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Opinion

Moving Beyond the Gender Binary in Education

Educators may reinforce a gendered curriculum without realizing it. But several small moves can help affirm students’ identities across the gender spectrum.

June 24, 2021
Jesse Holzman headshot

Jesse Holzman (they/them)

Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology, University of Illinois at Chicago

Jesse Holzman headshot

Jesse Holzman (they/them)

Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology, University of Illinois at Chicago

I began my teaching career in a suburban elementary school as a paraprofessional in a special education classroom. I was the classic bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new aide.

I spent most of my days working with individual students on the goals outlined by their individual educational plan (I.E.P.), facilitating small group instruction, or working with students to develop friendships with their peers. However, like most educational institutions, the school had a hidden curriculum. 

At the time, I worked with a boy named Travis, an 8-year-old who has cerebral palsy. After structured education time, we would provide our young scholars with an opportunity to pick a free time activity. One day, Travis chose the toy area and began playing with a baby doll. Upon noticing Travis rocking the doll, the lead teacher walked over and gestured for him to put down the doll and exchange it for a truck. Then she told me it is our responsibility to teach students to “appropriately” play with toys so they can build friendships with other children. 

While gender was never explicitly mentioned in the conversation, it was clearly the motivating factor behind the interaction. Both Travis and I walked away with new information: He learned that he should play with trucks instead of dolls, and I—a closeted nonbinary person at the time—learned I was responsible for policing kids’ gender behaviors.

We do not know our scholars’ gender identities—their internal sense of gender and the term/s used to describe that felt sense—unless we ask them and provide a space that is safe enough for them to share. While Travis, to the best of my knowledge, was not a nonbinary or trans child, I provide this example to highlight how limited and binary understandings of gender can harm all children. 

As educators, we are responsible for teaching official, grade-level curriculum to our students, but many of us do not realize that we also teach a hidden gendered curriculum. Karin Martin, a sociologist focused on gender and childhood, describes in her article “Becoming a Gendered Body: Practices of Preschools” how teachers uphold cultural and societal gender norms for students at an early age, such as teaching girls to cross their legs when seated and allowing boys to physically take up more room. By reinforcing behavior along the gender binary, teachers mold similarly bodied children into “girls” and “boys” whose bodily, social, emotional, and behavioral practices differ. For older students, upholding implicit biases around gender in the classroom, such as believing math is more difficult for girls, can have consequences for students’ self-confidence and lead to significant differences in standardized test scores. And for students of color, these gender biases are further compounded by racial bias, especially when notions of gender are defined through a white lens.

School should be a brave space for students of all ages to explore their identities and figure out who they are. Yet, transgender, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming students report experiencing a hostile school environment year after year. According to GLSEN’s 2019 National School Climate Report, 42.5% of LGBTQ+ students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their gender expression, and 37.4% felt unsafe because of their gender identity. Additionally, nonbinary students reported experiencing a higher rate of hostile interactions at school than their cisgender lesbian, gay, and bisexual peers, whose gender identity aligns with the gender they were ascribed at birth. In fact, only 10.9% of LGBTQ students reported that their schools or districts had official policies or guidelines that supported transgender or nonbinary students. In other words, schools are neglecting the needs and rights of their gender-expansive students. 

Here are seven steps that educators can take to foster a safer, braver, and more inclusive space for all students, including nonbinary, transgender, and gender-nonconforming students. 

1. Educate yourself. 

Spend some time getting familiar with terms related to gender, sex, and sexuality. Language changes quickly, and while educators do not have to know every gender identity out there, it is important to have a basic understanding of the difference between gender, sex, and sexuality. While these terms are often used interchangeably, they have very different meanings and do not align with each other in ways that can be assumed. For instance, someone can be assigned the male sex category at birth, be a girl, and be attracted to people of all genders. Additionally, it is important to recognize that not all nonbinary, transgender, and gender-nonconforming students use the same terms, share the same experiences, or have the same needs. Intersectionality matters. GLSEN created a resource, “Supporting Trans and GNC Students,” which is a great place to start. 

