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How to Make Your Classroom More Gender-Neutral

By AJ Dalmaso

Nowadays, the topic of gender is widely discussed. When we talk about gender-neutral environments, we idealize a place where students are able to be who they really are and where they feel welcome and embraced, regardless of their backgrounds and personal stories. However, are we teachers really moving towards a more inclusive, welcoming and gender-neutral environment for our students?

To answer this question in a positive way, I have created a practical list of topics I like to consider when teaching my students. I have also come up with some tips on how to build a more welcoming and comfortable environment, where our students can feel at ease, confident, autonomous and, as a result, become risk takers and learn more.

Supportive Environment

The first things we need to ask are: What is a welcoming and supportive environment? How do we provide our students with one?

The definition of welcoming and supportive environment I usually think of is a place where people can be who they are without feeling afraid or nervous and where they are seen and treated as they really are, without having to fake anything.

Providing our students with that might not be as easy as it seems, but this is where empathy comes in. When faced with different situations, we need to ask ourselves. “What would I do if I were in their shoes? How would I feel? How would I cope? How would I want others to treat me?

Let’s take my own experience into consideration when I first came out of the closet.

I’m a non-binary person. Which means I’m neither a woman nor a man. I don’t follow the established rules of “male” and “female” in our society, which means, I don’t follow the “binary”. For years, I have felt left out by the language used in our society. I still do, actually. Society, as a whole, shows me, and people like me, that we don’t belong, we don’t or shouldn’t exist and we’re hardly ever taken into consideration. And I know there are many people like me out there and I don’t want them to feel like I did (or do, sometimes). Language needs to embrace everybody.

So, one day, I thought to myself: What can I do to change this scenario?

Dos and Don’ts in the classroom

Taking all the above into consideration, I have decided to make a list of things I really think teachers can consider before teaching a class, so as to create a more welcoming environment, not only for our students but also for teachers who might have similar backgrounds and stories. This list contains tips I’ve been trying to implement in my classroom environment, tips which I’d also like my fellow teachers to pay attention to.

1. Give an opportunity for students to tell you who they are.

Students are the ones to tell us anything and everything we should know about them. We need to provide them with the opportunity to show us what their names are and how they would like to be called. Name rolls, identification cards, IDs and birth certificates should be left aside at this moment. Not everybody identifies with their birth names and they have the right to feel comfortable and show us the best name we should use so they feel welcome.

2. Call them the way they choose without questioning

Once your students tell you the way they prefer to be referred to, we teachers should respect it. It may not only be a gender-related issue. Some people simply do not like their names and they pick a different one.

When I introduce myself as AJ, the question I am most frequently asked is: What does AJ stand for? I answer, AJ. Some people might keep going: “But really, were you born AJ? Doesn’t it stand for Ana something?”

It might sound like a simple and harmless conversation, but it can be rather gutting and frustrating. We do not want to lose our students’ trust and neither do we want to make them feel weird. Names carry meaning and we cannot keep track of all our students’ backgrounds. So, basically, when someone tells you their first name, take it, use it and that is it.

3. Make no assumptions

We human beings, are full of fixed opinions and conceptions, which we gather throughout our lives. This means that we have our own ideas of what being a girl or a boy means, to whom a girl might be attracted, with whom a boy might have a relationship.

However, we really need to leave these conceptions inside our heads. They might work for some people, but surely not for all of them. This is why we should by no means make assumptions, either about gender, which is called misgendering, or about sexual orientation, which is called sexual-profiling. Both of them may cause discomfort, frustration, and awkwardness to students, and also to the teacher.

4. Leave stereotypes aside

Just like any man or woman, we, non-binary people, do not follow stereotypes and we are everywhere. We may have long or short hair. We may love wearing dresses or suits. We might love both at the same time. It is impossible to tell, from the outside, whether someone is non-binary or not. That is why we need to remember that people are people and they might not follow rules when it comes to how they dress.

Always remember, gender is not as important as we may think it is. We are people. We are humans and we have so many other features to be taken into consideration rather than our gender, such as our likes, dislikes, types of intelligence, our opinion, our background, etc. Gender can be left aside.

5. Use inclusive language

People around me often argue they have no clue what inclusive language means and how they can apply it to the classroom. I can assure you it is simpler than we may think.

