5 tips for creating a safe space for students of all genders

5 tips for creating a safe space for students of all genders

Supporting different gender identities and pronouns in the classroom

By Gabby Cushman

School can, unfortunately, often be an uncomfortable environment for trans, nonbinary, gender-expansive, and gender non-conforming students. Not only can they be the subject of bullying from their peers, but even adult faculty members can unknowingly (or knowingly) make their experiences more difficult by misgendering them. Creating an accepting and supportive environment for all genders in your classroom is essential, as trans and nonbinary youth are at risk of developing mental health conditions at a disproportionate rate due to the discrimination they face. Your classroom could be the only safe space a student has to be able to express themselves the way they genuinely want to. If you’re unsure where to start with making your classroom more gender-inclusive, here are five tips you can try!

#1- Share your pronouns to make students feel more comfortable

A great way to start a conversation about pronouns is by sharing your own pronouns! You can do this at the beginning of the school year when introducing yourself to your class or even just write them on your whiteboard next to your name. Especially if you identify as cisgender, it’s good to model to your students that everyone can share their pronouns regardless of whether they identify with the gender they are assigned at birth. Sharing your personal pronouns could also prompt your students to ask questions about pronouns, starting a dialogue that will help educate them on the topic. Lastly, sharing your pronouns can often signal to transgender, gender-expansive, or gender non-conforming students that you are a safe person for them to come to about their identity.

#2- Have students create name tags for their desks that include pronouns

This is a fun activity to get your learners thinking about what pronouns they like to use. Put aside some time at the beginning of the school year or semester to have your class create name tags or plates to display on their desks throughout the school year, and encourage them to include their pronouns along with their names. You could list some examples of pronouns (such as he/him, she/her, they/them, xe/xir, etc.) and explain how some people use multiple sets of pronouns. Be sure to emphasize that students do not have to include their pronouns on their name tags if they don’t want to. If you have gender non-conforming or trans learners in your classroom, they may not feel comfortable “outing” themselves to their classmates or may not know what pronouns they want to use. You don’t want to pressure anyone into sharing personal information about themselves, including personal pronouns.

#3- Avoid using gendered language when addressing students

You may be used to addressing your class by saying “Ladies and gentlemen” or “boys and girls.” You may divide the class into “boys” and “girls” when creating groups for activities. You might call your students “young lady” or “young man.” This gendered language excludes students outside the gender binary who don’t identify with the terms you’re using. Try to work in gender-neutral replacements to your everyday vocabulary, even when you are outside the classroom, so you get used to using these terms instead of the gendered ones. Here are some examples of gender-neutral language you can use when speaking with your learners:

  • “Attention, class!”
  • “Hello, friends!”
  • “Do y’all have any questions?”
  • “You’ll be working with your classmates sitting next to you.”
  • “How many people have plans for the weekend?”

#4- Model correcting yourself if you misgender someone

Almost everyone has accidentally misgendered someone once in their lives. Whether we incorrectly assume someone’s gender or let the wrong pronoun slip out, we must correct ourselves when this mistake is made. Modeling this for your students will also show them the best way to respond if they misgender someone in the future. Once you’ve realized you’ve used the wrong pronoun or referred to someone as the wrong gender, promptly apologize with a simple “I’m sorry” and repeat what you were saying with the correct pronoun or gender identity. If the person you misgendered is the one that corrects you, be sure to thank them for correcting you. You don’t want to make a huge fuss over the incident- that puts pressure on the person you misgendered the relieve you of the guilt you feel about it, which isn’t fair. If you simply apologize, correct yourself, and move on, you model to your learners that it’s okay to mess up, as long as you acknowledge it and correct yourself promptly when you realize it. 

#5- Don’t assume a student’s gender based on their pronouns

Although some people choose the pronouns they’re most comfortable with based on their gender identity, not everyone’s pronouns will equate to a specific gender. For example, not all nonbinary people will use they/them pronouns. Some may use she/her or he/him, a combination of those with they/them, or a completely different set of pronouns. Some cisgender people are also comfortable with they/them pronouns. Our choice of pronouns just shows what we want to be referred to, not our entire gender identity. So, if you see a student in your class using a particular set of pronouns, don’t immediately assume they have a specific gender identity. This could lead to you misgendering your learners without realizing it and creating a potentially uncomfortable situation for your student if they want to correct you. Instead, try to refer to your students just by the pronouns they use and gender-neutral terms unless they tell you otherwise.

As always, these tips are just a starting point for learning how to best support your trans, nonbinary, gender non-conforming, and gender-expansive students. Learning about different gender identities and pronouns is an ongoing journey for many that involves doing your own research and listening to your learners when they feel comfortable sharing their experiences with gender. While some of these actions may seem minor to you, they can make a huge difference in your students’ lives.

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