First, Do No Harm

The major thrust and most utilized aspect of the Hippocratic oath taken by doctors is “primum non nocere” or “first, do no harm.” Really, it seems this should apply to everyone. At this moment I’m looking at you Virginia (the state, not the little girl asking about Santa Claus). Under governor Glenn Youngkin, new rules were announced for schools reversing policies protecting the rights of transgender students enacted by the previous administration.

Virginia students are no longer allowed to use facilities marked for the gender they identify with and also mandates they file (I’m assuming their parents) legal documents if they wish to be called by different pronouns. As I read about these new rules it certainly appears that the administration is more concerned about the well-being, or should I say comfort level, of the adults in the room, not the kids. Schools must “keep parents fully informed about all matters” related to their child’s health and development (ok, so far I think) and may not “encourage or instruct teachers to conceal material information about a student from the student’s parent, including information related to gender.” This appears reasonable until you actually have experience working with children in a school. There are times when reporting this information to parents would result in harm done to the kids. Here’s the kicker for me. School personnel are not required to address or refer to a student “in any manner” that would run counter to an employee’s personal or religious beliefs. With that rule we have stripped away any autonomy and power from the students and given it all to the teachers. With this the rights, safety, and comfort of only the adults are considered. First, do no harm.

Let’s consider a group of 13 year olds. Shudder, right? Actually I found teaching middle school enjoyable and energizing, though at times infuriating and exhausting too. More than any other age they are in peak self-identification mode and their emotions are often bubbling just under the surface. Because of this they are highly susceptible to impression, and also more likely to make poor or rash decisions and also more likely to engage in bullying, shaming, and identity grouping. And now you give the one adult in the room the legal authority to address a student most likely struggling with self-identification to assign an publicly assign or contradict that child’s identity as they are figuring it out and I tell you nothing good can come from this for that child. First, do no harm.

I also can tell you this. A teenager who is identifying as anything that puts them at risk for being ostracizing, bullying, shaming, is not doing so lightly. This is the time in development when humans need to belong more so than any other time. To, at that time in development, engage in actions as an adult that make that development more difficult, potentially more painful, or even dangerous or deadly is unethical. Honestly, if “Julie” is working through identity, in what possible way does it harm the teacher to address that child as “Jim” if that is what they ask you to do? Are the teachers so fragile in their own comfort or religion (which incidentally should not come into play in a public school classroom) that they could not accommodate this request? My full name is Timothy. No one calls me that. When I was little, I was Timmy. Then I declared at some point I’m told by my parents, “I’m Tim, not Timmy.” Would it have been appropriate for one of my teachers to only call me by my full, given, name and not my preference of Tim? If that made them uncomfortable, then I guess I’d have to accept Timothy? What if that teacher was uncomfortable calling me anything but Shithead? I’m mean honestly, that might have been most appropriate some days. Why strip away power of identity from children when they are in the throes of developing that identity and give that authority to a teacher? First, do no harm.

Humans learn best when they have a sense of autonomy in their learning, what they are learning is connected to authentic purpose, and most importantly, when they trust those they are learning from and with, and feel safe. The great challenge for teachers is to facilitate this culture in a classroom while also guiding students through mandated curriculum content. That’s a significant challenge. Why add a culture war to their agenda? First, do no harm.

I don’t know that being a teenager has ever been particularly easy in the modern world, but it certainly is not getting easier as our society evolves. Shouldn’t that be a significant warning sign that more and more of our youth are struggling to get through the maturation process without mental health issues. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in older adolescents. Shouldn’t this be declining if we were doing it right? First, do no harm.

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