What are some of the ways instructors can make classrooms more affirming and inclusive for students of different genders?

(Note: the “tips” included in each section are not intended to dictate how an instructor runs their classroom, but to offer concrete examples and applications).

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The First Day of Class

When you introduce yourself to students, consider sharing your own pronouns; if you typically ask students to introduce themselves, too, you can invite (but not require) them to share their own pronouns at that time. Additionally, many professors ask students to fill out a short information sheet on the first day; there, you can invite students to tell you the name and pronouns they would like you to use for them in class.

  • Tip #1: Use information sheets to tally attendance on Day 1. Doing so (instead of reading from the roster) will help you avoid “deadnaming” or otherwise misgendering a student who uses a name different from what is listed in your official roster.
  • Tip #2: Ask “what name/pronoun should I use for you in class?”This avoids using the term “preferred pronoun” (which some trans & nonbinary people find problematic because it makes using their pronouns seem optional).

Gender-Affirming Name and Pronoun Practices Beyond the First Day

Once you have asked students for their names and pronouns, it’s important to practice using them! Make sure that you maintain an up-to-date roster that lists students’ names and pronouns. If a student hasn’t told you their pronouns—or if you can’t remember—don’t assume based on how they look. (If you couldn’t recall a student’s name, you wouldn’t call them Chad just because “they really look like a Chad,” would you?)

  • Tip #1: cultivate less-gendered language when possible. Remembering even one class worth of names and pronouns can be challenging! To make your life easier, practice reducing your reliance on binary third-person pronouns (“she” and “he”); using the student’s name is a solid alternative. Consider encouraging other class participants to do this, too. See also: “people,” “folks,” or “students” as more inclusive of nonbinary identities than “men and women” or “ladies and gentlemen.”
  • Tip #2: watch out for outdated/incorrect names in email and other documentation. Employee and student email addresses sometimes contain outdated versions of their names, which can lead you to mis-address that person (for example, if you’re using Gmail’s auto-complete feature). Always double check against your up-to-date roster.  Offer to point students toward some of the resources on the Updating Your Gender Markers page if they would like to change how their name appears in official Wheaton documents.
  • Tip #3: educate yourself. Trans and nonbinary students can tell you how they would like to be treated, and they may have specific requests or suggestions about how to make the classroom feel inclusive, but don’t single them out or otherwise expect them to shoulder the burden of answering “gender questions” in class. Recognize that you have considerable power to set the tone in class and model respectful dialogue; if one participant misgenders another, try to model using the correct pronouns (Student: “I agree with Roary’s comment, I think she made a good point.” Instructor: “Yes, he did.”).

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Gender-Affirming Course Content

Making a classroom gender-affirming goes beyond pronouns; it also plays out in the texts we assign and the ways we discuss them.

  • Tip #1: acknowledge when a text uses outdated, exclusionary, or hetero/cis-normative language. Many texts contain outdated assumptions about sex, gender, and sexuality (for example, that all people are either “men” or “women,” that all married men have a wife, or that all pregnant people identify as women). For trans and nonbinary students, especially, such texts may make them feel invisible or invalidated.
  • If these are important texts for the class, you can make things more inclusive by verbally acknowledging those assumptions in class and modeling how to read critically and constructively, e.g., “This author’s study claims to draw conclusions about marriage; however, given that all of the research subjects were in male-female relationships, it would be more accurate to say that these arguments and findings offer insight into heterosexual marriages.”
  • Tip #2: include authors & creators of different genders (and other social identities). It is important for students to see diverse scholars and artists as important contributors to the work of any discipline. Look at your syllabus: does it feature women? Queer and/or trans people? People of color (and not just in a week focusing on “diversity”)? Inclusion means featuring diverse and marginalized people as creators—not just subjects—of art and knowledge. And, as with members of the class, be careful not to make assumptions about an author’s gender and pronouns if you don’t know; using last names is a good alternative!

