I’m One of the Most Well-Known LGBTQ Teachers in the US and I Was Called Out by a Fourth-Grader for Failing to Be Gender Neutral

I messed up today. I messed up, and a nine-year-old called me out. In front of the whole class.

That’s right, one of the most well-known LGBTQ teachers in the United States was called out by a fourth grader for not being gender-neutral.

But it was beautiful seeing an entire class of fourth graders all giving me “that look” and nodding like I made a big no-no. I did make a big no-no, and I should have known better.

And I couldn’t be prouder.

Let me explain.

I’m usually a half-day resource room teacher, but quite often I’ll step in and work an afternoon in a class if the school hasn’t been able to get a substitute. It happens quite a bit, so I’ve gotten to know some of these students pretty well.

I’m funny—and the kids, who can get pretty wild (which is why the subs don’t always show), appreciate that I’m respectful of them. My co-teacher said, “The kids just love you.” And that has become part of the problem.

This situation is a little overwhelming at times because I have always been a very hands-off teacher. Most of my career was in a county-level special education classroom working with 17- to 21-year-olds who had multiple severe disabilities. One of my goals was to teach them that people shouldn’t get in their personal space. So I didn’t enter that space unless it was absolutely necessary.

But now I sometimes find myself pinned to the wall while a swarm of kindergarten students scream “Mr. B!” and try to hug me. I say things like, “Don’t hug me! I’m mean, remember!” And they laugh and scream and ignore my high-fives and tell me I’m so nice and they grab at my legs. I find it to be the most incredible compliment, and I’m also kind of horrified at the same time.

So that gives you an idea of what my job entails and what is going through my head on an average day.

That brings us to today.

Today was the day we took all 400 kids on a 1.5-mile walk through the neighborhood, across a highway, past big, scary barking dogs, broken glass and speeding cars to this really fancy park. I did crossing duty at the highway, watching semi trucks struggling to slow down when they saw wave after wave of kids crossing.

A teacher stayed back and I was assigned her second-graders—and some rescue meds. Did I mention there were 400 kids running around the park? Then we walked back.

I share all this so you will know it was a hectic day to start, and when we returned to the school I was assigned to take over the P.E. classes for the rest of the day. In comes the kindergarten class to screams of “Mr. Beeeeeeeeee!” And suddenly I’m swarmed again, just like I was at the park. As class ended, I was herding kindergarten kids out the back door as the next class, fourth-graders, came in the front.

“C’mon boys and girls, this way!” I hollered to the new crop of kids.

Again, I said loudly across the gym, “Boys and girls, come on in and take your spot on the floor!”

And it flashes in my mind that I might be able to get away with “boys and girls” with kindergarten students, but not so much with fourth-graders.

I try to be gender-neutral and I had just blown it, but there are still these kindergarten students saying goodbye and trying to hug me and I wasn’t thinking, so I dug the hole a little bit deeper.

“Ladies and gentlemen, take your spot on the floor!” And I even winced this time as it came out of my mouth. “Way to be gender-neutral,” I thought as I shook off the last kindergartner.

For my entire career, I’ve used “sir” and “ma’am” with my students. For the first couple of years of my career, I was a sub. I had 20-30 new kids every day and didn’t know a single name. But what I found was, students really liked it. I remember a very shy African American boy asking me once why I would call him “sir.” “It shows respect,” I answered. And the look on his face as he processed that cemented my use of “sir” and “ma’am.” I believe it has done me well over the years, so I’ve had a very hard time leaving that behind as I try to become gender-neutral.

As the “boys and girls” of this fourth grade class sat down, a hand went up.

“You shouldn’t use “boys” or “girls.” One of us is transgender and that could hurt their feelings, you should use something gender-neutral.”

And there you go.

I was called out by a fourth-grader. But I loved it.

This moment confirmed for me that I was not losing something by leaving the terms “ladies and gentlemen” and “sir and ma’am” behind. I once used those words to show respect—however, to use them now shows disrespect. In fact, it might even cause harm.

There are a number of ways teachers can make their classrooms gender-inclusive and support transgender and non-bianary students. Two of the most basic are avoiding the use of gendered terms to address students and addressing students by their preferred pronouns. A school or district may even choose to adopt an official policy like they have in New York City and Chicago.

As the kids spread out to shoot hoops and jump rope, I had a few moments with the transgender student. I apologized and admitted I struggle sometimes because just saying “students” feels impersonal. So I asked this student what they would be most comfortable with and we both agreed that “everyone” and “everybody” felt the best because it was so inclusive.

So, for those of you still struggling to change your vocabulary. I suggest we listen to this student. Everybody. Every one of us.

That’s what I learned at school today. What did you learn?

Brett Bigham
Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He is the only Oregon special education teacher to be named Teacher of the Year and to win the NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence. He is the creator of Ability Guidebooks, a series of support books for people with autism that give step-by-step directions how to ...

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