Being intentionally inclusive

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Although I identify with the “G” with regards to being LGBTQ+, I still feel like I have so much to learn about my community in order to be a better advocate for all students. So, last fall I elected to attend the Iowa Safe Schools Transgender Education Summit along with Carrie Kauffman and Jon Koch.

While there, I was struck most by the panel of parents that spoke about the journey they have taken with their respective children. I was amazed by the respect these individuals showed for their offspring by using their correct pronouns, advocating for their safety at school, as well as the seemingly boundless love and support they displayed.

For me, that panel once again drove home the importance of using intentionally inclusive language with our students. Although I had taken baby steps in the past, I was now determined to make greater changes that challenge the language norms with which we are accustomed to using.

For the purpose of this post, I am focusing solely on how we can speak to students in an inclusive manner as it relates to sex and gender. However, I welcome any ideas, tips, etc. for ways that I can improve myself when it comes to talking to our children about topics like race or religion.

Although I can only speak as a white, gay, middle class, and cisgender male, I am hoping to share some of the ways I have started to refocus the language I use with all people in my life, especially the students I work with at John Cline Elementary and Decorah High School.

The following is one of three ideas for how I am working to address changes with the way I speak to or interact with my students:

Idea 1: Be intentionally inclusive with your words.

Reasoning: As an elementary teacher, I constantly see students being grouped by gender. We gender things like bathroom passes, teacher assistants, and even lines when we line up. The phrase “boy line and girl line” is heard often and everywhere. I would love to challenge others while I continue to challenge myself to stop gendering the school day as much as possible. It can be confusing for students while also creating a problematic viewpoint that only two genders exist. Avoid gender-specific language.

What can I try:

  • Instead of saying “boys and girls” when addressing students, try referring to them as “first graders”, “class”, or “friends.”
  • Instead of “boy lines and girl lines” try using classroom number order or have students line up in two lines using odd and even classroom numbers.
  • Instead of having gendered bathroom passes, try having two bathroom passes that look the same. That way, any two people can take them at any given time. You can reserve the right to ask a student to wait if you know they probably can’t be trusted with another student that may identify the same way.
  • Instead of having gendered teacher helpers/assistants/leaders each week, try using classroom numbers to pair students.

Most recently I started to say that individuals “identify as a girl” or “identify as a boy.” Eventually one of my first graders asked what I meant by that phrasing and we were able to have a very open and honest conversation about identity. Their curiosity and my honesty allowed for us to hopefully plant the seed for understanding that people can’t simply be placed in nice, neat boxes. The goal is to help foster open minds and open hearts.

All of these are changes have been implemented into my classroom gradually. I have found that the less I have divided my students by gender, the more comfortable I feel they become in engaging with and opening up to each other. It is not perfect, but it is a start.

Middle School/High School Application: Although I spend most of my day working with first graders, I do also spend quite a bit of my time at the high school as a speech coach. While talking to a few high schoolers at a Decorah High School GSA meeting, I asked them about gender-specific language concerns they have had while going to school in our district. Here is what they had to say:

  • Sometimes teachers use heteronormative phrases like “Girls, when you meet the guys of your dreams” while trying to make a point in class. Phrases like this can intentionally or unintentionally make students feel isolated and reinforce that being heterosexual is what is normal and good.
  • Students are concerned with being split into groups based on gender in classes. Students may identify as genderfluid so how they identify may change day by day. Students may also identify as non-binary so only having the options of male or female would not work for them. The students suggested that having a different go to when grouping students could help everyone feel more comfortable.

Be intentionally inclusive with your words is the first of three ideas I will be sharing about inclusive language in the classroom. Idea two is about challenging stereotypes and not just correcting them. Idea three is about being authentic and using your privilege.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post and hopefully thinking about ways to potentially make adjustments in your own classroom. It might be messy or imperfect, but my hope is that we can make changes to help all students to feel more comfortable, safe, and seen.

Until next time, if someone shows you who they are, believe them.

{ Return to Ideas and Creations for more posts. }


  • May 24 2019 at 11:34 pm
    Marty Jacobson

    You wrote: "Most recently I started to say that individuals “identify as a girl” or “identify as a boy.” Eventually one of my first graders asked what I meant by that phrasing and we were able to have a very open and honest conversation about identity."

    I've been taught a developmental approach to education. It strikes me that this conversation with a first grader is tremendously inappropriate. At the stage of development it is not possible to comprehend either the phrase "identify as..." or any subsequent attempt to break that down. (Last comment removed for violating blog policy.)




  • May 25 2019 at 10:43 am
    Andrew Ellingsen

    I’m proud to have you as a colleague and friend! You are an incredible teacher, and our students are so lucky to get to work with you...

  • May 25 2019 at 11:34 am
    Carrie Kauffman

    The students in our district are lucky to have such a kind, thoughtful, and intentional teacher. These conversations matter and will change lives. The language we use has a huge impact on how our students understand the world and their place within it. Anything we can do to help create a loving and inclusive environment is a good thing. Thank you for this. Our students are smart and intuitive, they comprehend on levels we can’t fathom. To think otherwise is to do them a disservice. I feel like this is the kind of thing Mr. Rogers would talk about if he were still alive and making his show. Everyone is unique. Everyone is worthy of respect, love and human decency. 

    Thanks for writing. 

  • July 16 2019 at 10:25 pm
    Sarah Hudson

    Thank you for the brilliant work you're doing to promote inclusion, and for starting with self-awareness.

    As a mother of 2 girls, it bothers me how much emphasis there is on gender identification at schools. Hopefully this will change with advocates such as yourself.


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