Teachers’ Approaches to Pronouns Vary, With Mixed Results, Nonbinary Students Say

A basket of pride pins in GDS’ office of diversity, equity and inclusion. Photo by Reid Alexander.

Despite extensive efforts in the GDS community to accept gender-nonconforming people, nonbinary students say they frequently have uncomfortable experiences at school as a result of their gender identity.

Tenth Grade Dean Julie Stein, who teaches the elective Gender Studies, cited the installation of all-gender restrooms on every floor, gender-inclusive rooming options on overnight trips and frequent conversations at faculty meetings as examples of the school’s efforts to live up to its mission of inclusivity. The four nonbinary students who spoke with the Bit said they appreciate GDS’ efforts, but all face challenges at school due to their gender identities.

“Our values are that every student needs to be made comfortable in the school, have the curriculum feel fully accessible to them and be in a classroom that makes them feel seen for who they truly are,” Stein said.

“The GDS community is fairly accepting,” nonbinary senior Elana Spector said. “As a whole, my teachers have been great with accepting my identity.” But a common thread among the nonbinary students the Bit spoke with is that GDS is not immune to exclusionary behavior.

These students said the most common microaggression that they experience is the use of incorrect pronouns. Some teachers collect students’ pronouns to avoid misgendering them. 

Junior Grey Papageorgiou, a nonbinary student, said that teachers have taken varied approaches to learning students’ pronouns. “A lot of teachers will not have that space early on in the year,” they said, “to ask how you would like to be referred or what pronouns you would like to use.”

According to sophomore Anna Belber, a nonbinary student, many teachers do not collect students’ pronouns at all, and some of the teachers who do still misgender students in class and on written documents. Some of their teachers, they said, “haven’t asked and haven’t acknowledged anyone’s pronouns.”

Sophomore Henry Mitchell, who is also nonbinary, said teachers who do not ask students their pronouns have just assumed them based on how they present.

Spector said only two of her seven teachers used her desired pronouns for report card comments. Spector asks that people switch between “she” and “they” pronouns. “I feel less comfortable correcting because if they say ‘she,’ they’re not technically wrong,” Spector said. 

Spector recognizes that non-cisgender pronouns are not something many teachers grew up with and not something everyone will get overnight: “It’s something you have to work on and train yourself to do. People can learn many different things, so just do it! It’s how you respect people.”

Although teachers mean to be inclusive by having students share pronouns in front of the class, Papageorgiou said it can put nonbinary students in an uncomfortable situation. “It’s scary when the world knows who you are,” they said. “You either say exactly who you are or you say nothing.”

“There are many times when I am the only person in the class who uses they/them pronouns,” Papageorgiou added. “Sometimes you get some looks and sometimes it’s really quiet, and that’s always a moment that I try to shield myself from because I am anticipating the awkwardness.”

Belber remembers feeling “panicky” when teachers asked them to introduce themselves with pronouns to a majority-cisgender class. Mitchell also said that revealing their identity to people makes them “inherently nervous,” even if the people they are introducing themselves to are accepting.

GDS administrators do not send out explicit guidelines for teachers about collecting pronouns but instead give teachers freedom to decide how best to support their students.

“Creating a truly inclusive and welcoming classroom environment can look different from class to class and week to week,” Stein said. “Inclusive teaching does not have to look the same way in every classroom and with every person.”

Science teacher Greg Dallinger used a private student survey form at the beginning of the year to collect students’ free periods, preferred names and preferred pronouns. Dallinger explained that he leaves an open box on his form so students can put their pronouns if the students choose to, but he acknowledged that not everyone is comfortable sharing their pronouns. “I’m trying to be receptive to each child’s situation so I have it on record,” he said.

“More private ways of sharing your identity can be more inclusive because there are some people who are not ready to come out, but still want their teachers to know how they wish to be referred to in private or in the future,” Papageorgiou said.

Despite uncomfortable experiences, Papageorgiou, like Spector, emphasized that the faculty and staff do a good job of making GDS a welcoming community. 

“GDS is such a great and accepting institution,” Papageorgiou said, “with teachers that really make it their job to be aware.”