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Making Room for Transgender and Non-Binary Students in the Classroom

By Shelby Denhof, High School ELA Teacher in Michigan

Statistically, you’ve likely had transgender students in your classroom before. Certainly, there are transgender students in your building, just like there are other members of the LGBTQ+ community. If we as teachers are truly aiming to support all students, we need to educate ourselves on best practices that serve transgender and gender-expansive students.

Let’s start with some data and definitions:

Transgender is an adjective. It’s an umbrella term for someone whose gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth or by society. According to recent data published by the CDC, 2 percent of high school students identify as transgender.

Transgender youth are the demographic most at risk: transgender students are nearly three times as likely to attempt suicide than their homosexual peers. Additionally, transgender students have higher reports of sexual assault, drug abuse, and bullying.

Research has proven that teacher allies of LGBTQ+ youth matters: A recent 2019 study indicates that having just one supportive adult in the life of an LGBTQ+ youth will decrease the likelihood of them attempting suicide by 40 percent.

Additionally, nonbinary is an adjective that describes someone who doesn’t fit neatly into the categories of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ or ‘male’ or ‘female.’

You don’t need to fully understand what it means to be nonbinary (or transgender, or anything really) to still respect these students.

Gender Inclusivity in Your Classroom

The first step for fostering a more gender-inclusive environment is to assume there are LGBTQ+ people in any and every group. Statistically, there are.

Next, consider what you say in front of your students.

You cannot know someone’s gender or sexuality by looks, so pay attention to the gendered language you use and universalize inclusive language.

This can be as simple as noticing how often you say, perhaps, “guys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen,” and replacing this gendered language with something else. In my classroom, as an example, I’ve adopted the habit of greeting my students with “Welcome, everyone.” Using more inclusive language matters.

One of the biggest steps towards gender inclusivity is using the pronouns and the name each person wants to be called. If you’re not sure, ask (and ask in private). If you’re having trouble, practice when you’re by yourself (say, while you’re driving to work). If you keep tripping up on the wrong pronouns, here’s a tip: just say the student’s name any time you might use a pronoun: “Saige was absent last week, so Saige is staying after school today to make up the unit test.”

Up until recently, I asked my students to share their names and pronouns on the first day of class. I thought I was being really progressive and I was proud of myself until a nonbinary adult pointed out to me that mandating the disclosure of pronouns might out students in front of people they don’t feel safe around. After all, according to recent data for the CDC, 27 percent of teens feel unsafe at school and 35 percent report being bullied at school.

Recognizing now that disclosing pronouns publicly — while well-intended — may have inadvertently been harmful, I created this “Get to Know You” sheet to pass out to all my students on the first day of class. This provides me information about how to speak of this student in front of other adults, too, say at parent-teacher conferences or via email.

Want a copy of my first-day form? You can find it here.

Adopting this first-day practice will help you avoid misgendering your students. Misgendering is a demoralizing occurrence for transgender and non-binary students. Misgendering is calling someone by a pronoun, name, or other language that puts a gender on them they don’t identify with. Transgender and nonbinary people of all ages encounter misgendering at home, at work, at school, as patients, and randomly in public.

If you misgender one of your students, you can easily recover. You can simply say, “Oops, I’m sorry. I meant ______,” and repeat what you meant to say again. Following this simple script shows that — even though you messed up — you’re putting in the work to understand and that you care. This goes a long way! Be mindful of doing this, too, even when the student isn’t present.

Lastly, think big picture and consider harmful school practices.

According to the most recent GLSEN National School Climate Survey report, 42.1 percent of transgender or gender-nonconforming students were prevented from using their name or pronouns. In the U.S., there are no laws that require teachers to call their students by their legal names. Knowing this, question your school’s nondiscrimination policies: do they include sexual orientation and gender identity?

The reality is that these changes in our practices are minimal. Our students are asking us to be mindful of our gendered language when addressing groups or individuals and to validate them by using the right names and pronouns. That’s not all we can do, of course, but these first steps go a long way in the eyes of our transgender and gender-expansive students and set a precedent for their peers on how to be part of an inclusive community. Let’s lead our students with open hearts and open minds and create a space where all people are welcome.

Shelby Denhof is a writer and teacher living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Embedded in her teaching is her passion for travel, storytelling, and service. Her reflections on teaching can be found on websites such as Cult of Pedagogy, McGraw Hill, Edutopia, and Refinery29. Shelby is a National Writing Project fellow, a National Geographic Certified Educator, and a two-time participant in National Endowment for the Humanities institutes at both Stanford University and the University of Utah.

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To be reminded why your work is so very important and for more stories and advice, visit our collection of teacher perspectives at The Art of Teaching.

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