Gender-friendly classroom

Diversity, Equity, Teaching

The Gender-Friendly Classroom

Practical advice for teachers on welcoming gender diversity every day

How can teachers welcome gender diversity every day? Lee Airton discusses how to establish classrooms where all of the ways that your students “do gender” are welcomed and expected, where no one is called out for their gender expression, and where no one is told by others that they are not who they are.

Among researchers and educators focused on gender diversity in Canadian schools, there is certainly much to celebrate. We have a growing body of Canadian studies on how gender diversity is playing out in our contexts of practice. This is an incredible achievement, and a tool in successful advocacy for policy, curricular and legislative changes that stand to improve the lives of gender-diverse students in K-12 schools.

As someone who is active this area, however, I have noticed that school boards tend to interpret their responsibilities in relation to gender diversity as a set of actions triggered by the presence of an out or openly self-identifying transgender student who is in an exceptional situation, usually either crisis or transition. By crisis, I mean experiencing harassment, violence or other situations in which the student is at risk. By transition, I mean beginning to live publicly as a person of their gender. When I review broadly-titled guideline documents for supporting gender-diverse students in public schools, I often find that they only instruct teachers, administrators and others on how to respond to these exceptional moments in the life of an out transgender student.

Risks of “exceptionalizing” transgender students

Of course, there are compelling reasons to devote time and energy to supporting out and openly self-identifying K-12 transgender students through exceptional situations, and a growing body of research shows what happens when we don’t. But I am concerned about the effects of constructing a school’s responsibility regarding gender diversity as only or mostly responding to exceptional situations. I think that this happens at the school level and filters up to the level of board-wide policymaking because exceptional situations are, by definition, outside of the school’s structures, routines and curricula. Responding to the exceptional doesn’t require changing business as usual or acknowledging that the status quo may contribute to the problems facing transgender and gender-diverse students.

If school responsibility is thought to lie primarily in exceptional situations…

Schools may realize that their climate does not welcome gender diversity only when a transgender student makes their presence known.

I’ve read and heard many moving accounts from teachers about changing their practice once they realized they had a transgender student. These changes are vitally important, but I worry about the transgender and gender-diverse students who are already present in every single school, but whose transness isn’t apparent to the adults entrusted with their care. This is a vicious cycle, because if no visible efforts have been made to make a school climate more welcoming of gender diversity, it is unlikely that these students will voice who they are and access supports that they need in order to be and remain well at school. I’ll return to this problem momentarily.

School administrators might see their responsibility as only applying to “binary” transgender students.

A pathway of beginning to understand one’s self as transgender, pursuing social transition, beginning to live publicly in one’s gender at school and elsewhere, and then pursuing medical transition aligns with only some transgender peoples’ experiences: those who are often referred to as “binary,” i.e., who were assigned to one side of the sex/gender binary at birth but who are actually on the other side. This is a very common transgender pathway, but it is not at all the only one. Many transgender people do not fit neatly into one or the other of the binary boxes, including a growing number of transgender people who are nonbinary. If a school understands its responsibility to kick in only when a student comes out and experiences harassment or begins a gender transition (commonly assumed to bring someone from “one side” of the binary to the “other side”), then gender-diverse students whose experiences don’t fit these familiar patterns are less likely to have their needs recognized and met by school staff.

Transgender-spectrum youth might be presumed to be necessarily at-risk.

There is, in fact, tremendous diversity among transgender-spectrum people, including youth. We know, for example, that the life chances of transgender women of colour and Indigenous transgender women are drastically lower than those of transgender people who are white, middle-class, and masculine and/or men. Schools ought to be sensitive to these different degrees of risk. There is also a world of difference between the experiences of trans youth with family support and material privilege, versus trans youth with neither of these things. Furthermore, presuming trans students to be in crisis can be pathologizing.

If there are no out transgender students at your school, it doesn’t mean they are not there. Rather, it means that they cannot come out and live who they are at school.

For these reasons, I am committed to helping schools shift toward an everyday practice mindset in this area. How can teachers welcome gender diversity every day in classrooms, when there is no situation of crisis or transition? There is, thankfully, an abundance of resources on integrating gender diversity content into your curriculum.1 There is also a wealth of experience in schools and school boards on supporting extracurricular activities like gender and sexuality alliances, or gender-inclusive athletics. In what follows, however, I go beyond the curricular and the extra-curricular to what you can do in the course of your everyday teaching to foster a gender-friendly classroom: where all of the ways that your students “do gender” are welcomed and expected, where no one is called out for their gender expression, and where no one is told by others that they are not who they are (i.e. their gender identity). Gender-friendliness is a practice that I discuss in my recent book, Gender: Your Guide – A gender-friendly primer on what to know, what to say and what to do in the new gender culture.

