Disrespected and excluded as a teen, this transgender teacher wants a different high school experience for today’s students

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

High school was rough for Sam Long, a transgender man who started his transition as a teen. He received little support from fellow classmates or teachers — and was even excluded from overnight field trips. The experience was miserable, but ultimately pushed him to pursue a career in education.

“I dreamed of giving a better high school experience to other marginalized students,” said Long, who teaches biology and chemistry at Standley Lake High School in the Denver suburb of Westminster.

Long is part of a new state commission charged with recommending how Colorado educators can include the contributions of minorities in history and civics classes. He talked about incorporating his Asian-American and LGBTQ identities into that work, tweaking conventional biology lessons to be more inclusive, and the impact of funding shortfalls on his students.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I started my transition as a teenager, and the staff and students in my school were not kind or understanding. I was called by the wrong name and pronouns frequently, I had no safe place to use the restroom, and I was excluded from overnight field trips where student rooming was arranged by gender. But I stuck it out and got my diploma because I knew that a transgender person without a high school education had very limited opportunities in society. Shortly after graduating from high school, I took an interest in a career in teaching. I dreamed of giving a better high school experience to other marginalized students.

How do you get to know your students?

When I introduce myself to students on the first day of school, I talk about a few identities that are important to me – I am a transgender man and a Chinese-American-Canadian. I explain that this is a classroom where we respect all identities and learn together. This communicates to all students that it’s an option to share things about yourself. Then I have my students fill out a survey about themselves. I ask them about the name and pronouns they want to use at school, their academic and extracurricular interests, and access to transportation and Internet at home. This gives me at least a couple of talking points for starting conversations with each student.

How do you go about developing biology curriculum that affirms LGBTQ+ identities in lessons about reproduction, sex, and gender? How do students respond to this content?

In developing gender-inclusive biology curriculum, I often ask the question, “Who is included or excluded by the typical way of teaching?”

As a first lesson on genetics, a typical biology textbook might say, “We get half of our DNA from our mom and half from our dad.” But I know that this is an overgeneralization and if I teach it like that, I will be leaving out students who are adopted or have same-sex parents or transgender parents. So I put that same sentence in my slideshow, “We get half of our DNA from our mom and half from our dad” and ask students if this is true for everyone. At first glance, students say that it’s definitely true, but it doesn’t take them long to realize that it excludes some people. After this, we establish norms of language. We typically use “biological parent” to refer to the two individuals who contribute egg and sperm to an offspring, with the caveat that these are not always the same people that you might consider your parents in a social context. We also talk about the difference between biological sex and gender identity.

As we continue with the genetics unit, we rarely use the terms “mom and dad.” We say that the zygote receives DNA from an egg cell and a sperm cell. This choice of vocabulary is based on scientific research and is more rigorous than using “mom and dad.” Our use of this language is continuous throughout this unit and the next unit on inheritance.

This way of teaching conveys rigorous, accurate science without marginalizing students who don’t fit into the typical model of heterosexual, cisgender — those whose gender identity matches with the sex they were assigned at birth — reproduction. Furthermore, all students find these lessons engaging because they get a more complete understanding of the complex world around them. Diversity is never boring.

What do you hope to accomplish as a member of the Governor’s Commission on History, Culture, Social Contributions, and Civil Government in Education?

The purpose of the commission is to make recommendations to include the history, culture, and social contributions of minorities in the teaching of history and civics. In this case, minorities includes American Indians, Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, and the LGBT individuals within these groups.

As a member of the commission, I hope to create resources that make this kind of curriculum accessible to all Colorado teachers. As someone who lives life at the intersection of being an Asian American and an LGBT individual, I hope to highlight intersectionality in my work with the commission. For example, many of the community leaders involved in early LGBT-rights demonstrations like Stonewall and Compton’s Cafeteria were people of color. Also, some of the earliest anti-crossdressing laws in the United States were created in part to target Chinese immigrants.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

My students are directly affected by a lack of funding for education in the state and in Jefferson County School District. Our classroom is cramped and has furniture from the 1980s. This restricts my ability to incorporate movement and to teach in ways other than lecturing. The quality of my lesson planning is impacted by the need to cover classes for other teachers — we have a substitute teacher shortage due to low pay relative to other school districts in the area.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I had a student who failed most of her ninth grade classes and ended up in my class again the following year. The second time around, her attendance, attitude, and class work were noticeably improved. On parent-teacher conference night, she brought her mom to my desk to hear about her progress. At first, I wanted to say, “Your daughter is doing fine in my class now,” and move on to the parents of students who needed more intervention. But I realized that this was perhaps a rare opportunity for the mom to hear something positive about her daughter after a very rough period. I took the time to recount a few of the daughter’s specific successes to the mom. I said that I was proud of her and I offered to help find an extracurricular program aligned with the student’s interests, which were art and health care. Every student deserves to celebrate their success and explore their interests.

What part of your job is most difficult?

Currently, my biggest challenge is managing my time. We can always do more or do better – build stronger relationships with students, be more involved in schoolwide initiatives, give more detailed grading feedback, make a lesson more engaging and effective. I feel that with effort I can improve in any one of these, but I need to balance my efforts.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I used to think that teaching was all about the content – in my case, science content knowledge. I learned that teaching is also about people, and I have come to enjoy working with people.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

“Would You Convict?: Seventeen Cases That Challenged the Law” by Paul H. Robinson

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

A more experienced teacher once told me, “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” I regularly repeat this advice to myself when I am facing many priorities and deadlines.