Inclusive Classroom Practices: Pronouns

Shawn BushDiversity Initiatives

By Shawn Bush (he/him/his)

Lately, you may have experienced more conversations, meetings, and Zoom call introductions including the announcing of one’s pronouns. When working with young people, it is important to create a learning environment in which students feel safe in exploring and expressing their identities. But how does accurately using students’ pronouns help to establish an inclusive classroom community? 

Image Courtesy GLSEN
Implicit Bias

There is a crucial distinction between what you know about someone’s identity based on what they have shared, and what you assume about a person’s identity based on your perceptions of their appearance. For example, when someone shares their name, pronouns, past lived experiences, or other information pertaining to their identity, they are directly communicating to you who they are and how to address them. The person has agency over their own identity and labels. When you assume labels or identifiers without input or consent, you are positing your own perspective onto assess how that person identifies.

You cannot know a person’s identity just by observation. When you make assumptions about someone’s identity based on perception instead of listening to how they identify, you are likely influenced by implicit bias. The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity defines implicit bias as “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” They write, “These biases are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intention.” Even if you do not intend to use your own preconceived ideas to form biases about people, you can still be influenced by those notions and act in a way that reflects these biases.

Therefore, we should not make assumptions about identity based on external factors such as clothing, mannerisms, or appearance. It is important to note that these harmful assumptions and mischaracterizations are not limited to pronouns or gender identity. Assumptions of people’s race, ethnicity, age, sexuality, income, ability, or any other categorization stem from a false conception that we have the ability to know folks and how to respect them better than they know for themselves. This creates a power dynamic between teacher and student in which the student may not feel safe being a part of the classroom community. It is important to listen to students and be understanding when they share how they identify with you.

Setting the Tone and Modeling Inclusive Practices

So, how do we open up these channels of communication? And, how do we ensure that we are continuously respecting each other’s identities in the classroom? One way is to invite students to share their preferred pronouns for themselves if they are comfortable, and to use gender neutral language until you get specification. It also helps to offer your personal pronouns first. This opens up the space for others to identify as they would like. Prioritize making learning environments conducive to authentic conversations about inclusivity by setting the tone and modeling inclusive practices yourself.

Pointers from Mx. Schwarz

Another important tip for educators is to provide rationale for why you are asking students for their pronouns. Students will have varying experiences with how much they have thought about their own pronouns. In order for them to all be respectful of each other, it helps to understand more fully why you are asking. Ace Schwarz, a non-binary teacher in Pennsylvania, offers this explanation to their students:

My name is Mx. Schwarz, and my pronouns are they/them/theirs. This means that you would replace my name with the pronoun “they”. For example, instead of saying “Mx. Schwarz is a science teacher,” you’d say “They are a science teacher.” We can’t know someone’s pronouns based on their name or appearance, so it’s important to ask. In this class, we respect everyone, and that includes not making assumptions about each other. I want to honor your pronouns and not make assumptions about which ones you use based on your name and appearance, which is why I’m asking for them.

Tips for Explaining and Introducing Pronouns

Schwarz’ introduction is excellent for many reasons. They share their own information to open the space for others and they give rationale for why we share pronouns. Often there are misconceptions that asking for pronouns is asking for gender identity, but that is not the case. Schwarz writes “Students (and parents) tend to assume that when we ask for pronouns we’re asking about gender identity, and we’re not. Pronouns are not synonymous with gender. What we’re really doing is respecting people and how they want to be referred to. Notice in the above example, the word ‘gender’ appears zero times because that’s not what this is about. When students understand that I don’t want to make assumptions about them, it tends to make more sense.”

Making Your Classroom a Safe, Inclusive Space

To read more from Mx. Schwarz, their blog Teaching Outside the Binary is an excellent resource for teachers or anyone working with young people. Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) also has this helpful Pronouns Guide. It is useful if you are new to learning about pronouns, or if you are curious what to do when you make a mistake (thank the person for correcting you!). You also may want to check out Gender Wheel, which provides teacher tips, book recommendations for conversations about pronouns, as well as interactive tools and games. By seeking out more information and refusing to assume students’ identities, we can help foster a safer, more inclusive space for students to explore themselves and their learning.