The understanding and acceptance that gender is a spectrum rather than a binary—and that it is different from biological sex—has gained wider traction in recent years. At my school, we've worked on reframing our recognition of gender identity and applying it to our teaching throughout every grade level. As faculty and staff, we have collectively worked on our language, practices, curriculum, personal biases and facility with what is, for many, a topic with a tremendous amount of new vocabulary and truths.
The benefits are vast. In first grade, not only do kids feel freer to place themselves on the gender spectrum somewhere between the binaries, but they are also more fluent in discussing gender stereotypes, norms and related issues. Those stereotypes are still prevalent with young students—we are attempting to unlearn things that are woven into the fabric of society, after all—but the desire to learn, take risks and be challenged is abundant in these children. We have new vocabulary to express issues and feelings around identity, masculinity and femininity, male privilege, feminism and sexism, and kids are able to apply it with greater comfort now than ever before.
But we have also seen tangential echoes and ripples that have been largely unexpected, at least in the ways the kids have connected them to gender. Ripping apart a "one or the other" gender system has opened doors to seeing other parts of our lives as a spectrum (particularly after our school counselor taught an explicit lesson on the topic).
A recent example, though small in scope, has had profound consequences and applications: A child was openly trying to decide if they were happy or angry about the outcome of a dispute and was oscillating between the two. It was as if they felt they needed to choose.
A friend approached the child and said, "You don't have to feel happy or sad. You can feel anywhere in between."
A third child spoke up: "Or you can feel neither of them at all."
It helped right away. Categorizing emotions as points on a spectrum immediately became part of a shared classroom vocabulary. Although we have an extensive social emotional curriculum, kids still tend to put themselves into boxes when they have strong feelings: happy or sad, angry or content, nice or mean. Working to broaden students' emotional literacy and awareness is an ongoing goal; breaking apart a binary system supports them in finding the gray areas between emotional extremes and standards.
When we were studying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s work, his assassination came up and we had a discussion around the nature of good and evil. It became apparent that Dr. King was seen as essentially perfect while his murderer was called "totally evil," to widespread agreement. But as I pushed back on the idea that our heroes need to be perfect, kids started to reference their understanding of range.
"He was mostly good," someone remarked, "but no one is all the way good. That's not even possible."
"Do you think," another student asked, "that the man who shot him wasn't evil when he was a kid?"
Students were more reluctant to consider this possibility—empathizing with the perpetrator of such a hateful act is not necessarily the goal—but they did agree that "goodness" is also a spectrum. They recalled times in their lives when they did good things and times they did something they regret. This discussion of morality helped with our understanding that people inhabit a middle ground between right and wrong, and that this middle ground exists everywhere. In many ways, compassion has it roots in the places between the lines; if we aren't continually exposed to multiple ways of being, it's harder to access our empathy.
The world that kids live in, like the adult world, isn't cut and dry. Whether it's goodness, emotions, race, religion and piety, hobbies, interests or gender identity—all of which have come up in class—attempting to fit big ideas into limited categories is often frustrating to kids who are growing in their own complexity. Nuance helps. Giving kids the tools and space to practice expressing the subtleties and gradations of life supports their budding critical consciousness.
Whether accepting gender as a spectrum is brand new or old hat to an educator—or somewhere in between—the act of embracing that acceptance, and of continuing to challenge ourselves to learn and do more, can serve as a reference point for future pathways toward more complex understanding.
Turner is a first-grade teacher at an independent school in Oakland, California.