Trans* Inclusion in the Classroom: Addressing Students’ Preferred Pronouns

In April 2017, the Duke Graduate School, Duke’s Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, and the Duke Center for Instructional Technology (now Learning Innovation) co-sponsored a workshop on Transgender Inclusion in the Classroom.  The workshop offered a look at models and training in creating a classroom that incorporates trans* students, including best practices and example scenarios.  In several blog posts written by guest authors over the next few months, Learning Innovation will highlight important concepts covered during, and inspired by, the workshop.

The following post, which offers help addressing students’ preferred pronouns, was written by Nick Clarkson, a Postdoctoral Associate in Transgender Studies with the Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies Program at Duke.

Asking students which pronouns they prefer and then using them correctly is a central component of establishing a trans-friendly classroom, yet this is also something that feels awkward until you get used to it.

It’s a good idea to ask people their preferred pronouns when you first meet them, such as asking students to include their pronouns when introducing themselves on the first day of class.  (There’s some concern that students may feel forced to out themselves during such an activity.  This post offers some helpful language to address that possibility.)  Even if all of your students appear to be gender-normative, there may be students whose pronoun preferences don’t match their gender presentation.  Even if all of your students want to be referred to by the pronouns that match their gender presentation, it’s still a useful practice to normalize the process of asking for people’s pronouns.

You are already familiar with “she/her/hers” and “he/him/his” as pronoun sets.  Those who prefer gender-neutral pronouns are likely to use “they/them” as singular pronouns.

Dean Spade, Professor of Law and trans activist has written some helpful tips on pronoun etiquette:

  1. If you make a mistake, correct yourself. Going on as if it did not happen is actually less respectful than making the correction. This also saves the person who was misidentified from having to correct an incorrect pronoun assumption that has now been planted in the minds of any other participants in the conversation who heard the mistake.
  2. If someone else makes a mistake, correct them. It is polite to provide a correction, whether or not the person whose pronoun as misused is present, in order to avoid future mistakes and in order to correct the mistaken assumption that might now have been planted in the minds of any other participants in the conversation who heard the mistake.
  3. If you aren’t sure of a person’s pronoun, ask. One way to do this is by sharing your own. “I use masculine pronouns. I want to make sure to address you correctly, how do you like to be addressed?” This may seem like a strange thing to do but a person who often experiences being addressed incorrectly may see it as a sign of respect that you are interested in getting it right.
  4. When facilitating a group discussion, ask people to identify their pronouns when they go around and do introductions. This will allow everyone in the room the chance to self-identify and to get each other’s pronouns right the first time. It will also reduce the burden on anyone whose pronoun is often misidentified and may help them access the discussion more easily because they do not have to fear an embarrassing mistake.

Additional things to remember:

  • It can be difficult to adjust to new pronouns for someone you already know or to get used to using pronouns that you don’t think “match” with the person’s gender presentation. However, you can practice on your own, calling that person to mind and rehearsing using the correct pronouns for them when they’re not around.
  • If you are not trans (or cisgender) and are asked to share your pronouns in a group, simply share them. An easy way to do this is to say, for example, “My name is ____ and I go by she/her/hers.”  Don’t say, “I don’t care which pronouns you use for me.”  This trivializes the concerns of the trans and gender non-conforming people who do have a strong preference about which pronouns you use for them.
  • If a trans or gender non-conforming student says, for example, “I go by he/him/his or they/them; it doesn’t matter,” it’s possible that that’s exactly what they mean. Another possibility, though, is that they don’t feel comfortable stating a strong preference because they know (usually from having had these conversations with other people) that their preferences will be experienced as a burden or inconvenience.  In these cases, do your best to use pronouns that respect the student’s gender presentation rather than following the easier route of using pronouns that seem to correspond to the student’s birth sex.
  • Students’ pronouns may change over the course of the semester or from one semester to another, especially since students may be discovering new language to describe themselves during their time at Duke. Additionally, students may not feel comfortable naming their pronoun preferences on the first day of class, fearing backlash or harassment from their peers; they might become comfortable enough with the class to share their pronoun preferences as the semester progresses.
  • There are many reasons a person who has been referred to incorrectly may choose not to correct the mistake. They might not want to deal with the awkwardness and discomfort of correcting the other person, they might worry about the other person getting angry with them, or they may simply be exhausted from having already corrected several other people during the course of the day.  Don’t assume that their silence means they no longer want to go by a particular set of pronouns.
  • When you ask people to share their pronouns in a group, a non-trans student or participant may ask why you’re having them do this. Be prepared to affirm your commitment to an inclusive classroom and explain how respecting pronouns fit into that.


Nick Clarkson is a Postdoctoral Associate in Transgender Studies with the Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies Program at Duke.  He earned his PhD in Gender Studies from Indiana University in 2015.  His current research examines the effects of post-9/11 changes to airport security practice and identity documentation policy on transgender people.