Transgender Wichita teacher wins national education award

Transgender teacher wins national award

Stephanie Byers, a band and orchestra teacher at Wichita North High School, has been named National Educator of the Year by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
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Stephanie Byers, a band and orchestra teacher at Wichita North High School, has been named National Educator of the Year by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

About four years ago, Stephanie Byers addressed her students on the first day of class.

"I said, 'Obviously, there's something different that we need to talk about,'" says Byers, a North High band and orchestra teacher who came out as a transgender woman in 2014.

For more than two decades, students, colleagues and parents at North High had known Byers by her previous male name and identity.

"Instead of Mr. Byers, I'm now Ms. Byers," she told her classes that day. "Most of you just call me 'Byers,' and that still works. Now, let's talk about what our goals are for this semester and this school year."

That's it, she remembers thinking. The students nodded. Class continued.

"To me, being transgender is no more of an identifier of who I am than the fact that I have brown eyes," she said. "It's just what I am. It's what I was born into."

Byers, 55, says she didn't transition to be a pioneer or an advocate, but she has become both. She thinks she is the first Wichita teacher to transition after being hired into the district. As she contemplated her transition, she called district officials to ask about it and, "There were no protocols in place for this," she said.

Over the past few years, Byers has quietly met with school leaders, participated on panels about LGBTQ issues, talked with parents about gender identity, chaperoned a local "Day of Advocacy" and spoken at the state Capitol. Last week, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) named her National Educator of the Year.

One recent morning at North High, Byers glanced around at her first-hour orchestra class, composed mostly of freshmen and sophomores who know her only as Ms. Byers.

"I don't know how many people in this room know my background, but I would assume most of them do," she said. Several plaques and certificates hanging in the band room feature Byers' former name. "We just try to make sure every person, regardless of who they are, is treated with respect and dignity. And that's something that I'm pretty passionate about."

Byers said she decided to come out as a transgender woman toward the end of her career — just five years shy of possible retirement — despite fears about what it could mean for her and those around her. In a recent NPR Ed survey of transgender and gender-nonconforming educators, more than half said they face harassment or discrimination in the workplace.

"There was an urgency to it, and I could no longer put it off," Byers said. "But there's still the fear, because you never know. That very first day, when you walk in and people who have known you throughout your career as someone else now see you differently, how will they react? And what happens with that?"

Byers said she received "absolutely amazing" support from district officials and from Sherman Padgett, principal at North High, who informed faculty members during a meeting in the cafeteria prior to the 2014 school year.

"This was something that, in his words, is a very private experience but taking place in a very public environment," Byers said. "He announced who I was and who I would be from now on, and the response was overwhelming from my colleagues.

"People that I have never spoken to in this building came up and wrapped their arms around me to tell me how much they care for me and love me and were proud of me. It was very, very affirming."

Some returning students had lots of questions for Byers at the start of that school year, said Alondra Larios, a flute player who graduated in 2017. But the teacher answered them patiently and graciously, she said.

"I definitely think it was a confident thing to do," said Larios, now a student at Butler Community College. "She explained it like, 'I'm still a normal human being.' She just changed her pronouns."

Byers said she hopes the GLSEN Respect Award, given each year to an educator who works to create safe and inclusive schools, will increase awareness of LGBTQ issues in Kansas and "start to smooth out the pathways for the people who follow behind me."

Wichita-area schools have been dealing with transgender issues more frequently in recent years. At Derby High School, school leaders briefly allowed students to use bathrooms matching their gender identity, but a backlash from some parents and community members prompted district leaders to reverse their decision.

Just last week, a teacher in Seneca, a town of about 2,000 residents in northeast Kansas, quit his job and moved because of threatening letters he received after he came out as gay last year.

Byers said she hasn't faced much backlash so far. But since transitioning, she hasn't sought the limelight or agreed to media interviews about her experience. The GLSEN Educator of the Year award, which she will accept at a ceremony in New York City next month, could change that.

"It does concern me a little bit, because we don't know what the reaction will be. . . Part of me always waits for the shoe to drop," she said.

"But I am embracing it because I know that the path that I lay down is one that other people will be able to follow. Maybe I can trample down some weeds and create some space for other folks, and that will be able to make their walk a little bit easier."

Since coming out as a transgender woman, Byers said a few students have approached her with questions or concerns about their own gender identities. She treads carefully, she says, asking them whether they've talked with their parents and whether they have support from family or friends.

"One thing we know about people who are transgender is that the suicide-attempt rate is 41 percent," Byers said. "Working something out where they can get that support is probably going to save somebody's life."

Byers said she's happier now that she's "living my authentic self." She and her wife, Lori Haas, a marriage and family therapist, frequently present a "Trans 101" workshop to therapists and other behavioral health professionals and are helping develop an educator training program with the local GLSEN chapter.

Padgett, North High's principal, said he nominated Byers for the award because she's "just an all-around great teacher and a great person."

"It would be great if we could get to the point where we can normalize the LGBTQ community," he said. "She chose to live her true identity, and when that just becomes normal, that's when kids will realize they belong here just as much as everyone else."

Byers said some former students who have seen her since her transition have asked questions or told her, simply, "I don't get it." That's fine, she says.

"You don't have to understand if somebody is transgender or not," Byers said. "Just be kind. Be polite. Be nice. Let them be themselves."