emery Barnes Park after the Trans Pride march along Davie Street.
"My goal has always been to be a teacher," Ivits continued. 'I've worked very hard. I've always been at the top of my class—had excellent grades."
It has been said that if people work exceptionally hard, they can achieve their dreams. But Ivits points out that this is not always the case. "If you work hard, you get what you want if you're like everybody else. If you're different—like if you're trans or if you're a person of colour or if you come from a low-income family—the odds are stacked against you, and you don't get the things you deserve. That's not fair."
Former NDP MP Bill Siksay tried to enshrine protection for transgender people in the Canadian Human Rights Code, but his bill died in the Senate when the last federal election was called.
The NDP MLA for the West End, Spencer Herbert, has introduced a bill to have transgender people protected under the B.C. Human Rights Code. So far, the B.C. Liberal government has given no indication that it supports this measure.
"If we can get those kinds of policies in place, then we have a platform where we can start arguing for those rights to trickle down into actual practices, rather than just policy," Ivits commented. "And so we need school codes of conduct to exist to say, 'It's not okay to bully kids because they're trans or because they're gay or because they're lesbian.' And we also need teachers who represent the whole spectrum of who exists in our communities. That includes trans teachers."
Ivits volunteers with the Pride Education Network and was the lead author of a book called The Gender Spectrum: What Educators Need to Know. It's available through the B.C. Teachers' Federation website.
"It's a great resource for teachers to use if they want to start making their classrooms more safe and welcoming for all genders of students, not just boys and girls, but everybody in between," Ivits said.
Martine Stonehouse is a trans person who is employed by the Toronto school board as a head caretaker. She's in Vancouver for the Outgames, and in an interview with the Straight in the Hyatt Regency Hotel lobby, she explained why the school system is often not welcoming to trans teachers and students.
"Any education system is a hierarchy, which starts from the ministry of education to the boards of education to the administrators, then to the principals, the teachers, and then the students," Stonehouse said. "The problem is that getting issues such as gender identity into the curriculum and so on has to pass through all these stages to get down. It has been difficult because some parents from various different ethnic groups don't understand trans people—and, I'll say, also the other LGBTQI people."
Martine Stonehouse discusses why trans people face challenges in the education system.
She mentioned that these parents then speak out against gender issues being taught to students.
Another concern, in her view, is there aren't enough LGBTQI role models as teachers. And this, Stonehouse suggests, makes schools a little more unsafe for kids with different sexual orientations or gender identities.
In addition, teachers who have already transitioned don't want to reveal their past because they worry about a backlash from parents.
"And the school boards themselves have difficulty dealing with the situation because they're trying to appease the parents," Stonehouse said. "But they should be educating the parents. The school boards are educators. Right from the top down, we need to educate that trans people are everyday, ordinary people and, you know, they're just as capable of teaching your child as anybody. In fact, they can do a very good job. If you look at one part of the person—that they're trans—then you don't see the whole person."
This is what Ivits hopes will happen in her case: that an employer sees what the whole person can accomplish rather than zeroing in on only one aspect.
"Parents, especially, are afraid that there's some kind of agenda about moulding their children's mind," Ivits acknowledged. "But for myself, as a teacher, I have a lot of respect for everyone's right to believe whatever they believe. I just expect that everybody would also be respectful to others, especially in education because everybody needs a fair chance in education to achieve whatever dreams they have. And everybody has the right to a safe and welcoming and respectful school environment. That's all I want as a teacher. I want trans kids to feel safe and I want kids of colour to feel safe. I want low-income kids to feel safe. It doesn't mean that everybody has to agree on the exact same cultural beliefs. That's not what we want. We just want respect."
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.