Retire “she or he”: teachers should start using gender-neutral language in the classroom


Greer Vermilye

Gendered language, especially in a classroom setting, has become outdated.

By Maya Goelman

“Should the Monarch only provide his/her opinion when asked by the Parliament or should the Monarch provide advice on issues when he/she feels it necessary?” a worksheet for my AP Comparative Politics asks. The use of “his/her” is awkward, clunky and wastes three characters compared to a simpler counterpart: “they.” This difference may be subtle to some, but for the students impacted by such grammatical changes, it will always stand out. 

This is just one example of unnecessarily gendered language in the classroom. From worksheet questions to teachers’ morning greetings, classrooms are a minefield of indirect discrimination against non-binary and other gender non-conforming students. 

Often, the exclusion of such students through gendered language leads to feelings of isolation and ostracism. Unconsciously enforcing a gender binary can also send the message that students who use gender-neutral pronouns are unwelcome. 

“It just sort of immediately says to me, ‘you’re not wanted here,’” said senior Bailey Galt, who identifies as non-binary. “That’s what bothers me the most, actually, is just the effort that they’ll go to to say people like me don’t exist.”

To curb this discrimination, Whitman teachers should ensure that assigned materials use gender-neutral language, and should try to remove unnecessarily gendered phrases from their teaching vocabulary — such as addressing the class as “boys and girls.”

Eliminating gendered expressions is the most direct way for teachers to turn their classrooms into safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students. Taking such steps will also send a message that students will be respected, regardless of how they identify.

Overly gendered language should be removed not only from our vocabularies, but from our classrooms, too. It’s painful to hear, both because of its unnatural bulk and its exclusive nature.

When teachers seek to accommodate their students by using less restrictive vocabulary, it can help to affirm the identities of students who may already be struggling and make them feel more comfortable in the classroom. Even the smallest changes in language can be beneficial to students’ mental and emotional well-being. 

Additionally, reducing gendered language in an academic environment can help normalize gender-neutral language for cisgender students. Aware of the example the teacher would be setting, cisgender students would be more likely to parrot the terminology and, over time, be less exclusive in their lexicons. Whitman staff can lead by example to make the school on the whole a more welcoming and accepting place. 

In most cases involving discriminative language, gender-neutral alternatives already exist, and these phrases are often shorter and easier to use. Instead of using “boys and girls” — an antiquated phrase, which, like all gendered language, excludes those who identify beyond its scope — a teacher can instead say “students.” And instead of using “brothers or sisters” when referring to students’ family members, a teacher can make a conscious effort to say “siblings.” 

Though alternatives to gendered phrases have become increasingly common in English, it may be more difficult for teachers trying to navigate the likes of Spanish and French, where each noun and adjective is assigned a male or female definite article. However, non-binary and gender non-conforming speakers of these languages have already started carving out spaces for themselves in their native tongue.

AP Spanish Language and Culture teacher Fabiola Katz recognizes the importance of adapting Spanish to accommodate LGBTQ+ students.

“The language should reflect everybody, not just a small group of people,” Katz said. “Everybody should feel respected and part of the culture, and the only way to do it is by changing the language.”

Some may argue that using the singular “they” is confusing or grammatically incorrect, and that it is challenging to adjust to new vocabulary. However, adapting semantics is not a new phenomenon. Words and phrases which were once commonplace, such as “thee” and “thou,” have since fallen out of favor. 

Additionally, the singular “they” pronoun is grammatically correct; the use of  the singular “they” is actually older than the use of “you” in the same context. Merriam-Webster has officially added a new definition to the word “they”: a gender-neutral, singular pronoun. No matter what, the comfort and safety of students should supersede the ever-changing rules of grammar — fortunately, in this case, they don’t have to.

Using gender-neutral language is an easy step teachers can take to make their classrooms more comfortable and welcoming. Non-binary and gender non-conforming students deserve to see themselves included in the school’s language, even if it is only in reference to the Monarch of England.