The Australian filmmaker Rohan Spong spent a good part of 2008 travelling around the United States of America as a one-person film crew to document the experiences of four trans-gendered schoolteachers. The resulting T Is for Teacher is a testament to just how successful a film using very conventional documentary techniques can be with the right combination of strong material and talented filmmaking. The four stories are all about secondary school teachers who made a gender transition from male to female, and attempted to remain employed as teachers within the school system.
The outcomes of each situation vary but each story is a fascinating insight into gender identification and social progression. Spong interviews a range of people including three of the trans-gendered teachers, their colleagues and students, members of the clergy, parents and members of the press. Spong is extremely sensitive in the way he presents some of the more controversial opinions and although T Is for Teacher is clearly a call for acceptance, compassion and reason, Spong doesn’t demonise elements of the community who are opposed to trans-gendered people. A major strength of this film is that it reveals how some seemingly intelligent and understanding people can still be so backward thinking when it comes to issues of sexual and gender identification. Spong could have easily heckled the audience by filming the predictable diatribes of aggressive bigots but he has refreshingly chosen not to and T Is for Teacher is a better film for it.
The three trans-gendered people interviewed by Spong are compelling and extremely likeable people. They speak frankly and openly about their transitions and the way it affected their lives. Ultimately there is much joy to be taken from T Is for Teacher from the strength and courage that these people possess. There are also a lot of very pleasant surprises in a couple of the stories about the amount of support that came from some unexpected places. The most uplifting aspect of T Is for Teacher is that while the transition of some of the teachers was met with some strong opposition from adult members of the community, the students of those teachers were consistently supportive and accepting. It seems that the younger generation value their teachers for their passion, personality and skill in the classroom, and not for how they conform (or don’t conform) to one particular gender or another. There’s hope yet.