This year's GSA at Hill Freedman World Academy Credit: Courtesy June Freifelder

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This academic year, Philadelphia public school teachers need to fulfill at least 11 days of professional development. These are often courses orchestrated by the district, and led by administrators or outside experts.

A recent training at one school looked a little different: It was led by actual kids.

Students in the gender and sexuality alliance (GSA) at Hill Freedman World Academy in Northwest Philly ran their own professional development workshop in December. The idea was to explain what it’s like for queer and trans kids coming up in the public school system, and show how to provide support.

“We don’t do a lot of positive learning from one another,” said June Freifelder, an English teacher and adviser of the Hill Freedman GSA. “But teachers really respect students’ input. Why not have students lead, and talk about their experience and also educate teachers?”

Four students guided teachers through the half-hour presentation. There was praise for what they’ve done well, advice on what they could do better, and room for questions at the end.

Hill Freedman teachers said learning from students was way more engaging than their usual trainings.

“A lot of the time in professional development, we’re hearing what someone who doesn’t necessarily interact with students all that often thinks we should do,” Mark Paulson, who teaches math, told Billy Penn. “Versus this assembly, where it’s straight from the source, so we can really get a sense of what the students want and what the students need from us.”

The workshop is especially relevant as trans children come under fire nationwide. Texas is trying to criminalize gender-affirming care for minors. Florida is banning discussions about gender and sexual orientation in the classroom. Philly teachers who understand what their students are going through can be a crucial source of support and protection

“We wanted to show that there are queer students at this school, and there may be situations where they’re going to need you,” said Andrea Rogers, a senior in Hill Freedman’s GSA. “You may want to know how to deal with those issues.”

Rogers thinks the workshop should be a model for other schools and other districts to help create welcoming schools.

‘Cutting through the noise’ of regular professional development

Hill Freedman students got the idea for the reverse assembly after dealing with some frustrating issues in classes, like teachers using deadnames or the wrong pronouns.

“People are more susceptible to changing their behavior if it’s presented in a positive way, rather than feeling targeted,” said Freifelder, the GSA advisor. “So we kind of talked about, how can we spin this in a more positive direction?”

Instead of lecturing teachers, students tried to arm them with constructive tips — like what to do if a student misgenders another, and how to help them find the school’s gender neutral bathroom.

“It just cut through a lot of the noise that you’ll get with a teacher-led, district-approved professional development,” Paulson said. “I think it will make teachers realize that it’s not just a box to check, that it’s something that really changes a student’s experience in a classroom.”

Students have facilitated other conversations throughout the district on a variety of topics, according to School District spokesperson Monica Lewis, who could not offer specifics on how often this happens, where, or what the subject matter has been. She said the district “encourages all students to understand the power and impact of their voice and fully supports those who wish to help with the development of staff.”

Hill Freedman senior Rogers was nervous at first. But after the assembly ended, the school principal celebrated the group’s bravery by taking them out to lunch.

Later, Rogers approached the Black Student Union, which is in its first year at Hill Freedman, and suggested they lead a workshop too.

“I talked to them about doing a similar thing, talking to teachers,” Rogers said. “It’s a school with mostly Black students and almost all white teachers. I was like, ‘If y’all want to have a discussion like that, you should.’”

Tips for teachers from the GSA

Want to use some of the Hill Freedman GSA’s advice? Here are a few of their biggest tips for teachers and school staffers:

  • Show openness to LGBTQ students from the beginning of the year, including by asking for students’ pronouns.
  • Ask students if they go by different names or use different pronouns at home. If they do, make sure never to out them to their parents or guardians.
  • Realize that misgendering causes harm.
  • If a student misgenders another student, determine whether it was done maliciously or by accident. Pull them aside later to correct them (not in front of everyone).
  • If a student says a homophobic or transphobic slur, ALWAYS address it and correct them.
  • Incorporate LGBTQ content into the subject matter of your class. The Hill Freedman GSA offered an example of a Spanish teacher who teaches they/them pronouns.
  • Keep yourself informed on Policy 252 and teach students about it as well. Share concrete tips, like that they can change their names and pronouns in Google Classroom without a parent’s consent.
  • Know where your school’s gender neutral bathroom is, and offer to help students find it.
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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...