A Letter to a Teacher Who Refers to Students as “Ladies and Gentlemen”

Hi! I want to talk to you about something. I’ve heard you referring to groups of students as “ladies and gentlemen”, as in, “let’s quiet down ladies and gentlemen” or “alright ladies and gentlemen have a great day”. When you use those words, you make an implicit assumption that all of the individuals you are addressing identify as either ladies or gentlemen. Some may identify as transgender, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, or other identities that resonate with them more than male or female. Even if no students in the room use those identifiers, your assumption impacts how they see themselves and how those young people form their identities in the future.

Equity work is a process of becoming thoughtful and purposeful about things that were subconscious before. Language shapes how we think. It’s not easy to change, and it takes time. But it’s worth doing.

Have you ever taught a transgender student? It was hard to change the pronouns I instinctively wanted to use. I unintentionally misgendered them, often at first, but I got better over time. I noticed that an adult at my school who often referred to students as “ladies and gentlemen” was also the adult who had the most trouble referring to that student by their correct pronouns. It was tough for everyone, but he struggled far longer and often misgendered them publicly. I can’t say for sure that one was the cause of the other, but it struck me as a useful object lesson of what can often seem like an abstract idea.

While changing your language to words like “folks” and “y’all” is not likely to change the world, I see it as a microcosm of the change the world does need. For thousands of years, human social norms have changed on a time scale of generations. Change happened slowly. People grew up exposed to different perspectives and as older generations passed on new ideas took root.

Today we have a clearer view of the equitable and empowering world we want for everyone. We can also see how far away we are from that world. Generational change will not be enough; we need action that will change hearts and habits today. And while language is only one piece of the puzzle, a willingness to work consciously to change behavior and construct new social mores is the work that will make the world a better place, one step at a time.

I hope that this letter does not feel angry or resentful. That’s not how I feel. Change is hard, but it hope it can also feel empowering. When you become more thoughtful about your language, you are also influencing the way others think and speak, and embracing the potential of every student who enters your classroom. I hope you feel empowered about your role in creating a better world, one microcosm at a time.

Thanks to Grace Chen and Nik Doran who helped me find the words to write this.

4 thoughts on “A Letter to a Teacher Who Refers to Students as “Ladies and Gentlemen”

  1. pythagitup

    I’ve never used “guys” before, but I have used “ladies and gentlemen” in the past because I like the way it dignifies my students. I’m aiming for a change this year – probably “learners” and maybe “humanoids” – but I worry about slipping up in the heat of the moment. I know I’m going to have to really push myself to lock in these new terms during the first few days of school. I’m interested to see how students react. Does it matter if they view my language as just a goofy way I refer to the class? Is it important that I explain how I’m using certain words to be more inclusive?

    Reply
    1. dkane47 Post author

      I hadn’t thought about the question of explaining it to students before. That’s a good one. I guess I’d hope it comes up naturally, but it also seems like something that’s worth making explicit at some point?

      Definitely a challenge. I’m curious to hear how it goes!

      Reply
  2. Brette Garner

    Thank you for this letter, Dylan!

    I think you’re selling this idea a bit short when you say that “changing your language to words like ‘folks’ and ‘y’all’ is not likely to change the world”—for those kids who feel seen (when they’re either invisible or made into a spectacle elsewhere), who know that they belong (when they’re told they don’t belong anywhere), and who know that you are a safe person (when there are so many dangerous people out there), that language change absolutely does change the world.

    And the more that we start to break down “obvious” cultural assumptions and categories, the more we can shift toward a more inclusive and just society.

    Reply

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