Creating an Inclusive Environment With Words
Creating an LGBTQ-inclusive classroom culture begins with a readiness to answer questions or facilitate appropriate conversation around LGBTQ issues. In order to facilitate sensitive, productive conversations with students—in class or one-on-one—consider these steps.
Be Willing to Learn Essential Terms
Young people today have a large vocabulary with which they can articulate their identities. That vocabulary may be unfamiliar, but understanding these words can open doors for educators to become more effective allies to LGBTQ students. This means, for example, knowing the difference between biological sex, gender identity and gender expression; between cisgender and transgender; and between asexual and pansexual.
For a full glossary of LGBTQ terms, click here.
Model Inclusive Pronoun Use
Gender’s fluidity is expressed in the many pronouns students use across the gender spectrum. Allied educators understand the necessity of asking their students what pronouns they use—and respecting their decisions.
A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that when the parents, teachers and peers around them use their chosen names, trans youth experience a lower risk for depression and suicidal ideation.
You can affirm transgender and nonbinary students by taking these steps:
- Use the singular “they.” Make space within language for nonbinary genders that do not fit the strictures of “he” and “she.” Adopting use of the singular “they” disrupts the binary and affirms the fluidity of gender and the legitimacy of all gender identities.
- Decentralize cisgender identity by stating your own pronouns. Explicitly share your pronouns with name tags, in an email signature or on a pin. This normalizes the process rather than making it a big deal. Students will notice and take your lead.
- Conduct pronoun check-ins. Collective pronoun check-ins help students learn peers’ pronouns without forcing nonbinary students to come out repeatedly. You may say, “To make sure we’re referring to each other accurately, let’s go around so everyone can share their name and pronoun.” This process can help transgender and nonbinary students feel seen, not singled out.
- Begin the year with a student survey that asks students about pronoun use in different situations. This helps value students’ identities while also protecting their privacy. To ensure their own safety, students may use one pronoun with friends and teachers and another with family members. Ask something like: What are your pronouns? Are there situations where you would want me to use different pronouns?
Practice responding to instances of misgendering (referring to a student by the wrong pronoun). Try out these simple suggestions. Students will take note and are likely to follow your thoughtful example.
If you misgender a student:
- Apologize briefly, correct yourself and move on. Note your error without calling attention to it.
- Do not over-apologize. This co-opts a moment that should be about the student, and recenters it around your own guilt.
If you overhear a coworker or student misgender someone:
- Correct in the moment.
“The other day I saw Jess and he was saying…”
“Oh right. They were saying?”
- Model the correct pronoun afterwards.
“Yes, I remember Jess saying that. They were just telling me…”
- Address it directly.
“Yes, I definitely remember that. And Jess uses they/them pronouns. Just wanted to let you know.”
Facilitate Conversations About Identity With Care
When topics of personal identity come up in the classroom, the conversation may be unpredictable. Properly facilitating those conversations means getting comfortable with discomfort; it means being aware of your own biases and conditioned beliefs; and it means relying on a consistent model of civil classroom discussion so you can handle emotional responses thoughtfully.
If you have concerns about your comfort level with facilitating these conversations, start with our publication Let’s Talk!—which provides you with self-assessment and strategies that will help you get there.
Challenge Gender Norms Through Classroom Practices
To create a classroom that is inclusive of all genders, evaluate your concrete, day-to-day classroom practices. Here are some suggestions for assessing the gender-inclusivity of your classroom:
- Conduct a visual audit of your classroom to examine your wall posters and other visible materials. Do they represent individuals with diverse gender expressions? Are there portrayals of nontraditional families or families with LGBTQ members?
- Refer to a group of kids as students, scholars, class, friends, everybody or y’all. Avoid the binary term “boys and girls.”
- Do not separate students according to gender. Dividing students along binary lines only enforces feelings of difference. When dividing students into teams, for partner work or to form a line, use rows, table groups or sides of the room.
- In casual conversations with students, don’t make assumptions based on gender such as, “boys will be boys” or “girls are such gossip queens.” Never tease or joke around with students in a way that presumes cisgender identity or heterosexual orientation.
- Encourage all students to try different types of activities. Do not ask for a group of “strong boys” to help carry furniture or “artistic girls” to decorate a bulletin board. Include everyone in a wide range of classroom activities and offer equitable opportunity for participation.
"Heteronormativity perpetuates the closet and the closet is a hotbed for shame." —Chris Tompkins, "Why Heteronormativity Is Harmful"
Learn more about exploring gender roles and stereotypes in the classroom with these Teaching Tolerance Lessons:
- Exploring Gender Stereotypes in Stories
- Exploring Gender Stereotypes Through Role Plays
- Gender Shouldn't Limit You
- Gender Stereotyping Awareness
- What Are Gender Stereotypes?
What do I do if…
My Administration Isn’t Supportive?
Many educators are hesitant to adopt LGBTQ-inclusive curricula and practices for fear of pushback. These steps to working with your administration can help you overcome these hesitations and make sure your LGBTQ-inclusive work has a solid foundation.
- Lay the groundwork with colleagues. Preview new teaching material with administrators or department chairs, and tie the content back to your state curricular, AP, IB or other educational standards. Be open and direct about your support and inclusion of LGBTQ students. Having conversations about the content you plan to bring into your classroom will create a support system as you move forward with your curriculum.
- Present facts. Be ready to offer facts and evidence about how your approach will benefit students and school climate. The data from GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey is a good place to start. For instance, compared to LGBTQ students with no supportive school staff, students with many (11 or more) supportive staff members at their school were less likely to miss school because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, had higher GPAs and were less likely to say they might not graduate high school. Administrators should find the promise of better academic outcomes and less truancy to be a compelling case.
Source GLSEN’s 2015 National School Climate Survey
- Explain that an inclusive school environment benefits everyone. Conduct a school climate survey in your school. Provide examples of anti-LGBTQ behavior you have encountered in the hallways or in your classroom. Use the descriptions to show administrators why change is needed. Emphasize that inclusive curriculum can help combat gender and sexuality stereotypes that hurt everyone.
- Provide examples. Come prepared with suggestions for how educators can serve as supportive allies for LGBTQ students and for inclusive policies and bullying prevention practices that have been implemented elsewhere with positive results. Give administrators reference material, such as this guide or resources from the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and PFLAG. Seeing this work has been done elsewhere may help an administrator overcome their hesitation.
- Plan a time to check in again in the future. Allow administrators to consider your discussion points and educate themselves further before meeting for additional conversation.
- Document everything. Keep a record of these interactions so that your forethought and intentions cannot be misrepresented. If administrative pushback becomes hostile or threatens to deny legal rights to students, look for support among district leadership.