How to ask students' gender pronouns in the classroom

June 1, 2022 | Joanna York

teacher in a classroom with lgbtq youth using gender pronouns

June is Pride Month, so let’s kick off by talking about gender pronouns. There is a lot of discussion around gender pronouns that can make the topic feel fraught – but it’s actually pretty simple.

Using a pronoun that matches someone’s gender identity is a way to make them feel included and respected. In schools, this is important for LGBTQ youth especially, as they are likely to experience higher rates of mental health challenges than their peers, often due to discrimination and victimization.

One 2020 study found that transgender and non-binary youth who had their pronouns respected by people in their daily lives were half as likely to take their own lives than those who didn’t.

So, the stakes are high. But there are simple steps that teachers can take to make sure they use the right gender pronouns in the classroom and create an LGBTQ-inclusive space:

  •       What are pronouns?
  •       Making the classroom a safe space using gender pronouns
  •       What to do when you make a mistake with a wrong gender pronoun
  •       Why gender pronouns are important to identity
  •       Where can I find extra resources on using gender pronouns in the classroom?

What are pronouns?

Pronouns are words used to refer to a person instead of their name. Sometimes they are also called Personal Gender Pronouns, or PGPs. Common pronouns used for people are he, him, she, her, they, and them.

Using the right gender pronouns means using pronouns that match someone’s gender identity.

Gender identity refers to a person’s inner sense of being male, female, both, or neither. This is different from sex, which tends to biologically define someone at birth as male or female according to their body parts.

For many people their gender identity corresponds with their sex: this is known as being cisgender. Cisgender males typically use he/him pronouns and females typically use she/her. Among LGBTQ youth, 75% only use these pronouns

For other people, their gender identity may not match the sex they were assigned at birth. This is the case for transgender people (who have a different gender identity from the sex they were assigned at birth) and non-binary people (who do not identify as male or female).

Non-binary people may opt to use the pronouns they/them exclusively or in combination with male and female pronouns. This is the case for 25% of LGBTQ youth.

There are also a group of neopronouns that have been created to be specifically gender-neutral. These include xe/xem, ze/eir and fae/faer.

Making the classroom a safe space to use different gender pronouns

Good teachers know that the most successful classrooms are spaces where students feel respected and included. Being thoughtful about how to use pronouns is one way of creating this kind of space.

A good way to start is by asking students which pronouns they would like you to use. You could do this either face-to-face or via a form, depending on how your students feel most comfortable sharing. This can be done in the context of “getting to know each other” along with other introductory questions.

Doing this with your classes, even at a young age, is a way to create space for students who are exploring their gender identity. It also indicates to students that gender identity is not something that can be assumed. 

When you are introducing the subject in the classroom, you could start by sharing your own pronouns, and explaining that you are doing so because gender cannot always be assumed. In fact, getting into the habit of sharing your own pronouns is a good way to normalize the practice of pronoun sharing.

Using inclusive gender language also extends beyond just pronouns. For example, instead of “boys and girls” to refer to groups, try using words like “everyone.”

You can also use students’ names, rather than pronouns, to refer to them in a respectful way. 

What to do when you make a mistake with a wrong gender pronoun

Most of us have grown up being taught to assume pronouns based on appearance, and breaking this habit takes practice. Even with the best intentions, misgendering a student or member of the school community with the wrong pronouns does happen. 

If you make a mistake with a gender pronoun, apologize, correct yourself, and move on. And there’s no need to over-apologize - a simple “sorry” is enough.

If you don’t catch your own mistake, but a student corrects you, the same best practice applies: Say “thank you,” apologize, correct yourself, and move on.

It may also happen that you overhear someone else misgender one of your students. If this happens, check in with the student to see if they would like you to intervene.

Why gender pronouns are important to identity

Misgendering someone means addressing them using a pronoun that does not reflect their gender. This can often be done accidentally, but it can also be done intentionally as a way to cause hurt.

Referring to someone correctly is a basic way to show that you respect them as a person. This is why so many teachers are great at learning names fast – they know that getting students’ names correct in the classroom is a quick way to start building positive, respectful relationships.

Using a wrong name or nickname for someone against their will normally feel disrespectful or even harassing to that person, and the same can be true with using the wrong gender pronouns.

Actively choosing to ignore a student’s gender pronouns can be especially damaging to that individual, and signal to other students that your classroom is not a space that welcomes and includes all students.

Where can I find extra resources on using gender pronouns in the classroom? 

The Trevor Project is a great source of expertise and advice on the needs of LGBTQ youth. They even offer training programs for educators to better equip them to understand and care for LGBTQ students.

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) work to provide safe and supportive LGBTQ K-12 education. As well as local chapters throughout the US, their website is full of practical ideas for creating inclusive schools and classrooms.

Welcoming Schools’ website is a one-stop shop for educators looking for gender-inclusive training, lesson plans, booklists, and resources.

Pride Month: Time to start the conversation 

If you haven’t opened the conversation about gender pronouns in your classroom or your school, why not use Pride Month as an excuse to get started?

It’s never too soon to start creating a more inclusive space for your students. Paying more attention to gender pronouns is a great way to make sure all your students feel welcome, supported, and ready to make the most of their time in the classroom.

 

Find more teacher resources on our Klassroom blog.

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