This is happening right in my town of Durham, NC.  Leslie Webster, a music teacher at the Duke School for Children (a private elementary/middle school not affiliated with the university) started the new school year as a man, after teaching there for the past 12 years as a woman.

The school, in preparation for Webster’s sex change, sent out a letter to all parents to alert them about how the school planned to handle discussion of Webster’s transition. One parent made it clear that, while he didn’t have a problem with the teacher’s transition, he wasn’t comfortable with bringing up the subject with students. (WRAL):

“This is not an issue for a child to have to undergo by any means,” Gossett said. “I do not believe this has any bearing involved in the learning process, nor should it be in it.”

Gossett said he doesn’t object to Webster’s sex change, only the school’s plans to discuss it with students. “That is her prerogative. I have no problem with her decision for herself. (But) now it infringes on my daughter. That is not right,” he said.

Read the letter (it’s after the jump), and share your thoughts.
Letter to Duke School Parents About Transgender Teacher:

August 28, 2007

Dear Duke School Parents,

Every so often, a community has the opportunity to test its core values. Duke School is now facing such a test. Earlier this month, Leslie Webster, our K-5 grade music and middle school band teacher, shared with me that she is transitioning from a female to a male. Because gender transition is unusual, we needed time to process Leslie’s news and then carefully consider how to best deal with the transition. This letter outlines the school’s response to Leslie’s decision.

As a school, we are first and foremost concerned with the best interest of the children as informed by our mission. Philosophically, Duke School is an open, accepting community that honors diversity in many aspects. Our foundational documents are clear about our commitment to diversity and our support for our community members. “What is Duke School” tells us that “[w]e believe that children develop best in a community that reflects the richly varied world.” Our strategic plan instructs us “to become an inclusive environment for all current community members.”

While long term research is not available, our reading of the literature and conversations with gender and child experts have convinced us that while having a transgendered teacher may be somewhat confusing to children (and their parents), it is not harmful to the healthy development of children. Many commentators allow that having developmentally appropriate conversations about gender and gender roles may be beneficial to children, especially those struggling with identity issues of their own.

Further, Leslie’s transition is making him more content. As Leslie mentioned in the letter he sent to faculty:

“I have known that I was transgender since I was very young. My challenge has been less in figuring out who I am as what to do about it…I can tell you that my experience so far has given me a feeling of finally coming home after a lifetime spent on a long journey.”

Leslie’s feeling of peace can only translate to the children having a better experience with him.

Given Duke School’s commitment to diversity and that Leslie has been a valued member of the Duke School community for 12 years, the response of the school is evident: we will support Leslie during his transition. That support has many facets including determining how we talk to children in a developmentally supportive way, how we help parents support their children and how we become more knowledgeable about transgenders.

Susanne and Sarah have done a great deal of research about the most developmentally appropriate ways to talk with children about someone changing genders. The literature agrees that using a medical paradigm works well with children. Basically we will explain to children that gender has two components-mental outlook and physical appearance. Most people who feel they are male, look male and those who feel female, look female. Very rarely, someone who looks like one gender feels as if they are the other. The children will be told that Leslie was born female but felt like a male. This summer, with the help of medical professionals, Leslie is now male. We will not get into any anatomical details, leaving an exploration of those questions, if they arise, to be fielded at home in a way that makes sense for your family. Obviously, the younger a child is, the less they need to know and, most likely, the less they will ask.

The children will be told about Leslie’s transition by class or grade on September 4 which is before they attend music class. As a result, we will not have music until September 5. We will not discuss Leslie with Preschool or Kindergarten children because they have not had Leslie previously and will be introduced to him as male. Sandy and Susanne at the lower school and Jane and Sarah at the middle school will lead these conversations. Sandy will join Jane and Sarah while talking to fifth graders as they know Sandy well from last year. We will then ask children to respect who Leslie is and try to refer to him with masculine pronouns. The meeting will be brief and simple.

Teachers will be asked not to engage in long or in-depth conversations with children about Leslie or transitioning genders. They will remind students to be supportive of Leslie and treat him with respect. If a child seems particularly pre-occupied or concerned about the transition, the teacher will let the parents know.

For parents looking for information on transgenderism, I have attached a list of resources to explore. In order to support your children, the school, and Leslie, I ask you to consider the following:

  * Feel free to have a conversation with your children about Leslie before the official school conversation. We do ask that you ask your children to keep your conversation private until the announcement has been shared with all.

* Even if you are feeling somewhat uncomfortable with Leslie’s transition, we ask that you do not communicate that discomfort to your children. Children will reflect your attitudes, and we are striving to make Duke School safe for all its members. Indeed, one child psychologist with whom I conferred mentioned that “the transition will be a much bigger deal for some of the parents than for the kids.”

* Some younger children may wonder if one of their parents may change gender. Be conscious of that concern and sensitive to it.

* Answer any questions your child might have dispassionately and accurately. If you do not know the answer to a question, just say so.

* Remember that this is a personal decision for Leslie and we are letting you, as parents know, so you can support your children. Please respect Leslie’s privacy and that of her family and friends.

* I have asked teachers not to engage in conversations about Leslie’s transition with others unless it deals with the educational process or a child’s well-being.

* The middle school sexuality curriculum deals with gender identity. We will let middle school students know that issues surrounding gender identity will be explored at the appropriate time rather than at the year’s start.

The literature comments that many people who transition genders feel they need to change jobs, move from an area and completely abandon their support communities because they fear they will not be supported. I am proud to be associated with a community that Leslie trusts will support him as he moves forward with his transition. It speaks highly about all of us, and I know we will be worthy of Leslie’s trust.

If you have any questions or concerns about Leslie’s transition and the school’s response to it, please feel free to let Jane, Sandy or me know. And let me thank you in advance for your support.



Dave Michelman
Head of School
Duke School

Of course it’s difficult to discuss these issues with kids, but  realistically, what does the parent expect the school to do, not say anything? Kids aren’t stupid; and since the transitioning teacher is going to be present, there will be lots of questions in those young minds that require answers that some parents may not have the vocabulary or insight to explain the matters correctly to their children.

Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding