Sarah Saint, advises and litigates on behalf of public and private educational institutions and school boards on an array of education law issues, including special education and disability issues, civil rights laws and tort claims. She has a particular focus on diversity and civil rights issues, including issues related to race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and religion.
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Give Kids The Room To Explore Who They Are
Daniel: When it comes down to education, something that I believe is we are in the business of optimizing kids’ lives. We’re about opening doors, not shutting them, helping them see an expansive, better, more ideal future than what we experienced today on Earth. And yet some states, some politicians around the United States, I’d have to research globally, they’re making it harder for kids to walk through open doors or making spaces less psychologically safe. The worst part about it is that it’s literally a matter of life and death. When kids feel safe and seen and they can navigate complex waters that have to do with identity and that sort of topic, we need to be there for our kids. That’s my perspective. I’m so honored today to be joined by a legal expert, Sarah Saint, who’s a lawyer. She opens up and shares her very raw, authentic and real story. I know for me, I learned a lot. I believe the Ruckus Maker listening will learn a lot as well. It’s important for you, if you want to create really safe spaces for kids, then you need to listen to today’s show. Hey, it’s Daniel, and thank you for listening to the Better Leaders Better Schools Podcast. The show for Ruckus Makers, those out of the box. Leaders making change happen in education. We’ll be right back after some messages from our show’s sponsors.
Daniel: Learn how to recruit, develop, retain and inspire outstanding individuals and teams to deliver on the vision of your school in Leading People. A Certificate in School Management and Leadership Course from Harvard Leading People runs from October 12th to November 9th, 2020 to apply by September 30th, enroll by October 6th. Get started at betterleadersbetterschools.com/Harvard. During COVID. Every teacher is a new teacher. That’s why innovative school leaders are turning to Teach FX whose virtual PD is equipping thousands of teachers with the skills they need to create engaging, equitable and rigorous virtual or blended classes. To learn more about Teach FX and get a special offer visit teachfx.com/BLBS. All students have an opportunity to succeed with Organized Binder, which equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning, whether that’s in a distance, hybrid or traditional educational setting. Learn more at organizedbinder.com. Hello, Ruckus Maker. Today, I’m joined by Sarah Saint, who advises and mitigates on behalf of public and private educational institutions and school boards on an array of educational law issues, including special education and disability issues, civil rights laws and tort claims. She has a particular focus on diversity and civil rights issues, including issues related to race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and religion. Sarah, welcome to this show.
Sarah: Thanks so much, Danny. I really appreciate you having me on. I’m very glad to be here to talk with you today.
Daniel: Brilliant. Well, it’s my pleasure to host you. I want you to bring us back to growing up in Alabama. You were told to make sure you look the right way or you won’t be a success in the world. Tell us that story.
Sarah: Absolutely. I grew up in Alabama and I’ll preface this all with today. I’m comfortable in my identity as a non-binary lesbian, but then, not at all. I was actually talking with a client recently. I had helped somebody get a legal name change. They were changing their name from a socially feminine name to a socially masculine name. When talking with them, they told me a story about when they were living under the feminine name, they were someone that they weren’t proud of. They had a tenuous future. They didn’t like themselves. They talked about themselves as if it was two separate people. When they started living in their truth, living as a man, taking testosterone, introducing themselves as a man, they started living authentically. It completely changed who they are, somebody that they’re proud of, somebody that their mom is proud of, someone with strong relationships and a passion for others. I can’t say that every trans person has that story, but I certainly have that story. When I was in Alabama, my parents named me Sarah Margaret, a very Southern name. It was not Sarah, it was Sarah Margaret. I was not allowed to go by Sarah at the time. As I grew, I didn’t like that name. It didn’t feel like me. I couldn’t identify why, but it didn’t feel like my name. When I entered kindergarten, I started exclusively going by Sassy as my nickname. My teachers call me Sassy, my friends call me Sassy. But she was stressed and she was anxious, and she was concerned about being perfect and outward appearances and very focused on gender expression. You have to look a certain way. You have to act a certain way. As I grew up and I was comfortable, at least with my sexual orientation, came out to my parents. They told me, don’t tell anybody. They were so afraid that I was going to hold me back, that I was not going to be able to be successful if I let anybody know who I was. I continued on that path, but I was not happy in that role. I wasn’t happy with not living authentically, dressing a certain way, acting a certain way, because I thought that’s how I had to be. As I got older, I started working at the firm where I’m at, and they’re a supportive place, a lovely place, and accepting of my work, accepting of my sexual orientation, of my humor or who I am. I felt more comfortable here. I’m able to go by Sarah, which is not a name I was allowed to have as a child, but it is a name that feels like me. When I first started working here, I was still very afraid about my gender expression. I’m now in North Carolina. It’s still a pretty conservative place. And I didn’t know how I could express my gender in a way that was authentic, but where I still felt like North Carolinians would accept me. I continued to wear costumes. I still thought about it a lot as I was getting dressed, and a huge thing for me at the time was making sure I had a feminine enough haircut. If I could wear whatever I wanted as long as I had this girly haircut, it was the end all be all of my costume then. So it’s continued on into adulthood. Still struggling with the,”You got to be careful about how you look. You got to be careful about what people know about you or else you’re going to be a failure or else you can’t be successful.”
Daniel: The layer, the legal profession. And that brings up these stereotypical images of what the lawyer looks like. So that’s a lot to hold into, to wrestle with. I’m a white male, cisgender guy and this hasn’t been my experience growing up. I’m really appreciative of this conversation because I know I’m going to learn a lot. If you could tell us more. What’s it like to deal with that tension of hearing from your parents and sort of maybe a traditional societal, I don’t know how to describe it, that society says, “this is the way it’s supposed to be.” And inside you feel that tension and like it’s not authentic. I’m not me. I’m wearing a costume .The reason I ask is, one I want to learn, I’m curious.Two, there’s so many kids, even staff members that are going through this similar journey. Since this show serves school leaders, my goal is to hopefully open up some minds through this conversation. Can you tell us more about what it’s like to go through?
Sarah: It feels icky. It really just feels bad. I felt like I was always on guard. You think being a school leader, being an attorney, we all have pretty stressful jobs on a regular basis and adding this other layer of stress that is always on your mind, always going on here of what are people thinking about me? How are they going to react to me? Not feeling comfortable to just relax at a place where you spend 8, 10, 12 hours a day is exhausting. I didn’t feel like I could be as good at my job. I felt like it was really holding me back and the ways that I could connect with people. As lawyers and as educators, that is a huge component of our job. The only way that we can help bring out the good in other people is to feel good in ourselves. I feel like it really held me back in my career. It had the opposite effect of what my parents were afraid of. That instead of it, instead of holding it in was going to make me successful. I think letting it out is what has helped me be more successful.
Daniel: From a leadership plus, I have a sort of business marketing mind, too. But the more you lean into what makes you unique. I think that always makes a more powerful experience for those you serve. Same thing with you and identity. You might say no to this, which would be totally fine. Were there any adults or mentors that encouraged you or made it safe? I’m thinking about the principal, the assistant principal, maybe even the teacher who’s listening and what they might do for students who are navigating these waters.
Sarah: I’m glad to be sharing the story with a group of people who I wished had been there to support me. I think, especially with your identity, the letting in process and I say letting in instead of coming out because it is a you’re coming into my space to learn about me. The letting in process requires a lot of psychological safety, that kids should not be the one to like to open the doors up and demand that people hear them, demand that they be allowed to be authentic. We should be telling them, You are free to be safe here. You’re free to be authentic here. Without that, the room, the knowledge that they can be psychologically safe. It’s fair for us to expect kids to live authentically that we’re not going to get their best selves. How people in my life where I had that, I didn’t really have that growing up and it really impacted me. It wasn’t until I got to college where I was able to start to explore what my gender was through high school. It was very much so feminine lens. I tried on different kinds of outfits, I had an Avril Levine phase, I had a hippie skirt phase, but they were all very feminine. It wasn’t until I got to college and away from places where I felt not safe, not psychologically safe, that I was able to explore my own gender expression to the point where now, today I feel very comfortable in it. And I don’t like that story. I don’t like that I didn’t have those supportive people in my life. I really am glad that most schools or many schools are moving in a direction where they are supportive of kids. I say that with a big asterisk right because there are so many bills that are pending that are harmful for kids. It was certainly something that was missing in my growth.
Daniel: I think some you’re talking about, too, is having this sense that the students are ready to be supported by the school system. Nobody’s forcing this. Hey, yes. Show up. We have an inkling that this is who you are like. It has to be on the student’s terms and that kind of thing. Is there anything a school system can do? We were just talking about psychology. But you work with a lot of schools. Have you seen any really knock it out of the park? To use a baseball metaphor or something that they’ve done that works well, that we can steal and implement across the listenership?
Sarah: I think the first step is for individuals. It is learning. It is learning about language, it’s learning about identities. It’s learning about kids. I work a lot in the special education disability space, and those teachers spend a lot of time learning about different kinds of disabilities. We don’t dedicate that much time to learning about different genders, different sexual orientations, different other kinds of identities. And I think that’s huge is just knowledge. And then from there it is creating that space, being comfortable with children, opening up to them, showing that you’re safe, showing that you creating that space for them to come to you when they’re ready, you’re hit the nail on the head that it needs to be when they are ready, but to be around and to be available for that. And there are ways where school districts can do that. Again, another asterisk with Florida being a place where that’s tenuous right now. But for elementary school teachers having books about the gay penguin book two to tango or books about gay families or trans kids or trans adults having guest lecturers, you can come in and speak who are a different identity. So for you, Danny, being a white male, having somebody different, come in to talk to your class about things, history, teachers, talking about history of this community, English teachers providing writing prompts about this. It’s just a matter of working it into lessons, I think, in an academic sense that shows, hey, you’re thinking about these things in a way where they’re legitimized. And that was something that was missing in my childhood, it was a hush hush thing. We didn’t talk about sexual orientation. We didn’t talk about gender identity. There weren’t any options out there. There weren’t any opportunities to talk about it. I may have had people in my life who would have been safe, but I never knew it because these were not topics of conversation that were just naturally in the environment. Any time that I wanted to have a conversation about that, it had to be a big deal. And I said it with a capital B and a capital D, there were no organic opportunities.
Daniel: One thing is just creating the organic opportunities where you ended there to have discussions, education, that piece is so important. Educating about different types of people in relationships. It’s really hard to dislike or hate other people when you’re in a relationship with them and get to know them and that’s a big, huge piece. I will say for the Ruckus Maker listening at this point. My latest book’s been out for about a year and I want to say, since we’ve been talking about psychological safety, I discussed that in depth in mastermind and marketing talent within every school leader. If you haven’t picked it up yet, go ahead and get yourself a copy. Now let’s address the leader who’s experiencing OC. Hey, I want to create a more psychologically safe place. I want to get these organic discussions to happen and that kind of deal in my community. Maybe I don’t feel like they’re ready. Maybe it’s a more conservative district because I know you have the privilege to serve. Both very liberal places, very conservative. Neither is right or wrong. They have different sets of beliefs. Right. What would you say to the Ruckus Maker who’s like, I want to do something and I’m so scared of how the community might react.
Sarah: That is certainly a legitimate fear. I think a benefit that Ruckus makers have right now is that the legal landscape has changed significantly in the past couple of years. I look at everything through a legal lens, of course, where everything is. But we have ammo that has never been had before. We have Supreme Court decisions. We have circuit court decisions, which is the step right below the Supreme Court that says we’re supposed to be a place where kids can be themselves, they can have their identities outwardly and openly. I don’t think that those decisions were out there to support my teachers when I was a kid and me when I was a kid. We have that to lean on. Sometimes I think it’s a matter of educating your administration or whoever it is that you’re afraid of what will happen to you. An education here are the rules that we’re in. Sometimes people feel safer when they have real rules, real laws backing them up. I think other people feel more comfortable when they have a buddy. When they have another teacher, another administrator who they can lean on to start having these conversations together. I think finding that collaborative person is a great method. I also think too when you frame it as the good of the kids. I think that there are a lot of good things that can happen for children when they’re given the space to be themselves. And there’s a lot of research floating around right now, coming out from American Pediatrics, the world path and other organizations that really look into outcomes for kids and the ones there are a lot of children who contemplate or go through with suicide who are trans nonbinary, gay, lesbian to an extreme degree. We looked at the general population, kids that are allowed to be themselves, kids that are given space to be themselves, kids that are supported in exploring their identity, trying on different identities, just being kids that number drops dramatically. Statistics are the things that are meaningful to you. That is a statistic that you can take to the bank. It is accurate that kids who feel good and feel safe live. About the governor of Utah, their General Assembly or Congress or whatever the legislative body is. Utah passed an anti-trans bill recently and the governor of Utah vetoed it. He said, “I don’t necessarily agree with this, but I want kids to live.” I think that is the most compelling conversation to have about any of this if you know the law and the emotion isn’t there. I think kids being alive is the number one goal of all educators.
Daniel: Yeah. I mean, come on. That should be a very basic thing. We get into it because of big hearts and we want to love our kids and help them live life to the fullest. They got to be living to do that. Thank you, Sarah. I’m really enjoying our conversation. We’re going to pause here just for a second to get some messages in from our sponsors. When we come back, I’d love to talk about some myths and assumptions that people may have about transgender kids. Learn how to recruit, develop, retain and inspire outstanding individuals and teams to deliver on the vision of your school in Leading People a Certificate in School Management and Leadership Course from Harvard. Topics include instrumental and inclusive leadership, hiring and recruiting teachers, psychological safety, equity, role modeling and more. Leading people run from October 12th to November 9th, 2020 to apply by September 30th, enroll by October 6th. Get started at betterleadersbetterschools.com/Harvard .Better Leaders Better Schools is brought to you by school leaders like Principal Gutierrez using teach FX. Special populations benefit the most from verbally engaging in class, but get far fewer opportunities to do so than their peers, especially in virtual classes. Teach FX measures verbal engagement automatically in virtual or in-person classes to help schools and teachers address these issues of equity during COVID. Learn more and get a special offer from better leaders, better schools listeners and teachfx.com/BLBS. Today’s show is brought to you by Organized Binder. Organized Binder develops the skills and habits all students need for success during these uncertain times of distance learning and hybrid education settings, organized binder equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning routines so that all students have an opportunity to succeed, whether at home or in the classroom. Learn more at OrganizeBinder.com. All right. And we’re back with Sarah Saint, a legal expert, today. We’re talking a lot about identity in we’re talking about her story and we were talking about how to navigate these issues within very complex school systems. It’s not easy, but it’s important work to do. I’d love to hear from your perspective. I think society may have potentially some assumptions and myths about transgender kids. Can you speak to any of those and help school us on why those are wrong?
Sarah: A big one that I hear a lot about, and this is in education and outside of education, is that that biological sex is real, that’s a child’s true sex, their biological sex. We talk so much about kids to play on the sports team where they’re of their biological sex. Kids need to go to the bathroom for their biological sex. Kids need to use the pronouns of their biological sex and put a whole lot of weight on biological sex. I am not a scientist. I will put a caveat there. But biological sex isn’t real. There is no such thing as biological sex. Medical professionals do not talk about biological sex. What is put on your birth certificate? I would probably say 99 times out of 100 has to do with something that’s between your legs that a doctor looked at the day you were born. They did not look at all of the things that contribute to our biology and our sex characteristics. I’m talking hormones, secondary sex characteristics, chromosomes, these whole things. Nobody analyzes those when they give you a letter on your birth certificate. Biological sex is not real. It just says what body part is between your legs. If you look at medical professionals for the past 20, 30 years, they talk about brain sex. And brain sex is literally how your brain functions. And that is what so many medical professionals pin as your true sex, your true gender. What we talk about is gender identity. It is the same thing. It is the characteristics that make up your brain. That being your true sex, not anything of a biological sex. Our hormones, Danny, may be very similar. We may have similar estrogen, testosterone, androgen levels. We may have vastly different ones. Me and somebody else who was assigned female at birth may have very different testosterone levels. My testosterone levels may be greater than yours, even though you’re just a man and I’m not. I don’t have any idea and it doesn’t matter. But we talk about these things as if they’re true and as they’re real and if they’re all perfectly aligned when they’re not. So that’s the biggest myth that I hear, is that biological sex matter is even real and it’s not.
Daniel: Never heard that before. I appreciate you sharing that. I learned something there. I want to ask one more sort of personal question and then we’ll head to the last two questions I ask everybody. You shared with me in 2019 you got a diagnosis of lymphoma and that really changed your world. Do you mind sharing that story?
Sarah: I was about 18 months into my career as an attorney. I was diagnosed with a really aggressive form of lymphoma in my chest. At the time, I was at a very severe risk of a pulmonary embolism or cardiac tamponade in my life, ending before I ever turned 30. I entered into extremely aggressive chemo and took a leave from work and lost my hair almost immediately. If I remember, my hair was a huge piece of how I identified permanently. It was the last bastion of my femininity. I came back to work five months later, still no hair, and I tried really hard to try to present femininity with no hair for about a day and a half and then said, “What’s the point? Why? Why am I doing this? What is the worst that could happen? I almost died. We’ve done that. We’ve crossed that bridge so what’s left? What’s the worst that could happen?” At that point, I felt the freedom to shed this messaging that I had heard most of my life was, “if you don’t act like this, then you’re never going to be successful. “And so that gave me the freedom or maybe the necessity to shed it all and just be myself. I started moving like me and talking like me and acting like me. My hair came back. I kept it short for the first time, and since I was a kid and nothing bad happened at all, I still had respect in my firm. I still had wonderful cases, I still had great clients. In fact, everything was better. I felt more confident because I was being authentic. I felt more self-assured. I was able to be more warm and more welcoming and more resilient. I developed connections with my clients on a personal level, which I think builds trust, and there’s nothing better in an attorney client relationship than having trust. And I felt like a better lawyer. I didn’t have the psychological stress of what if anymore. I was able to get rid of that. I hope that most people don’t end up with a near-death experience to be able to feel like they can live authentically. But it really changed who I am as an attorney. It’s helped me help others live their own authentic, authentic lives. Because when you are authentic, you create authenticity in others. They feel safer to be authentic with you when you are not afraid to say when you’re wrong, when you’re not afraid to make wonders. People feel safer in that relationship.
Daniel: Certainly that kind of near-death experience type of thing is a wake up call, right? And it really helps you prioritize what’s most important very quick. And you were able to sort that out. Having a child or even like a job transition, maybe you get fired, that kind of thing. All those can serve as wake up calls. But I really am honored and thank you for sharing a lot of your personal story because I know it’s going to be really helpful and meaningful for the speaker listening. The other big idea there, too, is whether it’s identity stuff or the life near-death experience, whether it’s, “Hey, I’ve got a really difficult decision to make as a leader.” Often we predict, like this worst case scenario, that’s a billion times worse than actually what’s going to happen. And that’s where mindfulness or also having a strong community around you help you sort that stuff out is because a lot of times we’re like, Oh, it’s probably not going to happen that way. And they can encourage and challenge you to keep moving forward. Sarah, so if you could put a message on all school marquees around the world for just a day, what would your message read?
Sarah: I say this with a hope in my heart. I want the marquee to say, “feel free to be yourself with me.” And I say that hoping that schools, teachers and administrators are doing the work to make it so, to make it so that kids can be themselves with us. I think that school for so many kids is their safe place, that maybe their families aren’t accepting of them. Maybe their churches or their religious institutions aren’t accepting of them. But hopefully when they come to school, they have somebody or several somebody so they can rely on where they can feel free to be themselves and that we give them the room to do that. So that’s the marquee message that I want school districts across the globe to say.
Daniel: That’s a great one to have. I like that you added “with me” on it as well, because that makes it certainly an even warmer invitation. SSarah, you’re building a school from the ground up. It’s your dream school. You have no limitations. The only limitation is your own imagination. So how would Sarah build her dream school? What would be the three guiding principles?
Sarah: I think the first and most important guiding principle is that I want Sarah not to build it. I want students to build it. It is so important for, again, this place where they can feel free to be themselves with us is a place that they had some say so and built it so. I very much so believe in this grassroots, democratic, interactive process to create and recreate a school, to design it in the way that makes sense for the students that go there. Right then that may be different than the students who went there yesterday. It may be different from the students who go there five years from now. But I think it’s so important to look at our menu of options and to help kids choose from that and create the school that is important to them. And so I toured a college when I was in high school, Guilford College, which is actually here in Greensboro, where I now live, did not go to Guilford College, just found my way back here, but they didn’t lay down any sidewalks when they first opened the built the college, they didn’t lay down any sidewalks. They waited to see where people walked and that. And then they put the sidewalks there because that’s where sidewalks go. We can use that and extrapolate it to build really cool schools where you see how kids want to interact in school and how they want it to be theirs. Because that’s what school’s there for. Is there for? The students, not for us. So that’s number one, is that it has nothing to do with Sarah. But assuming Sarah does have to have some say so in it, I would create a very well paid chief officer of belonging that was focused on how to make sure that the school is a school built on belonging. Includes neurodivergent kids, kids of color, LGBTQ kids, kids from unique families, pregnant kids, first generation kids, disabled kids. It takes the whole gamut and creates a school where there is true belonging, where we can we can confidently put on our marquee, “You’re safe with me.” I think that it’s important that there are C-suite level positions there too to really hit home, that this is the most important role in our school, is making sure that as a place where students feel like they can belong. And then the third priority for me is finding a way to ensure that there are third spaces, which is a sociologist coined that term, not Sarah Saint, but I really like it. It’s really important that we care about kids’ third spaces, so we have first spaces home, second spaces work or for kids school. And then there’s these third spaces like coffee shops, churches, parks, recreation centers, those sorts of things. It’s a place where we get to have a good time and we get to freely exchange ideas. Schools now are so structured there isn’t that free time where kids are just chatting with each other about what they think about the world, what they like about the world, what matters to them, their own philosophical views. I really want to and this would be a student driven space to figure out what works for them. But a living room. A place to lounge and hang and be friends with the people that you go to school with and learn from them. I think having that time in your day where you’re not structured is incredibly, incredibly important and so many kids don’t have that at home. They have too many activities going on. Sometimes we’ve got to build in that. We had to structure that unstructured time so that kids can make sure that they get it.
Daniel: Awesome. Well, say it. Thank you so much for being a part of the Better Leaders Better Schools podcast of everything we talked about today. What’s the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember?
Sarah: I think the biggest one is giving kids the room to explore who they are. We expect kids to know. A lot of times when people are trying to be comfortable and be allies of trans students, they take them from one gender that they saw the mask to this other gender. If they don’t fit the opposite gender automatically, then we get confused or we try to force them in a box. Kids need to have the room to explore things, to try things on. It’s okay if they don’t know, it’s okay that they’re still figuring it out. That’s our job to create that space for them. I think that’s the biggest takeaway is just giving kids room to figure out who they are and supporting them through that process.
Daniel: Thanks for listening to the Better Leaders Better Schools podcast Ruckus Maker . If you have a question or would like to connect my email Daniel@betterleadersbetterschools.com or hit me up on Twitter at @Alienearbud. If the Better Leader Better Schools Podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more ruckus makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode. Extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at @AlienEarbud and using the #BLBS. Level up your leadership at betterleadersbetterschools.com and talk to you next time. Until then, “class dismissed.”
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