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.