Trend Lines: The Importance of Pronouns in Lower School

Summer 2020

By Mellie Davis

Trend_Lines_Digital_Final-(1).jpg“Hello, my name is Mellie Davis, and I use she/her pronouns.” This is simple for me as a cisgender woman. It is not that easy for some students and faculty members who don’t fall along the typical gender binary. Traditionally, teachers address students as “boys and girls” or in single-gender schools as “girls/ladies” or “boys/gentlemen.” In attempts to be more inclusive, some schools use gender-neutral terms like “friends” or “scholars” to acknowledge groups. While this is a good step, it does not address the individual student. It doesn’t allow for the discussion of individual pronouns.
According to Merriam-Webster, searches for “they” in 2019 increased by 313% over the previous year, demonstrating that people are more curious about gender-neutral pronouns—and pronouns in general. In Sweden, we are seeing the introduction of the gender-neutral pronoun hen to be used with hon (she) and han (he) as well as gender-neutral school pilots where the teachers avoid using the pronouns “him” and “her” when talking to the children. Instead they refer to them as “friends,” by their first names only, or by the gender neutral pronoun hen.

We’ve known for a while that children in early elementary school are already noticing and have questions about gender. “Patterns of Gender Development,” published in the Annual Review of Psychology in 2010, shows that rudimentary stereotypes develop by age 2, and many children develop basic gender stereotypes by age 3. Students in elementary and primary schools are already having internal and playground conversations about what a “boy” does or what a “girl” does. They are developmentally in the space of gender. According to Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4–14 by Chip Wood, at ages 6 and 7, children begin “sorting” and categorizing, and by 8, children typically prefer to play with same-gender groups. Why not give them the language to understand gender, its fluidity, and their autonomy in letting others know who they are?

Why This Is Important

A key goal of many independent schools is to build a student’s sense of self and self-advocacy. When we, as educators, make the statement that students have the ability to say how they want to be addressed, students can build that sense of self and self-advocacy. When we allow staff, faculty, and parents to do the same, we lay the groundwork for individuals to feel safe and seen, normalizing the experience.
A 2010 GLSEN study shared recommended practices for creating safe classrooms; one of the most critical steps is the use of inclusive language (as well as curricular resources that include representation of LGBT people). Discussing gender identity, gender expression, and societal constructs about gender in the classroom can help students become more accepting of others’ gender identities.
Using a person’s pronouns shows respect and acknowledgment. Students, teachers, and staff who use they/them pronouns may feel alienated when they are referred to as “she” or “he.” It is important to use a person’s correct pronouns whenever you write about them or speak about them with others, not just when that person is present. One student at our school put it best in a discussion with a younger sibling who was having trouble understanding why their teacher uses they/them pronouns. The student told the sibling: “It doesn’t really matter if you understand why they use that pronoun; what matters is that we respect that as their pronoun and use it because that’s what they want.”

Where Can We Share Pronouns

The naming of gender pronouns at the beginning of the school year, at the beginning of meetings, and on nametags removes part of the stigma attached to having to correct someone who uses an incorrect pronoun. Making it a regular practice to share pronouns relieves some of the stress on those who feel like they may be misgendered. 
When applicants spend a day in our second grade classroom, before the guest arrives, I’ll say, “Today we have a visitor, and their name is ‘X.’ ” Some of our current students will inevitably ask, “Are they a boy or girl?” The response to this question usually is, “We don’t know. We should ask when they arrive.” This allows students to shift their thinking about assigning a gender to a name, making it clear that we don’t need to know their gender in order to be welcoming and that we allow the visiting student to tell us how they would like to be addressed.
An important book that is part of our identity unit is Jamie Is Jamie: A Book About Being Yourself and Playing Your Way by Afsaneh Moradian. It’s a story about a new student who visits a classroom and plays with various toys. The question arises, “Is Jamie a girl or a boy?” The book’s response is “Jamie is Jamie.”
For the adults in the community, sharing pronouns at the start of a meeting is a quick and easy way to reinforce the use of and respect for individuals’ pronouns. Also, including them on nametags and badges as well as email signatures offers multiple opportunities for reference.

Beyond She/Her and He/His

It is important to recognize that gender is a social construct. Sex is biological. The signifiers we assign to what is girl or boy come from what society accepts as masculine and feminine.
Sharing pronouns opens up possibilities for transgender students and gender-nonconforming students to feel safe about who they are and to be seen and addressed exactly the way they want.
The singular form of “they” is a gender-neutral pronoun that allows for flexibility. A second option is using pronouns that completely depart from traditional usages, such as the gender-neutral “ze” (pronounced “zee”) or “hir” (pronounced “here”). Some students or coworkers may use their name in place of a pronoun.
If you find they/them pronouns tricky to use in everyday speech or writing, you’re not alone. That tongue-tripping feeling goes away with practice. A helpful tip: Practice using someone’s they/them pronouns in conversation with a third party, like a partner or close friend, so you can get the hang of that person’s pronouns without worrying that you’ll “slip up” in person.
And remember: The “how” is linked to the “why.” We are in the business of educating and affirming the students we work with. The most important thing is to begin. It may be scary for some. The truth is, you more than likely will make a mistake and may say something incorrectly. We should show our students that we embody the same values we teach them: It’s OK to make mistakes, we learn from mistakes, and sometimes the scary things are the most important things to engage.


Picture This

Picture books are a great way to introduce many topics to lower school students, and the idea of gender and pronouns is no different. Here are some books I have used in my classroom.

The Gender Wheel: A Story About Bodies and Gender for Every Body  
by Maya Christina Gonzalez

They, She, He, Me: Free to Be!  
by Maya Christina Gonzalez and Matthew Sg

Who Are You?: The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity
by Brook Pessin-Whedbee

Jamie Is Jamie: A Book About Being Yourself and Playing Your Way
by Afsaneh Moradian

When Aidan Became a Brother  
by Kyle Lukoff

Resources for Teachers

Asking For and Using Gender Pronouns
Bryn Mawr College
Gender Pronouns and Teaching
University of Waterloo
Pronouns: A Resource
by Mel Reiff Hill and Jay Mays
The Gender Spectrum
Teaching Tolerance

Mellie Davis

Mellie Davis is a second grade teacher at Lowell School in Washington, DC, and is a graduate of Bank Street Graduate School of Education.