Spreading Gender Pronoun Awareness in the Classroom

Spreading Gender Pronoun Awareness in the Classroom By Annie Poole - Photo by Elena Eisenstadt

If teachers aim to foster an inclusive classroom for everyone, ignoring or assuming preferred personal pronouns makes teachers unable to attain an essential objective to the educational process.

Gender non-binary students are often overlooked in the classroom. Assuming gender pronouns based on appearances can cause students to feel disrespected, dismissed, and alienated.

“It’s so invalidating, it’s like who you are doesn’t matter. Every time someone uses the wrong name or the wrong pronoun, it’s like they are saying they don’t care how you identify,” Artemis Kim said. Kim is the former co-president of a Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) club at Mercer Island High School in Wash. state who got misgendered many times a week at school.

When students feel ostracized in this way, the educational process is disrupted and students can no longer feel comfortable participating and engaging during class.

“It really takes you out of the classroom. There’s just that moment of complete distraction and it stays with you for the rest of the day or a lot of the times longer. It just makes it really hard to learn anything,” Kim said.

This problem stems from the lack of education teachers and students receive regarding gender identity and gender pronouns. Confusion comes from misunderstandings of the differences between biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual identity.

Biological sex is assigned at birth by a medical doctor, whereas gender identity is how individuals internally view themselves as either male, female, or neither. Gender expression is how individuals want others to view them, through things such as clothing and manners. Although gender expression is often related to gender identity, it does not have to. Sexual identity is not limited based on gender identity, and refers to a person’s romantic and sexual interests, attractions to others, or the lack of attraction.

Detecting the differences between these terms may be confusing at first, but is the most important step in understanding others’ decisions regarding identity and to be respectful.

While some students in high school may have brief lessons about sexual orientations and gender, misconceptions still remain surrounding this topic. Students’ apathy for this subject needs to be fixed and they need to realize the damages it causes to their peers when they refuse to understand the people around them.

Teachers also need to set examples for their students and emphasize an inclusive tone from the beginning of the year.

“I am constantly trying to make sure that my classroom is inclusive and I have to keep changing things,” said Daniela Melgar, a high school English teacher from Mercer Island.

In the 2018-2019 school year, Melgar put out a “get-to-know-you” survey to her students, and included a space for preferred personal pronouns for the first time. This made sure that students felt comfortable telling her their pronouns in private, or had the option to not put anything if they did not feel comfortable. They were not forced to come out with how they identify in front of the whole classroom, which can be daunting.

This idea came after a breakout session run by the QSA for teachers, but is not commonly used enough in classrooms.

“Adults were all raised and educated by the dominant heteronormative narrative, so we are trained with those pronouns,” Melgar said. “We are trained to make assumptions based on what we see. We should constantly be unlearning and relearning.”

“[The norm of educational sessions run by queer students] places the responsibility of educating all the teachers on us; that should not be my job,” Kim said. Teachers need to be held accountable of understanding how their students identify, and uphold inclusive values for students to see.

“It’s really hard to constantly have to speak up for yourself and constantly say something. I think it is our responsibility as the adults to be the ones making that change,” Melgar said.

Making mistakes is inevitable, however it is better to ask first, and not assume based on appearances. Teachers also need to acknowledge when they make mistakes.

Incorrectly addressing someone with the wrong pronoun may seem like a small preference, but personal pronouns represent a larger choice. Non-binary people face many binary decisions every day. There are only male and female locker rooms and teachers often divide students based on their gender. Techniques that teachers use to make students switch up groups or partners for an assignment should no longer be gender-based, because not everyone identifies as male or female and may not want to be put in the position to choose.

Cisgendered people, or people whose gender identity matches the sex assigned at birth, need to also be allies to these students who are often marginalized. “The biggest thing they can do is be an advocate for other people,” said Hannah Sidney, the other former Mercer Island High School QSA co-president.

The social media culture of the current generation has also made teenagers these days struggle to empathize and understand the differences that makes society stronger.

“You have to find those people who are willing to empathize and then teach those people who aren’t willing,” said Sidney.

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Annie Poole is a freshman at Barnard College in New York City. She is interested in studying art history, anthropology, and gender studies. Annie served two years on the jGirls+ Editorial Board as Nonfiction Department Head and as a member of the art department. She was also the Print Editor-in-Chief of her high school newspaper, The MIHS Islander, and co-President of MIHS’s Gender Equality Club.
Accompanying photo by Elena Eisenstadt