Teacher Wants to Know If He Has to Call a Student 'They'

By Fagell, Phyllis L. | Phi Delta Kappan, September 2019 | Go to article overview

Teacher Wants to Know If He Has to Call a Student 'They'


Fagell, Phyllis L., Phi Delta Kappan


Q: I'm a teacher in a middle school, and I'm PC to a point. I don't care if a kid is gay or transgender, but I have to draw the line somewhere, and here's my line. One of my students has asked me to call her "they," and I won't do it. Just pick a gender and I'll go with it, but I cannot refer to an individual with a vague--not to mention PLURAL--pronoun. Some of my coworkers are practically making death threats against me over this, but I think this is well within my rights. I'd have a hard time remembering the right pronouns anyway. I already have a ton of balls to keep in the air, and I think this is a ridiculous ask. Can you help me justify my choice?

A: I'd rather help you take a more nuanced look at the situation. Ask yourself one basic question: What kind of relationship do you want to have with your student? I'm assuming you'd like to foster trust and safety. How would you feel if your supervisor refused to call you by your chosen name or pronoun? I'm guessing you'd feel unsupported and disrespected. And you're talking about dismissing the preference of a middle schooler. Are you sure you want to invalidate their identity at such a vulnerable time in their development?

You're justifying your choice on the basis of grammar and personal inconvenience, but consider the ethics. Your choice could be a matter of life or death. In October, researchers reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health that when transgender and gender-nonconforming youth are able to use their own name in all situations, they experience 35% fewer thoughts of suicide, 65% fewer attempted suicides, and 71% fewer symptoms of severe depression. And according to a 2015 GLSEN study, more than two-thirds of LGBTQ+ students hear homophobic remarks at school frequently or often. All of this means it's critical that teachers model inclusivity and respect. …

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