Make education ‘rainbow’ ready, says transgender special needs teacher
Facing discrimination and made to hide her identity early on in her career, Ms Natsima Tangklang now sees herself as a role model for others facing similar challenges and an advocate for inclusive learning spaces for all.
When special education teacher Ms Natsima Tangklang enters her classroom, the faces of the nine young people in her care light up. The students face physical and mental challenges so severe that they require personalized teaching and care at Wat Sothornwararamworawiharn Temple school in Chachoengsao province – a challenging task, but one in which, as the smiles attest, Natsima excels.
“She is very good with special needs students, as she is very well qualified for this position and very committed and work tirelessly to teach her students,” says Chonlada Kijpitak, a teacher at the Chachoengsao Special Education Centre, who worked with Natsima for four years before she was seconded to the temple school two years ago. “The students love her. We are very fortunate to have her as a permanent staff at this special education center.”
Natsima is one of several teachers who has been seconded from the center to schools in Chachoengsao with the aim of making the province’s schools more inclusive for all learners. Most of the special needs students at the school (about 40 in total) attend classes with other children. The nine Natsima works with attend classes with other children for short sessions daily to learn the skills they need to stay for longer periods. The ultimate goal of Natsima’s efforts and the center’s wider mandate is to ensure access to education for all students and promote inclusion in Chachoengsao.
Natsima, 35, has excelled in her teaching career, moving beyond general accreditation to being able to teach special needs students but in the early days of her career, even getting an internship was a challenge. She is transgender and because of that she was often refused outright, with school officials even insulting her because of her appearance.
“Thai society views transgenderism as a deviation from ‘normalcy’ and teachers are expected to be role models for young people, so most transgender people were refused the opportunity of entering into an internship,” she said.
It was not the first obstacle Natsima had faced in her pursuit of education. She grew up in a family of subsistence farmers in rural Nakhon Ratchisima province. Her parents struggled to support her and her two siblings, and made a point of stressing to them the importance of learning and encouraging them to go beyond compulsory primary education.
“I’ve had to work hard to support myself and my education since I was a child. Because I lived in such a rural area, getting access to higher education meant that I had to travel 112km a day back and forth between my town and the city center,” she said. “But I wanted to become a teacher, no matter what the obstacles were.”
Natsima says that she found support from often unexpected places, including her own teachers. They recognized her determination to further her education as well as how cash-strapped her family was, and from primary school onward, various teachers helped her to access scholarships, work-study programmes, teaching assistant jobs, low cost student accommodations and also loans for higher education.
One teacher in particular stands out in Natsima’s memory.
“One of my teachers was a transgender woman who had to hide her true identity in a male uniform due to strict rules then,” she says. “But I could sense the teacher’s true identity and her support and knowing there was someone also experiencing what I was gave me comfort.”
Natsima had to reckon with such expectations of conformity early in her own career – she was required to wear trousers and keep her hair short during her internship and in her early job placement. It was only after she worked several years in special education, where the emphasis is on teacher quality and performance in addressing students’ challenges, that her appearance began and continues to reflect her identity.
Creating a more inclusive and accepting space for her special needs students is a daily goal for Natsima – so too, she says, is acting as an advocate for greater acceptance of LGBTI students on campus and as a role model for them.
“Teachers are always either men or women. Don’t LGBTI students need role models as well?” she asks. “I am not just a role model as a transgender person, but as a teacher as well. I always make sure I dress and act appropriately as a teacher in the school or when I represent the school at outside events.
“I’m proud to call myself a ‘rainbow teacher’.”
Natsima says that by being open about their LGBTI identities, teachers can help break the isolation, loneliness and depression that many LGBTI youth outside of the mainstream feel. “LGBTI students need role models, people they can feel comfortable with and accepted by or teachers who have a better understanding of the discrimination they face because of their shared identities.”
She recently raised these points while a panelist at the recent Thai national consultation, “Respect for All: Safe and Inclusive Education Environments”, convened by UNESCO and UNDP. The consultation was aimed at raising awareness and building a common understanding of the education sector’s role in establishing inclusive and safe spaces that respect all forms of diversity, including gender and sexuality.
She said schools must be safe and inclusive for both LGBTI students as well as teachers.
“When we talk about discrimination in schools, we usually associate it with students, but teachers also face discrimination,” she said. “We need a space for common dialogue without fear – between adults and children; LGBTI and non-LGBTI.”
She believes that for schools to attract committed, diverse, passionate educators, they will need to ensure that schools are safe and inclusive spaces for all, where “rainbow teachers” are valued for their contributions to students' learning and wellbeing.
By Noel Boivin, Hunter Gray and Anjana Suvarnananda