The classroom is now the frontline of gender wars according to teachers, who have admitted that they are “walking on eggshells” and terrified of “ending up in court like Enoch Burke”.
Speaking to The Sunday Times under condition of anonymity, three secondary school teachers have told of the difficulties they face as they navigate growing gender diversity and an ever-changing social environment in Irish schools.
One teacher, who has taught chemistry and maths in a co- educational school for 23 years, said that while she did not want to cause offence to pupils or face complaints, she generally avoided using a transitioning student’s preferred pronouns, despite previous directions from her principal, as she does not believe in gender ideology.
“I avoid the situation. I won’t use the pronouns or the new name because I think that is me pushing them one step further to surgery which is irreversible, but on occasion when it’s a choice between upsetting the child and making a scene, I have used a preferred name. These kids are genuinely really struggling and genuinely believe it, but I don’t believe they are getting proper care.”
She said she was concerned about the effect that peer groups might be having in creating a social pressure to transition within schools — about which parents have no knowledge.
“We are absolutely walking on eggshells. These are children you have seen come to you in first year and negotiate the transition between primary and post-primary. Their whole life is ahead of them, and teenagers find it so hard to be themselves anyway. They’re looking everywhere for something to tell them who they are.”
Another teacher, who teaches languages in a Catholic school, said that while she was morally opposed to affirming a transitioning pupil’s new identity, she felt she must now “go along with it” in the classroom or face complaints.
“I have to say I do forget a lot. I have to work on that. I used to say, ‘good morning, boys and girls’ or ‘good morning, lads and ladies’, and now you don’t say that anymore. You have to say: ‘Good morning, everyone.’ It’s hard to separate the professional from the personal,” she said.
“I do what I am told, not because I believe that it is the right thing to do but because I don’t want to lose my job or end up in court like Enoch Burke,” she said.
Sacked teacher Burke has been given until Thursday to pay €23,800 in fines for his sustained contempt of court. The High Court also ruled that Wilson’s Hospital School can seek orders to enforce the payment, which could include the sequestration of Burke’s assets.
Mr Justice Brian O’Moore also gave the view that the two possible reasons for Burke’s non-compliance with orders to stay away from the school were that Burke either believed the fines were “too low” or that they would not be enforced.
His brother Simeon, 24, is currently in prison, having again refused to accept bail, a week after he was charged over outbursts in the Court of Appeal.
Meanwhile, another teacher in his mid-sixties, who has taught at both post-primary level and third-level for decades, said that he would “kick for touch” if approached by a transitioning pupil in the classroom.
“As a teacher, I have to respect the person of the child in front of me. That person is a human being. I will always respect that kid but it shouldn’t be down to an individual teacher to decide what to do in that situation. I don’t think it’s down to just age either — you take a thirtysomething-year-old teacher who went to a denominational school and is now teaching in a non- denominational school, they might be committed to the ethos of that denominational school throughout their life,” he said.
The teacher, who most recently taught English, Irish and economics at a Gaelscoil, added that there was a need for the Department of Education to give greater clarity in guidance to teachers navigating gender issues.
“It’s impossible because schools cannot solve all the problems of society. Here is an issue that is growing and being focused upon but there is no best practice. There’s a lot of recommendations from psychologists and psychiatrists to say that even parents shouldn’t be final in their treatment of their own kids up until they are 18, so it puts the teacher in a very invidious position,” he said.
However, Eoghan Cleary, an English, drama and wellbeing teacher at Temple Carrig secondary school in Wicklow, said it was important to teach students to be critical about gender roles in society.
“What we’ve said to students is that there is so much that is going to tell you what it is to be a man and what it means to be a woman, but what we believe the education system should facilitate is students learning how to be themselves, regardless of gender,” Cleary said.
He said that while it required “a little bit of effort” to accommodate transitioning pupils, the teacher’s overriding duty was to meet the needs of all students.
The Department of Education is finalising revised gender-inclusive sex education and SPHE curriculums, which will feature a greater focus on LGBTI+ relationships. A new SPHE curriculum for junior cycle students will take effect in September.
Micheál Martin weighed in on the Burke family fiasco and said the case highlighted why children should be educated in schools, not at home. In an interview with the Irish Examiner in New York, the tanaiste said he found it “disquieting” that the Burke family was in such a situation.