What’s your favorite color? What’s your favorite song? We’ve all asked generic questions of this flavor on get-to-know-you surveys at the start of the school year. How much intention do we put into crafting those questions, and how do we use the information we get from our students?
I’m the faculty sponsor of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) at my school, and this year we worked to write guidelines for building a more inclusive and personal survey. The keys are to ask questions that will give you real, valuable insights about your learners and then to use that information to inform instruction and deepen relationships with all of your students.
What follows are a few dos and don’ts developed from conversations with my GSA students.
11 Dos and Don’ts for Student Surveys
1. Do: Ask students for their pronouns and what they’d like to be called. Asking for pronouns is important because it shows that you want to honor and respect your students’ identities. When we make assumptions about gender and pronouns, we send a message that looks are what matters most. Further, the more frequently we ask for pronouns, the more commonplace the practice becomes.
It’s also important to ask students what name they would like to be called. Some students, particularly transgender students, will often go by a different name than the legal one that appears on your roster. Honor this by asking on the first day.
Make sure to use their name and pronouns. If you make a mistake, apologize and correct yourself.
2. Don’t: Make pronouns a multiple choice question and require an answer. If you force students to choose from a list of pronouns, you’re likely to leave someone out. Using an “other” option doesn’t quite solve the problem because it literally “others” students who don’t see themselves represented. Further, some students may not be ready to come out to you. If that’s the case, they may prefer to not provide pronouns at all. Invite them to share, but don’t force them to give any information they are uncomfortable providing.
3. Do: Answer the questions yourself. Answering the survey questions yourself, right in the text of the survey, is a great way to show your own vulnerabilities and to model how the questions should be answered. For example, write, “I use she/her pronouns. What pronouns do you use?” Students will get to know you, and if they don’t know what pronouns are, they’ll have an idea for the type of responses you expect.
4. Don’t: Ask prying questions that you yourself would not want to answer. It’s key to ask for names and pronouns, but more specific details are probably not necessary for you to know in order to teach your students. For example, you probably don’t need to know about a student’s sexuality or relationship status.
5. Do: Ask questions that will help you understand what the students’ values and priorities are. With one simple question, you can get a peek into the things your students spend most of their mental energy on. “What is the first thing you thought about when you woke up this morning?” This question is lighthearted but can give valuable insight into the things that are really important to your learners.
6. Don’t: Only ask serious questions. The GSA told me that teachers needed to ask some “fun” questions. If the survey is all about identity, it can feel exhausting, especially on the first day of school. Keep the mood light by throwing in some questions that help you understand their personality, preferences, and hobbies.
7. Do: Ask questions that help you understand how they learn. Gaining information about learning is important to every teacher, especially if we want to differentiate effectively. Answering questions about learning, on the other hand, can be boring or challenging for students. Ask these questions in a concrete way that prompts students to reflect on specific learning experiences they have had.
My favorite way to ask this question is, “What was the last thing you learned outside of school, and how did you go about learning it?” Phrasing it this way gives students an opportunity to share something about themselves, and it gives you a glimpse into how they learn best.
8. Do: Allow students space to give you more personal information if they choose to. Ending with a question like “Is there anything else that I need to know in order to support you?” is broad enough for students to provide you with a wide range of additional information. By phrasing the question broadly, you open up the conversation to all learners, and they can respond with whatever needs are most pressing to them personally, regardless of how they might be classified by society.
9. Don’t: Require an answer to every question. I’ve worked with a lot of students, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community who have experienced trauma, and in particular, trauma related to their identity. You may inadvertently ask a question on your survey that triggers anxiety. Give students the opportunity to respond, and if they choose not to, don’t pry.
10. Do: Make sure the students know you read the survey. Make an effort to thank each student for filling out the survey and to comment on something they wrote.
11. Don’t: Ignore their responses. Adults sometimes trivialize things like “favorite song” or “nickname,” deeming them unimportant. For our students, these seemingly small things can be core to their identity. Use these “little” things to connect with your students regularly.
More important, we cannot ignore big things like pronouns. When we misgender our students, we are stripping them of their identity, and we instantly lose the ability to support them wholly. If a student lists pronouns that you don’t expect for them, you should absolutely not assume that they are trying to make a joke. Rarely do students joke about this. If a student writes unexpected pronouns, it may be the case that they have never been asked for their pronouns before.