Preferred Pronouns in the Classroom

In light of Merriam-Webster dictionary naming “they” the word of the year, I saw it to be fitting to talk some about using preferred pronouns in the classroom.

Using preferred pronouns and recognizing them as valid for all students creates a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all, not just genderqueer students. To some students, having a person of authority (like a teacher) recognize, use, and respect their pronouns is empowering and uplifting. Even for genderqueer students who are not yet comfortable sharing their preferred pronouns, it is important to recognize inclusive pronouns as “normal”. “‘Pronouns are an unavoidable fact of the English language, and people deserve the common decency of being referred to in a way that reflects who they are and how they identify,’” we as teachers have the ability and the responsibility to create an inclusive environment where all students feel seen, heard, and respected (Majileye, 2017). Using a student’s preferred pronouns is just one small way that we can foster a welcoming classroom atmosphere.

Some teachers, however, may have a harder or longer time adapting to the evolution of pronouns. Colleen Clemens, a long-time English teacher, has had to radically change the way she grades and critiques grammar. While her methods look different than they did twenty years ago, she explains her enthusiasm at “the opportunity again to use pronouns to teach about gender discrimination in ways [she] never imagined possible at the start of [her] career, thanks to the singular they” (Clemens, 2016). Clemens has taken the change in times as a way for not only her students to learn and grow, but for herself to evolve as well. She explains that Geoffrey Chaucer and Jane Austen used to write using the singular “they”, and as many English teachers can attest, there is much to learn from the classics. Simply put, “Language matters. It reflects our culture and our constructions of identity” (Clemens, 2016). Even though linguists may speculate on the grammatical soundness of using “they” as a singular pronoun, there are much more important things at stake: the well being and representation of our students. We owe it to them to go a little rouge and to use a grammatical unit on pronouns to open the conversation more and to become more educated on inclusivity and how to be better allies.

I think that using gender-inclusive pronouns is so crucial in our classrooms to not only educate students on genderqueer identities but to make our genderqueer students feel more represented and included in our classroom and in the academic world. Students ought to feel they are represented in the ways that we speak, read, and write. As such I think it’s important to include literature by or about genderqueer people so students can actively see the singular “they” used in literature and use these examples as mentor texts. Additionally, as someone who did not receive ample education on gender identity until college, I think it is important to take time to include such education alongside pronouns because the two are so closely intertwined. 

It is still important for students to recognize that binary pronouns and the plural “they” have been commonly used and accepted for years. Through the knowledge of the past, we can empower our students to create a more inclusive and representative world for the future.

Find Clemens’s article here

Find Majileye’s article here

One thought on “Preferred Pronouns in the Classroom

  1. Morgan, your post is very timely. There have been so many students in the past few years who have changed their names and/or preferred pronouns. And you are correct, we as teachers serve an important role to validate those students as they make such a significant life change. Not only is it important for the student to feel seen in class, it is also our legal responsibility to call them by their preferred name/pronoun. This can be challenging when parents do not also acknowledge a name change, but once the student has made a request to the school, teachers must comply. I also appreciated your insight into the new use of “they” as a singular pronoun. I won’t lie, as an English teacher the grammar aspect of that was challenging for me, but it is far more important for a student to feel validated than to adhere to previous grammatical rules. Thanks for all your insights and posts this semester.

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