Two axioms for the gender-friendly classroom

When I work with teachers, I like to offer two axioms to help us get out of an “exceptional situation” mindset and into an everyday practice mindset. These axioms are:

1. Teach like it’s a given that all of your students’ relationships with gender are ambivalent and will change over time.

This axiom is important because gender norms and expectations are a source of anxiety for all students, including cisgender (non-transgender) boys and girls. It is common for young cisgender people to live or express their gender differently from parent or community standards, or to question whether and how they want to participate in their community’s gendered milestones or traditions. Every girl or woman’s degree and experience of femininity will fluctuate across time, and the same is true of boys and men in terms of masculinity. How each of us does gender also changes as we move between the gym, faith-based congregations, formal events, and the workplace, etc. Keeping this first axiom in mind can help teachers to broaden the focus of their gender-inclusive practice in a way that does not predetermine which students need this support and which don’t; if you are teaching as if every student (cisgender and transgender alike) will bump up against rigid expectations, then you are taking care of everyone and also not making assumptions about who a transgender student will be. This is important because the transgender spectrum will continue to expand (reflecting what has always been there but in recent centuries was driven underground), and our transgender-spectrum students’ needs will also continue to change and evolve.

2. Teach like you already have transgender-spectrum students, or students with transgender-spectrum friends, family or loved ones, in your classroom.

This second axiom speaks to a common assumption that if there are transgender students in a school or class, teachers and administrators already know. In reality, not every transgender-spectrum student is out or apparent to others around them as transgender.

If there are no out transgender students at your school, it doesn’t mean they are not there. Rather, it means that they cannot come out and live who they are at school. We know they can’t because they don’t. Not being open in who we are isn’t very liveable for transgender people; if we can come out, we generally do. In fact, when I work with teachers and administrators who have students who have come out as transgender in their schools, I ask them to cultivate a well-deserved feeling of honour and pride: they have been given a tremendous gift of trust because the transgender students there have come out at all. There may also be students who will come to realize that they are somewhere on the transgender spectrum later on, but were questioning or uncomfortable about their assigned gender when they were in your classroom or school.

How can you follow through on these axioms in your classroom? The four practices on the following pages can be integrated into your teaching right away and with minimal preparation. Each practice aims to help transgender and/or gender non-conforming (TG) students – even if you do not know they are there – to feel expected and therefore respected, not invisible.

Four everyday practices

Practice 1: Creating moments of dissonance

By creating moments of dissonance, you are helping all of your students get used to having their gendered expectations countered. This can help them get ready to welcome everyone’s changes in how they do gender over time, including peers who are markedly gender non-conforming or who come out as transgender, but also including their own changes.

Use questioning and gentle skepticism to disrupt normative claims. For example:

“I don’t understand. Why would that be weird if she did that?”

“Hmm. Can you explain to me why he can’t play with you? I don’t understand.”

Apply unexpected pronouns to characters in books or images of people in curriculum resources; question students who correct you or who apply a binary gender pronoun (he or she). For example:

Why are we saying she/her for that person? Couldn’t that person have he/him or they/them pronouns?”

“Why are we saying he/him for someone in that role? Can’t women also be [principals, firefighters, CEOs]?”

“Sometimes our assumptions about a person’s pronouns are incorrect; it can be a better idea to say ‘they’ until we know.”

Help your students rethink their rigid gender generalizations on the spot by sharing a fact that you know to be real and true for many people. For example:

“I don’t know if getting married in a big frilly wedding dress is for me.”

“I don’t think we can generalize about men’s and women’s parenting roles. When my friend Peter and his wife had their first baby, Peter stayed home when his wife went back to work and he really enjoyed it.”

Practice 2: Making and modeling good mistakes

By publicly correcting your mistakes, you are helping your students learn to expect gender diversity as the norm, not the exception. Don’t let your mistakes go by, as these can contribute to the hidden curriculum of gender – that is, add to all of the messages children and youth receive that gender is necessarily binary and rigid, for everyone. Rather, make your mistakes visible and teach a more accurate lesson about the many different ways people live gender.

