A trans teacher asked students about pronouns. Then the education commissioner found out.

Kamren Munz was open about their identity throughout their time teaching at Elm Street Middle School in Nashua. They helped to start a Pride club, volunteered with a local LGBTQ student advocacy group and displayed rainbow flags in class.

Kamren Munz was open about their identity throughout their time teaching at Elm Street Middle School in Nashua. They helped to start a Pride club, volunteered with a local LGBTQ student advocacy group and displayed rainbow flags in class. Sarah Gibson—NHPR


New Hampshire Public Radio

Published: 04-22-2024 10:13 AM

Modified: 04-22-2024 10:22 AM

Kamren Munz knew they wanted to be a teacher from a young age. They grew up in a family of educators. They worked as a substitute for a few years and eventually settled in as a middle school art teacher in Nashua, one of the largest and most diverse cities in the state. And Munz dove in: They coached the softball team, started a photography club and won an award for the district’s art teacher of the year in 2017.

But what Munz imagined would be a long career in public schools ended a few years ago, when they got caught up in the national battle over how gender, race and politics are discussed in classrooms. First, a few parents complained about Munz’s classroom materials. Then, the most powerful education official in the state, Commissioner Frank Edelblut, seized upon the controversy as a symbol of public schools gone awry — part of a larger battle his department has been waging for years.

This mounting scrutiny from parents and public officials, on top of other problems at the school after the pandemic, became too much for Munz to handle. So they decided to leave the profession they loved. Munz says they’re speaking out now to prevent other teachers from going through something similar.

“It’s not that I was unwilling to teach,” they said. “It was becoming unwell for me to do that. So I really had to think about: what do I need to do to protect my physical being and my mental being?”

A classroom survey sparks controversy

It started with a complaint from a parent.

In September 2021, one of Erin Prowker’s daughters told her about a questionnaire Munz had handed out on the first day of class. It asked what students liked to learn about and how they described themselves. It also asked students for their pronouns — he, she, they, etc.

Prowker said her daughter was “thrown off” by the pronoun questions — and so was she.

“To be honest, I don't think that gender and pronouns should even be a part of the school situation at all,” said Prowker, who also grew up in Nashua public schools. “I think they're there to learn and that's it.”

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Asking about pronouns had become a routine in a number of classrooms around the country, as part of an effort to make schools more inclusive of students who identify as transgender or nonbinary. For Munz, acknowledging pronouns was as basic as asking for a student’s name — and a fundamental part of Munz’s own existence. They came out as transgender and nonbinary in 2018, and they were open about their identity at school. Most of the feedback was positive. Some students, Munz says, just shrugged.

“They were like, ‘Cool. You do you. Can you help me with my drawing?’” They recalled, laughing.

But Prowker said it wasn’t just talking about pronouns that bothered her. She was alarmed by a follow-up question that asked whether it was OK to share students’ pronouns with their family.

“Like, are you trying to tell our children to lie to us and to not tell us and keep things from us?” Prowker told NHPR. “It feels like you just think that you guys are more trustworthy than we as parents are, and that gives a really bad taste in my mouth.”

Around the same time, conservative politicians, media and activists across the country were championing a similar concern: that schools were keeping secrets from parents. Over the last few years, and again this session Republican State House leaders in New Hampshire have pushed legislation to require schools to share a student’s gender identity and pronouns with their family, with or without that student’s consent, and to notify parents about any material related to gender identity. The New Hampshire Supreme Court is also deliberating in a closely watched case over whether a school district should have told a parent when her child started using different pronouns at school.

Nashua wasn’t alone in navigating disagreements about what student activities should require parental notification. The Legislature has also waded into this issue. A state law, passed in 2017, prohibits students from being required to fill out a “non-academic survey” without parental consent. At the time, supporters sought to rein in questions from teachers and outside researchers about students’ behavior, race, sexuality and mental health. The education department has since said those rules could also apply to get-to-know-you forms.

Matthew Poska, the principal of Munz’s school, told NHPR the situation was a “perfect storm.” He says a handful of parents raised concerns about the form, but more parents expressed support about the district’s efforts to build rapport with students and be more LGBTQ-friendly. After Prowker first contacted the district, Poska sent out a memo to teachers with a suggested script for discussing pronouns with students, and clear instructions: “Do not require students to fill out a survey regarding their preferences.”

But Munz continued using the questionnaire. Since it wasn’t required, they figured it was in-bounds. And, it aligned with the other messages the district was sending about being inclusive.

“If your students don't feel comfortable in class, they're not going to learn, right?” Munz said.

The form also had more practical benefits, Munz said, that weren’t related to gender. In any given year, they taught around 450 students. Some went by a nickname, rather than the name in school records. Other students rarely came to class, so if Munz knew about their hobbies, Munz tried to incorporate these into a lesson to make school feel more meaningful.

“There’s no ulterior motive other than to be a good teacher and know who's sitting in front of you,” Munz said.

