Updated: Oct 17, 2019
For some teachers, teaching about pronouns may sound like an upper elementary grammar lesson. For many children, pronouns could be the difference between simply being in your classroom, and feeling as though they belong and are significant in your classroom.
We all have pronouns, or ways we are referred to when people don't use our names. Many of us are automatically given pronouns "he" or "she" and we never question them. It is another way we put ourselves and others into categories. Young children learn this early as well, and they know when the pronoun someone uses to refer to them doesn't feel quite right.
It is critical that as teachers we address all students with correct pronouns. A note on language here: many people mistakenly use the term "preferred pronouns". This makes it sounds as though their pronouns, and their gender identity, are a preference, or a choice. Just as we work hard to learn our students' names in those first weeks of school, we should work to learn their pronouns as well.
This may seem like a challenging task - especially in K-2 classrooms - when students don't yet have a concept of parts of speech. For a student who is gender creative or trans, however, this will help them assert themselves as an important part of the classroom community and will help them avoid questions such as: "are you a boy or a girl?".
So, how do you do it? Here is a quick possible list:
1. Normalize the use of pronouns. Name them and have conversations about them. Teach them how many options there are beyond "she" and "he" (see link to a list below). Say, for example, "My name is Mx.__________. When people aren't using my name, I like them to say "they" or "them" like this: 'They are my teacher', or 'I like to read to them'." or "My name is Mx. ______. I use they/them pronouns. What do you like people to say when they aren't using your name?"
2. Pay attention to your use of pronouns. Do you refer to all animals in books by "he"? Do the stuffed animals in your classroom get labeled as "he"? As you read a story, how are you unintentionally naming pronouns for characters when you're unsure.
3. Model how to ask for a person's pronouns. When someone visits the classroom, introduce them and ask what they would like the children to call them. Then, ask something like "when we are not using your name, what words would you like us to use when we talk about you? She? He? They?" Even if it seems "obvious" to you what the person's gender is, it is important to keep reiterating to children that you can't tell a person's gender just by looking at them.
4. Read books about gender identity and pronouns with kids (like the ones below). Decide to use "she" in a book where you think the kids will automatically assume "he". Be intentional.
5. Start to get in the practice of using "they" pronouns unless you know otherwise. As you talk about animals, people, characters, etc. model using the singular they as a pronoun so that children get used to hearing it. This can feel challenging at first, especially for those who are used to using "they" only to refer to a group. See some links and resources below for practicing.
Some of the pronouns people use:
Books about gender identity that specifically bring up questions about pronouns:
10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert
They, She, He, Me by Maya (Gonzalez) and Matthew
Polkadot by Talcott Broadhead
Who Are You by Brook Pessin-Whedbee
Resources for using the pronoun "they":