2. Put knowledge into practice.

Reflect on your own understanding of gender and examine how your biases and assumptions may play out in the classroom. Do you refer to your students as “ladies and gentlemen” or line them up by “boys” and “girls”? Do you correct students who say things like “that is a girl toy” or “wrestling is for boys”? Try using gender-inclusive language such as “scholars,” “folks,” or “friends,” and line students up by birth month or last name. There are a lot of small changes that educators can do to create a more inclusive learning environment.

3. Review your curriculum. 

Scholars should see their identities represented in what they are learning. Are nonbinary, transgender, and gender-nonconforming people represented in your curriculum?  For example, if you teach science, you can talk about people such as genderqueer physicist Julia Salevan or nonbinary transgender physicist A.W. Peet. If you teach English, include books written by nonbinary authors or that have gender-expansive characters

“We do not know our scholars’ gender identities—their internal sense of gender and the term/s used to describe that felt sense—unless we ask them and provide a space that is safe enough for them to share.”

Jesse Holzman (they/them)

4. Do not assume.

Chances are you had, have, or will have a nonbinary, transgender, or gender nonconforming student in your classroom and school. A big mistake educators can make is assuming all their students are cisgender. We do not know who students are unless they tell us. In other words, we cannot determine whether a student is a boy, girl, nonbinary, or transgender by looking at them. Students should be provided with age-appropriate tools (such as including children’s books with nonbinary, trans, and gender non-conforming characters in your classroom)—and a classroom safe enough—for sharing who they are, which includes the sharing of their pronouns if they choose. 

5. Normalize the sharing of pronouns and gender-expansive expression and behavior.

While sharing one’s pronouns should never be required for many reasons, educators can still normalize the practice. Teachers can introduce themselves by sharing their own name and pronouns or include their pronouns in their email signature. Teachers can also work with students to practice using gender-neutral pronouns such as “they or them” to refer to a classroom mascot or read aloud short narratives that include gender-neutral characters. Instead of asking students to share their pronouns, teachers can model gender-affirming behavior and let students decide whether to share their pronouns. This also allows students the room to share if their pronouns or gender expression change over time. 

6. Center students in their experiences.

Students are the experts of their own experiences and should be included in decisions that will directly affect them. This means not sharing information about a student’s gender without their consent—not even to colleagues or the student’s family. If students or staff have questions about a student’s gender, discuss next steps with the student. Students may ask for support in sharing who they are. Work with them to develop a plan and a script of what information they, and you, will share and with whom. Let the student direct the conversation.

7. Work with administrators and policymakers. 

Schools should have policies and standardized practices in place to support nonbinary and transgender students, teachers, parents, and community members. Examples might include: 

  • Accessible non-gendered bathrooms available to staff, students, and community members that don’t require a personal key 
  • Paperwork that includes language such as “Parent 1 and Parent 2” rather than “mother and father” and that provides gender options for students outside the gender binary 
  • Renaming “daddy-daughter dances” to be inclusive of all parent-student types 
  • Creating accountability structures for teachers, staff, and students who refuse to acknowledge and affirm a student’s gender 
  • Working with lawmakers to pass laws that protect nonbinary, transgender, and gender non-conforming students from discriminatory practices. 

For more examples of policies and practices that support nonbinary and trans students, check out the Human Rights Campaign’s resource, Developing a Gender Inclusive School.

Supporting trans, nonbinary, and gender-expansive students means leaning into what educators do best: being compassionate, continually learning, and challenging assumptions. Every small step we take will help build a more equitable and inclusive classroom where all students can be their authentic selves and thrive.

Jesse Holzman (they/them) is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. They are a queer, nonbinary, disabled educator and gender, sexuality, and organizational scholar. Jesse currently sits on a national advisory board for Teach for America's National Prism Alliances. 

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The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.