At the start of the 2013 school year, I stood at the front of a school gymnasium and outed myself as transgender to 250 Year 10 students.
I believed myself to be a pragmatist. I was about to commence a medical transition that would alter my voice and appearance. I had changed my name. Disclosing my transition to the students whom I saw every day was an inevitability.
After weighing my fears of a conservative backlash against my need for stability, I had decided to remain in my teaching role throughout my medical transition. I felt that I owed it to the students – especially the student in the school community who had already commenced their own transition. I wanted to embody the strength and pride that they deserved to feel.
My strategy for navigating any potential difficulties in my workplace was to be accommodating and direct. I had (largely unthinkingly) internalised much of the dominant discourse in contemporary education, which focuses on equipping students with the attitudes and behaviours that will allow them to accept and move through the challenges they will inevitably face.
I asked resilience of my students; it was now my responsibility to model those behaviours.
The push for a resilience framework in schools has accelerated in recent years, buoyed by what many see as a common-sense approach to tackling growing issues in the mental health of young people. The Victorian Department of Education and Training funds Building Resilience: A Model to Support Children and Young People, a pilot project that aims to ‘build school and teacher capacity to undertake whole school approaches to enhance students’ resilience, optimism, confidence, and social and emotional skills.’
Organisations like The Resilience Project have emerged to fill the demand from schools for targeted professional development about the resilience framework. These organisations typically advocate a whole-school approach, seeking to build gratitude and reflection in all students. The emphasis, in the language of the field, is on building protective factors that guard students against mental illness. The implicit assumption underlying this approach is that there is little, if anything, schools can do about the risk factors that predispose students to mental illness.
It is easy to see why focusing on building protective factors seems like the most achievable pathway for schools. It is discrete, largely positive and easily integrated into existing school programs. The staff in schools are already responsible for an unachievable set of outcomes – playing a role in tackling systemic issues of oppression and disadvantage seems like a bridge too far.
Counter to this common-sense approach is a vast body of research that suggests that membership of a marginalised or oppressed group is one of the key predictors for mental illness. Whether it is women, people of colour, people with a disability or same-sex attracted or gender-questioning people, the research tells us time and again that oppression leads to disproportionate experiences of mental ill health.
Despite this understanding of the relationship between oppression and mental illness, resilience education places the burden back on the most marginalised individuals in society by asking them to be flexible, accommodating and understanding. Rather than requiring schools to tackle embedded discrimination, the victim is asked to change their response to their experience of prejudice.
The growth of resilience education paralleled the very public attacks on the Safe Schools Coalition. The Safe Schools Coalition, in its previous incarnation, focused on cultural change – providing long-term strategies for changing the ways that schools approach issues of gender and sexuality. These attempts to look at the systemic roots of the startling mental health statistics for same-sex attracted and gender questioning young people were part of what drew the ire of conservative critics.
At the time of my medical transition, my school was an active member of the Safe Schools Coalition. Things were by no means perfect, but we had made considerable progress in addressing some of the most harmful behaviours in the school community, and we were working with a group of active young people to build a culture that celebrated the school’s diversity.
The response of students to my disclosure was predictable. They asked questions, they cracked jokes and they defended me against a few isolated attacks. Teenagers can be cruel, but more often they are generous, open and empathetic.
The response from the adults in the school community equally predictable. I was supported by a group of kind, funny and fierce colleagues. I was never openly questioned or attacked, but I knew how each staff member felt. For the three years that I remained at the school I was routinely misgendered. There were limitations on my access to the male bathrooms. There were whispered staffroom conversations.
To all observers, my gently-gently approach appeared to be working. I was approachable – jovial even. I was not a threat to anyone’s transphobia. I educated. I accepted small indignities. I expressed gratitude for things that were basic rights. I embodied the core principles of resilience. I was told explicitly that my good humour made my continued presence in the school possible.
Of course, this approach has had very real costs. I have a Herculean capacity for suppression, but time undoes most things. I grew increasingly frustrated with transphobia that those around me could not, or would not, see. I no longer wanted to answer inappropriate questions, or provide advice. I wanted permission to be hurt and angry in the face of ignorance. I wanted someone else to do the work. I shifted schools eighteen months ago, partially to distance myself from the role of friendly and approachable trans teacher.
Four years ago I made a choice to do the emotional labour that came with my transition. To accept, to ask nicely, to remain quiet. To be the definition of resilient.
I can feel the cost of my own resilience. I do not want the students I teach to pay the same price.
Image: School / Justine Warrington