When Prowker’s other daughter got Munz’s questionnaire later that year, she contacted administrators again. According to a chain of emails obtained by NHPR through a public records request, she demanded a meeting with the teacher and district leaders in April 2022.

Administrators asked Munz to discuss the issue with Prowker.

Munz objected, saying Prowker’s message felt hostile. In an email to supervisors, they also noted that “LGBTQ students are disproportionately discriminated against and harassed at home and school,” and “it is everyone’s duty to our students to make our classrooms as welcoming as possible to ALL.”

The meeting that Prowker requested never happened. As the dispute dragged on, Prowker felt ignored. Munz felt unsupported.

Commissioner’s op-ed amplifies concerns

Later that month, Munz was scrolling on Facebook and stumbled upon an opinion piece by Edelblut. It detailed how teachers were, in his view, undermining family values.

“Parents of students taking an art class should have a reasonable expectation that they will be learning about, well, art,” the piece read. “They should not be concerned, as occurred in another New Hampshire classroom, that the introduction to art will begin with a lesson in pronouns and links to Black Lives Matters for kids and LGBTQ+ for kids.”

The commissioner linked to a 68-page document that he had compiled. It included examples of material that “parents have identified as conflicting with their values.” Names of specific educators were redacted, but Munz immediately recognized several pages from a slideshow they used to introduce themselves to students and families, which included a photo of them. Their face was blacked out, but Munz said it would be easy for anyone associated with the school to recognize them.

“You knew it was a trans art educator with a sleeve tattoo of art supplies in New Hampshire,” they said. “I'm not sure how many of us there were at the time, or are now, but I'm pretty sure not many.”

The slides that Edelblut selected for his op-ed included an explanation of Munz’ pronouns. Another slide said “This teacher believes Black Lives Matter…” and “I support my LGBT students.” The remainder of the 28-page slideshow, which Edelblut didn’t include, focused on how students could succeed in class. It showed former students’ artwork and included a translation for Spanish-speaking families.

In his seven years as commissioner, Edelblut has often used his office to amplify conservative concerns about public schools: investigating allegations from citizens about books, posters and class assignments. And because the Department of Education oversees teacher licensing, Edelblut’s stance on these issues has put teachers on alert, worried their classroom material could end up on his radar.

Edelblut’s April 2022 op-ed, which appeared in the state’s largest newspaper and on the state education department's website, also said that discussing the existence of more than two genders with young children “might conflict with — or worse, undermine — the value system of many of the families.”

Munz was offended by Edelblut’s narrow definition of “values.”

“My question is then, whose family values are you speaking of, right? Because they’re not my family values. I have students in my classes who are trans, have trans family members, have queer parents, older siblings,” Munz said. “So I think the main point is: Public education is public, and that includes everyone.”

Edelblut declined to be interviewed for this story. But in an interview in 2022, he defended the op-ed to NHPR, saying his goal was to offer a window into what was happening in schools.

“I'm just being transparent with actual artifacts from New Hampshire schools,” Edelblut said. “And I think that some of those artifacts run the risk of undermining the effectiveness of all of our educators.”

Emails obtained through a public records request show Prowker’s complaint to Nashua administrators made it to the Department of Education, although it’s not clear who forwarded the complaint; she says it wasn’t her. Another set of parents, who did not respond to NHPR’s requests to talk, flagged Munz’ slideshow directly to Edelblut.

The New Hampshire Department of Education misconduct investigator looked into the complaints against Munz. He never opened a formal investigation. But in the last few years, NEA-New Hampshire, the state’s largest teachers union, says the Department of Education has launched formal misconduct investigations into teachers over similar “non-academic surveys.”

The department did not respond to questions about these investigations, nor any other written questions from NHPR. A spokesperson instead provided a brief statement.

“Like all state agencies, the New Hampshire Department of Education often receives concerns from constituents,” the spokesperson wrote. “The Department, including Commissioner Frank Edelblut, takes all constituent concerns seriously and works to respond to their inquiries. We are committed to ensuring the safety of children and work diligently with our partners to address any and all concerns swiftly and with fairness to all involved.”

The final straw

Back when Munz taught at Elm Street Middle School, in Nashua, they hung rainbow flags in their classroom, adorned the walls with posters about art and painted murals on the hallway walls. These days, Munz’s office is still filled with colorful decorations and mugs inviting people to ask about their pronouns. But they’re no longer a teacher.

A few months after the commissioner’s op-ed was published, Munz left the profession they loved.

Today, they work in residential life at a local college. They say they’re far happier, but they worry about the LGBTQ students in their old school who have one less adult to stand up for them.

In their resignation letter to their Nashua colleagues, they described mounting concerns about student behavior in the wake of the pandemic and heightened scrutiny on their gender identity from parents and politicians. And they were frustrated with their administration.

Munz said being a teacher was becoming harder for all sorts of reasons, but looking back, Edelblut’s op-ed was the final straw. They no longer felt safe, or supported, teaching in New Hampshire.

This story was produced with APM Reports as part of the Public Media Accountability Initiative, which supports investigative reporting at local media outlets around the country.