Culturally Responsive Teaching

Being Respectful of Student Gender Identity

October 13, 2016

This post was co-written by Peg Grafwallner and Teri Knight.

My daughter, Ani, is autistic and intellectually disabled.  She works as a lab assistant at the local pediatric hospital.  Prior to earning the job, she was an intern gaining valuable on-the- job experience and improving her social skills.

Within the first week of her internship, however, her job coach called me and explained that Ani asked a fellow intern if she was a boy or a girl?  She truly didn’t know and, without realizing this could be a social misstep, went ahead and asked.  I explained to the job coach that as an Instructional Coach/Reading Specialist at a large urban high school, I, too, might be unsure of the gender of some students as well as the gender with which they identify.  The job coach told me to have a talk with Ani regarding social correctness. 

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I share that story because as I was talking with my friend, Teri, our French teacher, I told her about Ani’s social miscue.  Teri said, “I get where Ani’s coming from.  I did the same thing today.” 


“Wait.  What?  You asked your students if they were male or female?”

“I asked students to get out a sheet of paper and on the paper write down the pronoun I should use when I refer to them.  It started with a very proactive parent who informed me that her daughter identifies as a male and when calling on him in class, I need to be aware of that distinction.”

Teri’s matter-of-fact response caused me to wonder how many of our students are in the same situation, but might not have a parent to advocate for them or a teacher willing to ask this straightforward question.  According to Carrie Kilman, author of the article “The Gender Spectrum” (http://www.tolerance.org/gender-spectrum), “Make explicit at the start of the school year that in your classroom, everyone deserves respect and that making fun of people based on gender identity or expression won’t be tolerated.”  Teri took a situation that could have been painfully awkward for students and made it a respectful, teachable moment. 

As we continued talking, Teri explained that she had a student who identified with both genders. 

“What did you do then?  I mean, how do you refer to a student who identifies with both?" I asked cautiously.

“In French, the word ‘one’ is considered neutral.  So, I will be using the word ‘one’ when referring to that particular student.”

For most of us, gender differences have been relatively well-defined. When babies are born, gifts are usually bought with the gender in mind: pink for girls and blue for boys.  But, today we’re being urged to think of gender in a new way; not as something specific necessarily, but as something flexible or changeable.  Kilman goes on to say, “It’s OK to say, ‘I need to stop and figure this out.’ Just remember, this isn’t about your values. It’s about your legal and moral obligation to support every child as the best teacher you can be.”  Kilman encourages teachers to put their own personal bias away and focus on the needs of the students.  Are our gender views so significant that we would give less of ourselves in the classroom and less of ourselves to students who look to us for compassion and empathy? 

In Teri’s particular situation, a concerned parent took a courageous step to advocate for her son; hoping to partner with a teacher who was willing to take that step with her. Teri’s practical approach to assure respect and safety as expectations and not privileges demonstrates the significance of providing students the basic tenet of integrity.  In asking students what they want; by giving them a choice, she told them that their response was significant and their choice was valid.

The demands made by students, parents, and society on today’s teacher are daunting and sometimes misguided.  However, this “demand” regarding gender is obvious, attainable and fair.  We adhere to this mandate for our students because we want to be the best teachers we can be and because, very simply, it is the right thing to do.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.