Gender-Affirming Grammar (in English)

  • Many of us learned to write “he or she,” “s/he,” and “women and men” as a way to be gender inclusive (in response to longstanding conventions in English that used “he” and “man” to refer to a generalized human being). Today, conventions are shifting again, toward greater acceptance of gender-neutral pronouns.
  • One of the most popular is the singular pronoun “they” (when one does not know or does not wish to indicate that a person is a woman or a man; “they” also allows for the possibility that a person might be neither). The use of “they” as a singular, gender-neutral third-person pronoun has a long history, but its popularity has increased in recent years.
  • In 2017, the Associated Press ruled that the singular “they” was acceptable for journalists to use. The APA and MLA style guides followed suit in 2019 and 2020, respectively. In 2019, Merriam-Webster named the singular “they” as its word of the year. Use of the singular “they” is grammatically correct, even if it sounds awkward to you. 
    • Tip #1: do not correct students’ use of the singular “they;” you might even consider adding it to your own repertoire! 
    • Tip #2: be mindful of respecting the pronoun a person requests that you use — not everyone who identifies as nonbinary uses “they;” there are other gender-neutral pronouns that people may adopt for themselves (see Gender & Pronouns 101 for some examples), and some nonbinary people use binary pronouns (she and/or he), too.

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Discipline- and Field-Specific Issues

Gender-affirming work may vary across disciplines and course subjects; while we offer some suggestions here as a starting point, we also encourage instructors to look for the people in their own discipline who are doing this work.

Non-English Language Courses
  • Most of this guidance assumes English as the language of classroom instruction. Other languages’ available terms and grammar present different challenges and opportunities for acknowledging the existence of gender identities outside of the binary.
  • For example, Swedish now (as of 2012) includes a gender-neutral third-person pronoun, hen, that has been widely adopted by Swedes. The Mandarin words for “she,” “he,” and “it” are written differently but are pronounced the same (tā). And in Romance languages like Spanish and French, some speakers have advocated for a move toward gender-neutral language (e.g., movements to end adjectives with “e” rather than “a” or “o”); others, as Juana María Rodríguez (p.26, 2003) writes, take advantage of “the highly gendered nature of Spanish [that] … creates the possibility of code switching between masculine and feminine forms of address as a spontaneous critical and imaginative practice of queering language.”
  • For instructors working in non-English languages, consider exploring how queer and trans people within the language and culture(s) you teach talk about themselves (including the fact that a language might have no term equivalent to “queer” or “trans,” even as it provides other terms for thinking about gender and sexual difference!)—and share that with your students.
Natural Sciences
  • Gender identity has a complicated relationship to biology and bodies.
  • On one hand, as a society we typically expect people who were assigned to a particular binary sex (female or male) at birth based on physiological traits (e.g., external genitalia, chromosomes) to identify with the corresponding social gender (woman or man) later in life.
  • On the other hand, transgender people identify with a sex/gender other than what they were assigned at birth, and frequently (but not always) physically alter their bodies as part of their transition. And intersex people, who make up a significant minority of all births (estimated to be as common as one in every 100 births), disprove the “naturalness” or inevitability of two exhaustive and mutually exclusive sex categories.
  • Instructors in the natural sciences who teach about sex differences, sexuality, and/or reproduction may wish to consider using terms that are both more precise and which better account for these bodies and experiences, such as:
  • Penis/testes/vulva/clitoris/etc. instead of “male genitalia” and “female genitalia”
  • Assigned [male/female] at birth (AMAB or AFAB), instead of “born female” or “biological male”: acknowledges that which physical characteristics we use to assign sex at birth are determined by social norms and technological capabilities (in the U.S., for example, we rarely test hormone levels or chromosomes unless physical genitalia appear ambiguous), as well as the fact that this is an assignment, not the individual’s own self-identification.
  • People with uteruses/people who menstruate/pregnant people/etc., instead of “women” or “females”: helps to specify the relevant organs or biological processes, instead of making assumptions about the identities of the people in question. “People with uteruses,” then, would include most (but not all) cisgender women, as well as many transgender men and nonbinary AFAB people. This specificity matters for trans and nonbinary students in class, but also for anyone who, for example, might become a healthcare worker—inability to access competent and sensitive medical treatment (not just transition-related health care, but also basic preventive and acute medical care) is a persistent problem for transgender people.
Humanities and Social Sciences
  • Given the importance of gender in most societies, a gender-affirming classroom is not one that ignores gender, but rather one that addresses gender intentionally and places it in cultural and historical context.
  • Accordingly, an instructor might teach students to look at a historical (or contemporary) text about “women” and interrogate what aspects of “womanhood” the text is implicitly referencing and who seems to be included (or excluded) in that definition.
  • What social and legal roles are available to “men” and “women” in the context of a particular culture, and what (if anything) do we know about people who don’t fit in either of those categories?

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