One of the simplest lessons I’ll be taking into the new school year came from a small interaction with a student last spring.
I was covering several days of classes for a colleague of mine when this gregarious and clearly outgoing ninth grade student bounded up to me, said their name, then shared “and I prefer the pronoun they.”
I immediately thanked them, saying how appreciative I was that they told me, because I didn’t want to inadvertently be disrespectful. Then, mere moments later as I was calling for the attention of my students…
“Ladies and gentlemen, can I get your faces toward the front please?”
I paused. For all the students knew, I was just waiting for the class to settle. In my head, though, I felt the impact of an important, albeit small, new lesson learned.
Given our political and social climate in this country, matters of gender identity are certainly a hot-button topic. It is easy to fall into an argument about whether alternative pronouns are “okay” or whether gender is a binary or a spectrum. People hold strong opinions on all sides. When I shared this story with a colleague, her reaction was at first “that’s stupid, were ‘they’ a boy or a girl?”
Unfortunately the conversation swiftly devolved, as often happens, down a slippery slope of ridiculousness: “So if a student says they prefer to be called ‘Your Highness’ you’ll just go along with it?”
No, for a simple reason. If a student asks to be called “Your Highness,” they are likely being punchy. It is a bid for some sort of attention. I will not be referring to any student by “Your Highness” unless it is their legal name (which does happen). If a student asks to be referred to with a different pronoun, what sort of asinine power play am I engaging in if I, a grown adult, refuse to comply?
I cannot pretend to imagine what it is like for any person, young or old, to have a pervasive feeling that the identity in their minds somehow is a mismatch with the identity the world expects based on their external, superficial appearances. As we head back to school in the next few weeks, these little but not-so-little things about my teaching are what I am focusing on. I’m at that stage where the lesson planning and delivery could happen on autopilot and kids would still be getting a good enough product. I’m also at that stage where passable practice is no longer permissible… especially if I know better.
We all know that in order for enduring learning to happen, certain needs must be met, not the least of which the need for physical, emotional and intellectual safety. If I turned to that child and said “No, you’re going to have to choose ‘he’ or ‘she,'” what good would it do? What would I actually accomplish other than some purposeless assertion of control? Even if I did for some reason “disagree” with concepts of gender beyond the binary and passive aggressively insist on still referring to them by ‘he’ or ‘she,’ why?
For that gregarious student who introduced themself to me, perhaps me saying “Ladies and gentlemen…” to get the class’s attention wasn’t even a blip on their radar. Or maybe it was. Maybe it was one more little way that they were reminded of being excluded, pushed out, not invited to the conversation we as a class were about to have.
Will anyone notice that instead of “Ladies and gentlemen, please turn your attention the front” I now say things like “Room 101, thank you for giving me your attention”? Probably not. It is a simple shift that requires next to nothing from me. By week three I’ll have a new habit, and the old “Ladies and gentlemen” will be gone.
Some could call this political correctness run amok. I say nope. It is as simple as this: If it is in my control to do such small things to prevent even one student from feeling excluded, why wouldn’t I?