Sharing your pronouns: Becoming a Gender Affirming Educator

Chris Murray, NBCTJanuary 28, 2021

On Thursday, January 7 more than 50 educators from Montgomery County Public Schools (MD) continued their journey to a deeper understanding of how gender impacts our students. This PD provided educators an opportunity to learn from experts in the field about ways to make our schools and school systems do everything they can to allow all students to find gender congruence, the feeling of harmony in our gender in their lives. 

In that session, we discussed some of the key recommendations from Gender Spectrum and GLSEN. They left an impact on all who attended. I want to share them with a broad group of educators via this blog and encourage you to do what you can to push for more inclusive policies and curricula within your school systems. 

The 2019 National School Climate Survey by GLSEN found that 86% of LGBTQ students were harassed or assaulted at school. Compared to other students, our gender-nonconforming students (8% of our students) report an increase in name-calling and bullying resulting in an increase in school absences. 

I have had the pleasure of sponsoring or co-sponsoring a GSA (Genders and Sexualities Alliance) club at two of the three high schools in which I taught. It’s important to know that even if you identify as a straight person and/or cisgender (as I do for both) you can still sponsor a club for your school and your students. For our students who may find themselves exploring or even struggling with their gender identity in middle and high school, the fact that their school offers a club and space that affirms the wide spectrum of gender identities and sexualities sends a strong and supportive message that they may not be receiving outside of school. 

Whether or not your school provides students a GSA, there are three actions that you as an educator for equality can take to demonstrate to your students that you and your school are affirming places.

If your school already has a sponsor for a GSA, or if that is not a position you feel comfortable holding, there are other subtle messages you can deliver that will announce to your LGBTQ students that you are affirming of the many identities your students may hold. 

  • You can display a GLSEN Safe Space sticker in your classroom or on your Zoom screen. For many of my students, this sign and sticker go overlooked, but word spread quickly within the LGBTQ student community at the previous school that I prominently displayed that sign, and although this did not lead to students coming en masse to confide in me about their sexuality or their gender identity, it let them know there was a space and an additional educator within their school that could be confided in. 
  • When I asked local student leaders of MoCo Pride what they encouraged educators to do, they recommended that when educators first meet with students, they should introduce themselves with their pronouns and allow others the chance to do so as well, if they would like to. For Zoom this can easily be done by clicking on the rename tab.
  • Try to avoid referring to your students as “boys and girls” or a similarly binary variation. Try “class,” “everyone,” or “students.” I was guilty of starting my lesson with “ladies and gentleman” for years before a student who identifies as nonbinary shared with me that they felt left out in this greeting. I admit that it took many weeks to break the habit, but seeing that student in the front row every class helped inspire my words to match the message I was hoping to convey. 
  • Use your own curriculum and lesson plans to affirm our students and allow students to break from the traditional binary approach to comprehending gender. As a student leader of MoCo Pride shared with me, “Introduce LGBT history in any way, however small; if you are learning about a famous mathematician, scientist, or artist who was a member of the LGBT community, mention as such! That can make a big difference, even without a major curriculum overhaul.” 

We are well aware that in order to provide the most effective learning environment, students must have foundational needs met — they must be well-fed and feel safe, most of all. That Thursday afternoon session left me and my fellow educators with much to consider as we seek to assure that our classrooms, schools and communities are welcoming, safe places for our students.

Chris Murray, NBCT

Chris Murray is a National Board Certified teacher who teaches Social Studies at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School (Montgomery County). Over the past decade he has taught and created a wide variety of courses while creating and facilitating a religious literacy professional development program. Chris lives in Rockville with his wife and two sons.