The most common situation I can think of is when we walk into our classrooms and greet our students. How do we do that? When I asked this question to my fellow teachers, most of them said they use “hello, guys”. You may ask what all the fuss is about.

Well, guys is a rather sexist term and may not address all the students in our group, as it is recognized by its male background. Some teachers claim to use “ladies and gentleman” or “boys and girls”, to be more inclusive. Well, it may be a little more, but what about identities like mine, which do not follow the established ideas of male and female? Where do they feature?

In order to address all students in a class, regardless of knowing or not who they are and how they see themselves, we have some examples of words that could be used to include everyone in our speech:

  • Everyone/everybody
  • All/you all
  • Folks
  • Kids
  • Friends
  • Students
  • People, etc.

Words which emphasize and stress gender should be avoided. For example, when we split our students into groups. Groups of boys and girls should be avoided, as we have so many other ways to split them. To name a few:

  • Colours
  • Numbers
  • Shapes
  • Pieces of Paper
  • Interests, etc.

Apart from that, there are words we use on a daily basis which are rather gender-biased and which we may not think critically about or even notice how excluding they can be.

Please find below a list of gender-biased words and how to substitute them.

Avoid Use instead
women, men humans, people
mankind humankind, humanity
policeman police officer
fireman firefighter
mailman mail carrier
freshman first-year student
salesman salesperson, sales rep
waiter, waitress server
brothers and sisters siblings

We also tend to be quite biased and prejudiced when it comes to asking questions. Some questions might look and sound very inoffensive, but might hurt and make people uncomfortable. For instance, instead of asking “do you have a boyfriend?” to a possible “girl”, or “do you have a girlfriend?” to a possible “boy”, and running the risk of making a huge mistake and sexual-profiling someone, why don’t we simply ask “are you single?” or “are you married?” We could also ask “are you in a relationship?” or “do you have a partner?” A simple question might ruin the positive relationship we teachers have taken months to build.

6. If you do not know, ask

Besides that, when it comes to inclusive language, we often think about pronouns. Everyone has their preferred pronouns and the English language is really embracing in terms of the variety of pronouns. So, when dealing with people, whenever we are not sure about their pronouns, we should ask them.

Some may argue that asking might be nosy and inappropriate, but it is not. Asking shows we care and our students matter. Asking should become a habit. We are not capable of knowing and understanding all the situations we may come across, but we need to be aware of how to include everyone in our speech, and asking is the only way to get to know and understand things we are not familiar with.

7. The pronoun “they”

The English language provides us with a myriad of different pronouns other than the common and dichotomous “she” and “he”, which may be used in various situations, but I have chosen a specific and special one to talk about. This pronoun is “they”, and although it is widely known for its plural use, it can be used in singular, as well.

People who do not identify as male or female (exclusively) often may use this pronoun to be referred to. Hence it is a good idea to use it when we are not sure about one’s gender. This way, instead of saying, “A teacher needs to correct his or her students’ essays regularly”, why not be more inclusive, and say: “A teacher needs to correct their students’ essays regularly”? Another common use is “A teacher can work at regular or private English schools and they need to respect the school’s rules.”

Some have been outraged by this issue, claiming that “they” can only be used in plural situations, and so, using it as a singular pronoun is grammatically incorrect. No, it is not. The same resistance happened in the past,when the plural pronoun “you” started to be used as a singular pronoun. Today: “you” is accepted in both forms. So, let’s reinforce the usage of singular “they”, as it has already been used for a long time; it doesn’t specify gender and it includes so many more people in our speech.

Where do we go from here?

I believe we now have a good selection of simple, yet effective practices to include everyone in our class and make them visible and represented in our speech.

There’s definitely more to this than meets the eye. However, a good idea is to pay attention to the way we interact with our students. Paying attention to our words and actions towards them is a good beginning.

Therefore, let us summarize the steps we can take from now on and make them more practical.

  1. Our students are the focus. They are the ones to tell us who they are and how they feel comfortable.
  2. Gender is not as important as we may think. There are so many characteristics we can take into account when dealing with people.
  3. If you do not know about something, just ask. Asking shows you care and makes everybody feel included.

Last, but not least, listen! Our students (and people in general) have a lot to tell us. We just need to be willing to listen. We do not need to understand. We just need to respect and accept!

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