Teacher wants to know if he has to call a student ‘they’

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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 35fewer thoughts of suicide, 65fewer attempted suicides, and 71fewer 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. 

You don’t have to understand or agree with your student’s choice to go along with it. In fact, some state education departments require that teachers use a child’s preferred name and pronoun, so check your local laws. A teacher in Virginia, for example, was fired for refusing to use a transgender student’s preferred pronoun. You might discover that your opinion is irrelevant if you want to keep your job. 

That said, I do want to address the grammar piece, because it’s often thrown around as a reason to ignore students’ wishes. Language changes and adapts over time. Both Shakespeare and Jane Austen used the singular “they,” so what’s old is new again. Merriam-Webster and the Oxford dictionary now include the singular “they.” It’s simply not a valid argument. 

As for your memory, if a student had a hard-to-say or cumbersome name, would you insist on inventing a random nickname to make it easier to remember? You may be keeping a lot of balls in the air, but this ask isn’t a heavy lift. And if you do have an occasional slip-up, you can simply apologize and get it right the next time. Students know when adults are making a good faith effort. 

To me, this all comes down to relationships. If you don’t respect your student enough to call them what they want to be called, how can you expect to teach them? I recommend setting your own needs aside so you can focus on the child. That’s what educators do. 

For more on Sex, Gender, and Schooling, see the October 2018 Kappan: https://bit.ly/2JCMQrm

For more Career Confidential: http://bit.ly/2C1WQmw

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email contactphyllisfagell@gmail.comAll names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers.

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

One Comment

  • Robert J Rader

    Good answer. While I still find it difficult at times to refer to my transgender son as “he” (somewhere in my brain I still see my daughter), I realize that I am hurting him when I make this mistake and it pains me terribly. It is a reflex that I would love to unlearn!
    Thank you for such a thoughtful answer!

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