"The Advocate Educator" Is an Invaluable Guide to Supporting Trans and Nonbinary Students

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"The Advocate Educator" Is an Invaluable Guide to Supporting Trans and Nonbinary Students

Transgender and nonbinary youth are facing increasing social and political attacks—which is why a new, action-oriented guide for educators and others wanting to create supportive school environments for these young people is set to be one of the most important LGBTQ-related books of the year.

Vanessa Ford and Rebecca Kling, authors of "The Advocate Educator's Handbook: Creating Schools Where Transgender and Non-Binary Students Thrive" (Jossey-Bass), spoke with me about the volume, which includes strategies and insights from their own personal and professional experiences as well as from the varied group of 52 teachers, researchers, advocates, parents, and trans and nonbinary students whom they interviewed.

Ford was a public-school classroom teacher in Washington, D.C., for 14 years, during which time one of her two children came out as transgender. She became a nationally recognized advocate for trans and nonbinary youth while continuing a career in education, and was a founding member of HRC's Parents for Transgender Equality Council. She and her husband JR also co-authored "Calvin," a Lambda Literary Award-winning picture book about a trans boy.

Kling, a trans woman, is now co-owner of the social impact consulting firm Better World Collaborative. Her background is in theater and performance, and she has extensive experience working with middle- and high-school students in after-school theater programs and as part of the leadership team at Harbor Camps, a summer camp for trans and gender variant youth. She and Ford met in 2016 through the National Center for Transgender Equality, where Kling was the organization's community storytelling advocate (and later education director).

Their book is organized around four core principles: Educate, Affirm, Include, and Disrupt—a framework Ford developed after leading many training sessions for educators. She explained, "Educate the community; affirm through practice and policy; include through representation; and disrupt—from when you see individual bullying, all the way up to what we are calling legislative bullying. What can you do to disrupt the narrative and make change?" Each chapter is full of ideas, examples, and encouragement from people who have done this work before, and ends with two sets of questions: ones that ask readers to self-reflect, and ones that urge them to think about how to apply the chapter's learnings to specific real-world challenges.

While the book does include some basic definitions and statistics about trans and nonbinary identities for those less familiar with them, Kling said, she and Ford primarily wanted to focus on "pragmatic and practical steps that get things moving" rather than simply on memorizing dictionary terms. She stressed, too, that "a big throughline is advocating with trans communities, not necessarily just for"—although the book also looks thoughtfully at when and how adults should bring trans young people into this work, versus when they should shield them and advocate on their behalf.

The book also places a strong emphasis on intersectionality, for as Ford observed, "Our students are coming to us with multitudes." The authors therefore look closely at the interplay of students' trans or nonbinary identities with race and racism, physical disabilities, neurodiversity, family structure and dynamics, and economic class.

Despite its wealth of strategies and examples, the book nevertheless argues that educators already have many of the tools they need. With trans and nonbinary students, Kling said, "it seems like adults forget all of the things they know" about handling bullying, talking respectfully about diverse communities, and incorporating different identities into lesson plans. In reality, however, "These are all things that educators are already being tasked with." While the specific needs of each population may vary, she said, the core philosophy of "Get to know your students and support them where they are" isn't different.

Ford added that this is a central part of becoming a board-certified teacher—as she learned from Peggy Brookins, president and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, who wrote the book's forward. Supporting trans students, therefore, "is already embedded into what makes a good teacher. We're asking educators to build on that, not to throw it out the window."

In places with anti-trans legislation, like Florida and Texas, however, Kling admits, "It's hard." Some people they interviewed said, "Educators need to keep themselves safe and employed, so you only push as hard as you can"; conversely, others asserted, "You put yourself at risk because that's what we do as teachers. We take care of our students."

At the individual level, Kling said, "I don't know that there's a one-size-fits-all answer." Still, she advised, even in challenging locations, everyone "can still make clear that humanity is diverse, that we need to respect that diversity, and that bullying and teasing is not going to be acceptable regardless of who the target is. I know that it's not that simple, but I do think on some level people make it more complicated than it needs to be."

"We also say 'Do not go it alone,' especially in those places," Ford said. "There are local, regional, and national organizations who are looking to support the work." Many are listed in the book's appendices, along with model policies, assessments, curricular and professional development resources, and more.

While many educators and parents may at first feel like trans advocacy is "totally uncharted territory," Kling continued, "Trans and nonbinary students are far from the first population who's had to fight to get a good education." We can learn from those other populations, she said, while showing allyship to them in turn.

Ford also stressed that readers shouldn't feel the need to do "everything," explaining, "We need the work happening at all levels: a parent and a student who are working with an individual classroom to make it safe, all the way up to leaders of organizations who are doing this systemically."

No matter how readers are seeking to make things better for trans and nonbinary students, or where they are in their journeys, "The Advocate Educator's Handbook" will be an invaluable guide. Learn more at theadvocateeducator.com.

Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a two-time GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory, plus a searchable database of 1,400+ LGBTQ family books.