  • Draw attention to your own assumptions about peoples’ pronouns, in a way that models a gentle correction (not a big deal): “Oops. I shouldn’t have assumed that she/her are this author’s pronouns. Can anyone find a source to help me get it right?”
  • If you say the wrong pronoun for someone whose pronoun you do know or who is known to your students, say sorry, re-phrase, and move on, neutrally. Model this on purpose with a character in a book or a public figure.
  • Draw attention to when you have put someone in a gender box, and talk about why that wasn’t a good thing to do: “Uh oh! I should have directed that person to all of the different washrooms we have, including the accessible gender-neutral one, and not just the men’s washroom. It’s not my place to assume what other people need.”

Practice 3: Owning your gender-unfriendly content

By owning your own gender-unfriendly content, or drawing attention to your own curriculum resources, etc. that do notwelcome gender diversity, you are helping your students to develop this critical eye. They might even come to correct you! You can introduce a gender-unfriendly resource on purpose to allow this conversation to happen. In my courses at Queen’s, I focus on teaching pre-service teachers not just how to use resources about transgender people or that are explicitly critical of gender stereotypes, but to use any resource to do this work. Here is what gender-unfriendly content can look like:

Elementary: Your resource shows only gender-conforming girls and boys, or genders characters (like teapots and candles) unnecessarily. Here are examples for read-alouds:

“Why do you think the author wants us to say ‘he/him’ for that monster? I’m not sure it makes sense for a monster to be called ‘him’! Why can’t they use they/them instead?”

“These are good books, but they don’t include everyone. And they make us think that there are only two ways to do gender. I’m going to work hard to find other books that correct this mistake.”

“Did you notice that this book only has the boys carrying heavy boxes on moving day? Hmm. I might not read that again. Let’s see if I can find a book where gender doesn’t stop people from helping out.”

Secondary: Your subject’s essential content excludes transgender lives and experiences, or you have to share data that makes transgender people invisible or even unthinkable. Here are some ways that a secondary biology teacher might own their gender un-friendly content:

Good: “We’re going to learn about cancer today, focusing on breast and cervical cancers as examples. But the research on this generally isn’t inclusive of transgender people, some of whom have breasts or a cervix but are not women. This means that many people who may be at risk for these cancers aren’t included in this research.”

Better: Say the above, and lead a discussion –“How might excluding transgender people from research in this area put them at risk?” – or add resources: “If you’re interested, I’ve put two studies in our online folder looking at cervical cancer rates in transgender men.”

Best: Re-write your lesson so that it incorporates transgender-related content (including barriers to accessing care) alongside mainstream content, in a tone that says “this is part of learning about this topic” and is not exceptionalizing.

Practice 4: Coming out yourself as a person with a gender

By coming out as a person with a gender, you are helping your students to see gender as something that is a process for everyone across our lives, including someone they respect and look to for guidance: you. Here I am speaking particularly to cisgender (non-transgender) teachers. Transgender teachers are very often objects of learning and discussion for students, whether we choose to leverage our stories or not. If you are cisgender and/or gender-conforming, you can make your own relationship with gender visible and a tool in your gender-friendly teaching toolkit.

  • Gently correct students who attribute gendered interests or life choices to you due to your gender identity (e.g. child-raising, sports-liking).
  • “Signpost” your own gender pronouns, even if no one has ever gotten them wrong. Don’t force your students to do this, as many school contexts still cannot hold safe a student who makes an unexpected pronoun disclosure. Here is a sample script for the first day of class: “Hi there, I’m [title/name] and my pronouns are [x].” Later you can say, “Earlier today, I shared my pronouns, which are [x]. I want to invite anyone who has questions about that, or who wants to speak to me about their own pronouns, to come see me.”
  • Tell your gender story in bits and pieces during everyday conversation. Model gender happiness by sharing what you do like about being your gender, or about expectations for people who share your gender identity. Model ambivalence by sharing what you don’t like so much. Model change, or what you did/liked in the past but less so now, or that you might like/do otherwise in the future.

I’m confident that you can think of other practices to integrate into your ordinary teaching day that do the kind of work these four represent. When you set out to make gender-friendly changes, remember that you are always doing two things. First, you’re letting transgender-spectrum and gender nonconforming students know that you see us, and that you are thinking about the ways in which school can be challenging or even unsafe for us. Second, you are helping all students – transgender and cisgender – develop the capacities they need to help you create and sustain your gender-friendly climate, for everyone.


NEW! Discussion Kit

Download the pro-learning session, Welcoming Gender Diversity in Schools and Classrooms.


Photo: iStock

First published in Education Canada, June 2019

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Lee Airton

Assistant Professor, Queen's University

Dr. Lee Airton is Assistant Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies in Education at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. They are the founder of the blog...

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