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Karen Field with her pupils in her classroom
Karen Field


Karen transitioned to a female gender expression 28 years ago, at the start of her teaching career.

Karen recounts her experiences as a chemistry teacher in west London in her own words. 

Early inspiration

Karen Field in front of her schoolI originally wanted to be a vet but I was not very good at chemistry back then – I was made to do CSE chemistry (below GCSE level) but achieved a grade 1 pass. It was very practically orientated: I had to complete twenty experiments plus exams in order to pass. I studied biology and started chemistry for A-level but failed in the first term to understand the gas laws and was subsequently asked to give it up.

I then picked chemistry up again at teacher training college and went on to an Open University degree that encompassed all three science disciplines.

Teaching

My current role is as a science team leader in a multicultural school in West London, where we have a diverse number of science teachers and students. I am in charge of the entire science faculty in the school which means I run seven labs, three prep rooms, and eleven members of staff, in addition to teaching all three scientific disciplines to GCSE level and ensuring that the A-levels are taught properly.

Karen Field teaching practical chemistry to a pupil

Whilst I enjoy and manage the team well, I still love teaching the curriculum and creating new projects for the students to study. For example, I wrote a ‘cosmetics’ module based on a series of old experiments and brought them up to date by creating two teams of ‘cosmetic companies’ within a year nine class. They had to prepare a range of cosmetics, risk assess how to make it, prepare sheets for ‘workers’ to follow safely, market it and prepare a sales pitch in the style of The Apprentice. I was teaching them A-level practical skills three years before they would usually learn them; this has transformed the uptake of students wanting to do chemistry at A-level from four or five to nearly twenty students.

If you are going to become a chemistry teacher, do the risk assessment, watch your eyebrows and fringe and make the demo as big as possible for maximum effect. Practice, enjoy and inspire!

Diversity and gender

Karen Field in her classroom with her studentsFor the first six years of my teaching career I tried to pass off as male. When this became personally impossible, I left my permanent post to become a supply teacher as a female. Transitioning like this was a rarity in the mid-1980s. The borough I worked for put me in a school less than a mile away from my previous post and I was teaching siblings of the students I had taught previously. This led to a few confrontations, but I was well supported by the head teacher and her staff at the time. Nevertheless, the (then) Department for Education and Science put me through two years of psychiatric evaluations in an attempt to prove me medically unfit to teach.

I moved to west London to take on a role in a Church of England girls’ school. I proved that I could deliver exciting and interesting lessons in a style unseen before with very hands-on and up-to-date topics. My expertise in the subject and my ‘leave no one behind’ approach became more important to the students and authorities than my gender. I also blurred the gender issue by hiding behind a gothic exterior, and my clothing choice and hair colour became far more interesting to the people around me.

I then moved to my current school, where I have risen to my present position some 27 years later. I am also a teacher governor here. I don’t hide anymore: I have a deep voice, I wear goth clothing, I have a corseted floor-length white lab coat, and I am respected for what I teach and how I teach it. I have hundreds of previous students who have passed through my hands that consider me to have been a positive influence upon them. This is all I could ever wish for.

Yes there will always be the neanderthals that ridicule a person for their differences; they will never change but we should rise above that and lead by example.

There are still some ‘old school’ traditionalists out there that think I should just focus on the washing up, but by and large I do feel that the ‘trans’ issue should not get in the way of work. I have found that I do not need to hide my past or present gender anymore – society has moved on (in the UK at least) and is more tolerant in that respect. It would have been great to have been born in the body that I should have had from the outset, but I am what I am. I make no apologies for me being me.

Edited by Stephen McCarthy
Images © Anne Purkiss / Royal Society of Chemistry
Published August 2014

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