Supporting Your Non-Binary Students with Pronoun Changes


Supporting Your Non-Binary Students with Pronoun Changes

by Aly Massey

I’m a queer high school teacher, and one of my amazing students started using a new name and they/them pronouns at the end of last year. I helped them write a letter to all their teachers explaining this change, and they just confided in me that one of their teachers flat-out ignored the letter and is still using their old name and pronouns. I get the sense that the kid doesn’t want to start a whole THING about it, but it obviously wears on them. What do I do?
— Anonymous

Aly Says:

Dear fellow queer high school teacher,

First of all, it sounds like you are a wonderful support for this student to have in school. That they trusted you enough to help them announce this major change to all teachers is a great sign, and it’s great to see you’re still looking out for them!

This is a tough spot to be in. We want to be supportive of our LGBTQ+ students, but balancing that support with maintaining their privacy, sense of safety, and comfort is a fine line to walk. It is incredibly frustrating when our colleagues don’t share that same commitment and may even actively oppose it—I feel for you.

That being said, it sounds like you are looking for a way to address the issue with the least amount of pressure and attention called to the student. With that in mind, I would try to consider some environmental factors before taking your next steps.

Do you know this other teacher well? Is this someone you feel comfortable talking to one-on-one? If so, that may be your best bet to start. This way, you don’t have to put the student under any extra pressure that they’re trying to avoid. While you may be steaming out the ears thinking about a teacher purposefully ignoring a student’s pronouns, it’s best to approach the situation calmly and openly for the sake of the student, and to avoid backlash on you both. Ask the teacher if they’re aware of the issue. Emphasize your concern for the wellbeing of the student as a means to connect with this teacher. Almost all educators care deeply about their students, whatever their personal beliefs are. If you can make this about giving a student the support they need to succeed, you may be able to find common ground. However, this is certainly not the only option. If you are at all uncomfortable with a one-on-one conversation, there are plenty of other ways to communicate.

Do you have other adult allies at the school to support you? Remember that you don’t have to do this alone. The stress of student support around sensitive issues can sometimes be isolating for teachers, but this job can be too much to take on solo. Are there other teachers/staff that you and/or the student trust to work on this issue together? Your guidance counselor(s) and/or social worker(s) can often be helpful in this avenue. Showing unified support amongst teachers to actively use the students’ correct pronouns and name can be a strong way to make this stubborn teacher feel the “peer pressure.”

Do you have support from the administration? Is this a topic you could bring up in a professional development or other meeting (without needing to call out the teacher specifically)? Perhaps you could suggest the idea for a workshop on why it is important to listen and respond positively to the needs of LGBTQ+ students. You could look no further than My Kid Is Gay, or venture out to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) for resources on this kind of professional development. Whether or not this teacher becomes a full blue-pink-white flag-toting super ally is questionable, but pressure from administration and school culture can be a powerful tool.

Are there other students who want to participate in supporting this student/general inclusion policies? This could be an opportunity for interested students to take an active role in improving inclusivity in the school. If you have a GSA at your school, that could be a good place to start (and if you don’t, try starting one!). They could, for example, lead sessions in homerooms/advisory classes about the range of gender identities and why non-binary inclusion is important. The regular presence of student AND staff-supported LGBTQ+ learning sessions (including those specifically referencing pronouns) can help shift school culture and create an indirect pressure on this teacher to adjust their behavior. These sessions certainly do not have to mention the student specifically (though if said student would like to share a personal story that is obviously great!).

You can also show students resources for their workshops like those offered at GLSEN, stories of trans histories from the New York City Oral Trans History Project, the Education for Liberation Network, and (of course) Everyone Is Gay. Having a teacher to work as an advisor in this process is key, so be prepared to offer extra assistance if you go this route. This last suggestion is my personal favorite. Honestly I would argue that kids today have a better grasp on LGBTQ+ issues than most of their teachers, and yet their direct voices are one of the most underused resources in schools.

One thing I would note is that this work has to be continuous, it can’t just be a one and done lesson. But the good news is that this repeated involvement of students and staff can reshape norms in your school, pressuring people like this teacher to actually listen to students who make these requests (and hopefully to even create classrooms that don’t assume gender at all).

With that in mind, keep checking in with your student regularly. However this plays out, these insecurities at school can weigh heavily on LGBTQ+ students. Ensure that they have easy access to a supportive guidance counselor, and see if there are any resources outside the school in your area for LGBTQ+ youth (if there are any for non-binary students in particular, that’s even better!). Throughout this, they are the person that needs your support and care most. And remember to take care of yourself. Schools need more teachers like you willing to step into a sometimes awkward or uncomfortable zone to advocate for students.

Aly Massey is a Brooklyn-based history teacher at an alternative high school. She works to find, create, and deliver learning that pushes students to question their preconceived notions about race, gender, sexuality, and more. When she's not grading papers and planning lessons, she enjoys playing guitar, biking around the city, and finding love and support from her queer community.