The roster says they’re a she, but… they look like a he. What do I call them?
I’ve met numerous educators who express annoyance at not getting a heads-up from administrators that they have a transgender (or gender variant or gender creative or gender nonconforming) child in their class. And, understandably so. We care about our students, and want to treat them all with respect. Calling her ‘him’ can be awkward at best, and deeply offensive in many cases. Pronouns are incredibly personal, so it’s important that we know what our students want to be called.
We can’t necessarily tell someone’s gender identity (internal; how they feel) by their gender expression (external; what they show through dress/appearance/behaviour) or their assigned gender (assigned at birth; usually based on external sex characteristics). Additionally, some of the software programs that schools use to keep track of student records are outdated and don’t include a function to update students’ gender data as necessary. This could lead to inadvertently outing a transgender child to their peers. Don’t rely on your roster to give you the correct information about gender pronouns.
Instead, let me suggest a simple, but powerful getting-to-know-you routine for the start of every term: ask students (all students) what their pronouns are. You can begin by offering yours as an example (i.e. I use she/her/hers or they/them/theirs, etc.) This exercise eliminates gaffes without singling anybody out.
I gave a training to graduate education students on this topic. One participant wondered aloud whether it was worth the “trouble” for the “zero point zero, zero, zero, one percent” of students concerned. First, I answer that sure – this is a fairly simple strategy to create a safer space for your students, even if it’s only a small number who benefit. Second, however, this person’s statistics were way off. Many more people (about 0.6% of the U.S. population, which equates to 1.4 million Americans) identify as transgender. I can assure you that, over the course of a full career as an educator, you have taught, and will continue to teach, numerous transgender and gender nonconforming children. You may not always know who they are, but there are transgender people in every culture.
The practice of recognizing students’ gender identity can have a significant impact on their well-being. Transgender kids are some of our highest risks for being harassed at school, a range of related risk-taking behaviours, and both physical and mental health issues, including suicidality. Research shows that supportive school contexts can mitigate this disparity. Asking students about their pronouns suggests that you are supportive of gender diversity, and could be a literal life-saving gesture for a child in need.
Plus, all students benefit from learning about diversity. Consider if we only taught minority groups about issues of oppression, and excluded dominant groups from this conversation. White children would not learn about slavery. Christian children would not learn about the Holocaust. That would be absurd, and avoiding gender identity issues with your cisgender (gender identity matches assigned gender) students is similarly exclusive and nonsensical.
It is a privilege for cisgender people to be fairly certain that others will correctly guess their pronouns just by looking at them. When we, as professional educators, question socially-constructed assumptions about gender, we exercise cultural humility, we establish that our classroom is a considerate place, we take a step toward rejecting gender hierarchy, and we set a positive example of inclusivity for the students in our class. This enhances the learning environment for all.
I recommend repeating this welcoming routine at the start of each term, and letting students know that they may update their pronouns with you at any time. If you’re still uncertain about how to get started, some resources with tips and FAQs are available here, here, and here. Proactively asking for students’ pronouns is best practice, and should be systematically implemented in all international school classrooms.
 Flores, A. R., Herman, J. L., Gates, G. J., & Brown, T. N. T. (2016). How Many Adults Identify as Transgender in the United States? Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute.
 Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Giga, N. M., Villenas, C., & Danischewski, D. J. (2016). The 2015 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth in our nation’s schools. New York, NY: GLSEN.
 James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality.
 Poteat, V. P., DiGiovanni, C. D., Sinclair, K. O., Koenig, B. W., & Russell, S. T. (2012). Gay-Straight Alliances are associated with student health: A Multischool comparison of LGBTQ and heterosexual youth. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 23(2), 319-330.