Respecting pronouns in the classroom

May 10, 2018

Kids understand themselves better, and at a much younger age, than adults assume. This includes their gender identity. Gender identity refers to one’s inner sense of being male, female, both, or neither.


As educators, we can take small steps to make sure all students feel welcome and affirmed in our schools regardless of their gender identity. Being thoughtful about how we use pronouns is a meaningful way to support children whose gender might be different from what appears on their birth certificate.

Asking students of all ages what name and pronouns they would like you to use is a great first step. Educators in PreK–12 schools may think their students are too young for a conversation about pronouns, especially if they don’t think there are any transgender or gender nonconforming students in their classrooms. But by asking students their pronouns starting at a young age, educators can make room for students who may be exploring their gender identity and show everyone that gender identity should not be assumed.

Many students don't feel comfortable, or safe, expressing their true gender identity. By clearly telling everyone in the room that you respect people of all gender identities, you are telling all your students, "It's OK to be you."

Erin Cross, the Director of Penn’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center and a Penn GSE lecturer, and Amy Hillier, a professor at Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice, offer some ideas to get you thinking:

Be inclusive and personal: Avoiding gendered language is one of the easiest ways to avoid misgendering students. Instead of saying “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen,” try “folks” or “everyone.” Instead of “guys,” try “y’all.” Don’t address a student as “Mr.” or “Ms.” Just say their name.  

"They/them/their" works: Growing up, many of us were taught that if you were identifying a single person by a pronoun, you had to use "he" or "she." "They" was only for groups of people. Those rules have changed, and "they" or "them" is now a nonbinary way to address anyone. The New York Times agrees. So does Merriam-Webster, which reports that "they" has been used as a singular pronoun since at least the 1300s

Be prepared to make a mistake—and to apologize: Despite our best efforts, we sometimes misgender people. As a culture we are in the habit of assuming pronouns based on appearance. This habit can be hard to break. When you misgender someone, correct yourself, apologize, and move on. You don’t need to justify yourself or overly apologize. It’s OK. But it’s important to challenge yourself to get it right the next time. 

If you hear other students or faculty using the wrong pronouns for a student, check in with the student to see if and how they would like you to address it. They might not want to be the object of someone else’s political education. But if it becomes an ongoing problem, don’t ignore it.

Be a model for your students: In a college classroom or professional setting, we might go around and ask everyone their pronouns. But asking younger students to identify their gender might cause transgender students to feel like they are being singled out.  

Before you ask students to share, explain that you want to make sure you are referring to everyone by their correct name and pronoun, which you can't assume based on appearance. Model this approach by sharing your name and pronoun. Be sure to reinforce that it is okay if folks choose not to share.

Use a form to give students more privacy: Another approach is to ask every student to fill out a form that will help you get to know them better. Questions like "What is my name?" "What do I like to be called?" and "What are my pronouns?" can fit beside questions like "Do I have a nut allergy?"

Keep talking: Stress that this conversation will continue throughout the school year, and that pronouns can change.

Start off the year by making all students feel welcome: Many transgender students will use the summer break as a time to transition their gender identity, so the beginning of the school year is a natural time for a teacher to ask students how they would like to be referred to. This simple question can create a welcoming space for all students.

Seek more resources: When it comes to issues like gender, no one has all the answers. Thankfully, GLSEN has created resources for how educators can support LGBTQ students. Their webinar on supporting transgender and gender nonconforming students is a great place to start.


Erin Cross is the Director of Penn’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center and a Penn GSE lecturer. Amy Hillier is a professor at Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice.


You May Be Interested In

Related Topics