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Teacher Under Construction: Teachers: What are We Doing for Leelah?

One of my earliest encounters with the idea of gender that I can remember was in 1st grade. I’ll never forget. I had a girl friend who always wore blue, wore stickers that said, “Boys rule!” and constantly told me she wanted to be a boy and was proud to be a tom-boy. At 7 years old, I was confused. It strongly contrasted with my idea of what being a “girl” meant. I immediately ran up to my 1st grade teacher, Mrs. Cook, with the intent to “tell” on my friend.

“Mrs. Cook! Amanda* wants to be a boy!” In my head, I was doing the right thing. Telling the teacher something that another kid was doing what I was taught and believed was wrong.

Mrs. Cook looked at me and responded, “There’s nothing wrong with that.” I was beside myself. In my head I was thinking, what do you mean there’s nothing wrong with that? She’s a girl! She’s not allowed to want to be a boy!

My idea of what it meant to be a “girl” was defined with wearing pink, wanting to be a princess, and especially not wanting to be a boy. Mrs. Cook continued to tell me that if Amanda* wants to be a boy and wear blue, then that’s her choice, and again emphasized that nothing was wrong with having such a preference.

From what I can remember from my K-12 education, that was the only time a teacher addressed the idea of gender in a meaningful way. I say “meaningful” because I struggle to count my health and science classes that talked about “gender” as times gender was taught in a meaningful way. From what I recall, those classes simplified the term gender to boys having a certain body part, and girls having another.

This shouldn’t be so, and the story of Leelah Alcorn and many others is perfect evidence of why.


On December 28th, 2014, Leelah Alcorn walked in front of a moving truck.


At age 17, Leelah killed herself.

Leelah was a transgender teen who left a heartbreaking suicide note behind calling to “Fix society. Please.” In her letter, she calls for gender to be taught in schools. She wrote:

The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something.

As a future teacher, this part of the letter really hit home. What will I do once I am in the classroom to prevent the pain that Leelah was forced to go through? Yes, the idea of challenging gender norms in the classroom has come up once or twice in my teacher ed classes–but is that really enough? We spend an entire semester on learning how to create efficient tests for students, but only 1 or 2 classes on gender–is that justice? The critical knowledge I have about gender–how to talk to a student who is questioning their gender identity (what to say, what not to say, etc.), different resources to provide students who are questioning their gender, and so forth (which I still feel is inefficient)–I did not learn from sitting in my classroom. I am lucky to have the friends that I do who have been able to teach me how to be an ally to my future students.

I am bringing this up because these are lessons we should be learning in the classroom.These lessons should not only be taught once or twice in one class, or in an elective course, or as some workshop at a conference–these skills should be mandatory if we want to make a true attempt at fixing society as Leelah called for. Leelah’s death and many others must mean something. We cannot continue to ignore the fact that more than 50% of transgender teens will attempt suicide at least once before they turn 20.

Ultimately, I think teacher education programs should be searching for ways to assure Leelah’s death means something. Future teachers should know what exactly it means if someone is transgender. We should know the struggles they experience, and how we as teachers can fight against these injustices both in and outside of the classroom. We should know the names and stories of Leelah Alcorn, Tyra Hunter, and all others who have lost their lives due to our society that marginalizes the LGBTQ community. We should know how to effectively bring stories like theirs into the classroom, and provide a safe space for students to discuss these issues in a meaningful way. We should know how the deaths and injustices pitted against trans people of color are often erased from the narrative, and work to keep such erasure from happening. We should know how to convey the intersectionality between LBGTQ issues, racial justice issues, class issues, and all the alike–and why it is important to do so. We should know how to effectively serve as allies to our transgender students, and assure their peers learn how to accept others’ differences.

We should know how important it is to make sure our trans students know their lives are worth living.

Maybe there is a teacher education program that exists out there that is already doing these things. Yet, until it is something that is implemented in all teacher education programs across the board, then we cannot settle. We must do better. We must take every necessary step possible to fix our society that many of our students know is well broken.


*Name changed to respect the privacy of individual.

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Stephanie Rivera

Stephanie Rivera is a student at Rutgers University. She is a future teacher and educational equity activist. ...