Brian K. Sohn. PhD. Knoxville, TN.
Not all places are safe, we learn whether or no. Soldiers train in what most school-age children and youth would see as a hostile environment. Yet they learn their duties, they learn scenarios. If this, then that. Many soldiers feel they become their best selves under their training regimen. But the overwhelming research on teaching and learning shows the importance of a safe learning environment. It’s one thing to acquire a specific set of skills and protocols and quite another to develop abilities to creatively and critically think about how to thrive in the entire world—not just survive and prevail on battlefields. We require some combination of security and openness. The safe classroom is a kind of basecamp from which students can explore the risks of the unknown.
It’s what we learn and how we learn it that is affected by the relative safety of the learning environment. Nothing ventured nothing gained, sure. No risk, no reward, ok. But academic risk is a totally different animal than the risk of being beaten, ridiculed, or worse. The world as we have shaped it is much less safe for some people, and schools are no different. The world creeps in, and despite the ways we laud individuality in our country, the nail that sticks out often gets hammered down.
So when the leaders of our country remove what limited protections are available to transgender students, they reinforce what is for most of them an already hostile climate. The message is clear: you do not belong, be quiet, disappear. Yet we supposedly value individual expression. And a sense of belonging is what keeps students from dropping out.
At the University of Tennessee, we have experienced similar controversy. Our trans-friendly bathrooms have been relabeled family bathrooms. Our state legislature has, like the Trump administration, made the campus more like a battlefield. And for those who consider a request to use gender-neutral pronouns or allow a transgender person to use the bathroom an offense, it is helpful to keep in mind a proportional response.
If, every day, you face an environment you perceive as hostile, as a matter of course you are shocked into self-examination constantly by the ways in which you must negotiate the world to survive. If, historically, you have not been beaten or killed for being who you are, and finally those who have ask to be protected, your shock is but a glimpse of their entire lives.
But this is what Trump and some of his supporters seem to want—a land of survival of the (already) fittest, a battlefield for those without the right identity. But what does the teacher in the public school do? How can she or he work to prevent bullying and create a safe learning environment when the President pulls transgender student protections? Teachers can and do make a difference, despite the complexity of their tasks. A few specific ideas can be found here.