Teachers communicate in numerous nonverbal ways including facial expressions, body language, posture, proxemics, etc., but verbal language will always be an essential part of the teacher-student relationship. The exchange of words is and must remain central to the learning process. To be sure, even when it is clear that a class is not paying close attention to a particular lesson or lecture, students are intrinsically taking mental note of both the words that a teacher chooses to use and the words that a teacher chooses not to use. No matter how welcoming a teacher behaves (nonverbal communication), if a teacher’s words are not inclusive, students will not feel safe. For this reason, I would like to submit six best practices for inclusive classroom language.
- Avoid saying “guys.”
Unfortunately, “guys” is one of the most common words that teachers use to reference an entire group of students. And maybe it is in the process of being reclaimed as a gender neutral word, but it certainly is not the best way to reference non-male students and allow them to feel included (Teaching Tolerance).
Instead, say something like “people.”
“People” is a word that includes everyone and has the slight bonus of being subtly humanizing.
- Avoid saying “he” or “she.”
Language Arts departments everywhere are arguing over proper pronoun usage, but the fact remains, the safest way for educators to be inclusive of all gender identities is to all together drop the male and female pronouns for students. If a student specifies their preferred pronouns, then by all means use those pronouns, otherwise…
Instead, say something like “they.”
“They” as a singular pronoun can take some getting used to, but it can be done, and we actually do it already (NPR). If “they” is used consistently, cisgender male and cisgender female students are not likely to take offense to its use.
- Avoid saying “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen.”
These phrases are also very common and steeped in tradition. The problem is that these phrases are binary and automatically exclude any students who don’t fit into these two defined categories.
Instead, say something like “students of all genders” or “students and scholars.”
The phrase “students of all genders” is certain to get noticed and includes a nod to the ever expanding language concerning gender identity and gender expression. “Students and scholars” has been suggested by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (North Carolina) in a document called “Supporting Transgender Students.”
- Avoid saying “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”
These words are often used to bolster heteronormative culture beginning as early as elementary age with phrases like, “Is that your girlfriend?” or “Susie has a boyfriend!” They are not inherently oppressive, but definitely not inclusive.
Instead, say something like “partner,” “friend,” or “going out.”
Again, words that do not reference a gender binary are generally more inclusive.
- Avoid saying “mom and dad.”
This one almost goes without saying, but the phrase “mom and dad” presumes a traditional family structure, a model that not only is just one of many family options, but also that is becoming less and less the standard for American families.
Instead, say something like “adult at home” or “guardian.”
When referencing student life outside of school, use words that are inclusive of same sex households, single parent households, blended family models, grandparents raising grandchildren, students living with extended families or friends, students in transitional housing, students in state custody, etc.
- Avoid saying “Caucasian.”
“Caucasian” is a word most often used by white people when they are uncomfortable in a conversation about race. The word has little to no connection to what it means to be “white,” and the use of the word “Caucasian” has a rather racist history (MTV Decoded).
Instead, say “white.”
There is no other word that captures the connotation and rings true to the history of white people, especially in the United States. “White” is a word that is situated in the 400 year oppressive relationship in North America between people of European ancestry and people of African ancestry. Although the word has little to no actual meaning, “white” is the most preferred word of people of color in discussions on race.