Inclusivity in the classroom is just as important as it is anywhere else. Welcoming people with different backgrounds, heritages, and life stories into the classroom community creates spaces in which students can learn freely from one another, not just from authority figures.
In addition to improving the well-being and mental health of people with diverse gender identities, inclusive classrooms decentralize the power in the room, making the space a place for ideas to be challenged and explored.
Generation Z, born after 1996, is demanding a more inclusive world. More racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generation, according to Pew Research Center, Gen Z is also more welcoming to people with diverse gender identities and expressions.
Pew finds that 35% of Gen Zers personally know someone who goes by gender-neutral pronouns (i.e., they/them), compared with 25% of millennials, 16% of Generation Xers, and only 12% of baby boomers.
With Gen Z also on track to become the most educated generation (as 57% of all 18- to 21-year-old high school graduates in 2018 were enrolled in college, according to Pew), students and colleges alike should consider ways to promote inclusivity in the classroom.
Students can adopt practices to create inclusive spaces for their peers of all gender expressions, identities, and sexual orientations. In doing so, they can foster a welcoming and respectful class setting.
Why Inclusion Matters
Why does inclusion matter? Creating inclusive classrooms promotes everyone’s well-being. With 1 in 5 Americans experiencing mental health issues each year, according to the National Association on Mental Illness, students can support each other in class by extending respect.
One sign of respect is using a person’s preferred name and pronouns, which may be different from those given to a child at birth. A chosen name is the name a person prefers others to call them by. The same goes for preferred pronouns, which may be, but are not limited to, he/him, she/her, and they/them. Studies show being socially recognized by one’s preferred name and pronouns profoundly affects a person’s mental health.
The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth, conducts routine studies on the social influences that negatively affect young people today. Its “2020 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health” found that students who were called by their chosen names at home, school, and work experienced fewer depressive symptoms and were less inclined to suicidal ideation and behavior than students who were not.
By using classmates’ preferred gender pronouns in school, students show they care about one another, that their peers see them for who they are, and that they are welcome.
Normalize Using Preferred Gender Pronouns in School
Proactively sharing one’s own pronouns normalizes the practice for everyone. Students can proactively show that people of all gender identities and expressions are respected and valued by using preferred names and pronouns. This can be done both in person and online.
In person, students can introduce themselves with their preferred names and pronouns, and ask their peers what pronouns they use, rather than making assumptions. This practice can lower the likelihood of misgendering another person (incorrectly presuming another person’s gender).
One way to normalize the practice of sharing pronouns in online classroom environments is to add pronouns to email signatures, Zoom profiles, online course module pages, and social media pages (such as LinkedIn pages).
Become an Ally (or an Accomplice)
Another way to cultivate inclusivity in the classroom is by becoming an ally. In the context of gender inclusion, being an ally involves working through discomfort, listening, and learning from one’s mistakes.
Universities can foster more inclusive learning environments by offering faculty training that teaches allyship principles, too. Training should include ways to design inclusive syllabuses and ways to model respect in the classroom (such as encouraging students to use their preferred names and pronouns in class).
One step further involves becoming an accomplice to gender equity. An accomplice leverages their own social privileges to promote equity. As social justice leader Dr. Jon Paul says, “Being an accomplice is more than just listening to others talk about the struggle. It is about solidifying a course of action that helps you commit to undoing it.”
In practice, for example, an accomplice might rally student support for creating more gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.
No single person can bring about gender equity on their own. That’s why connecting with a larger community is so crucial. Sharing resources with other LGBTQIA+ students, as well as allies and accomplices, can reinforce a mutually supportive, inclusive school culture that resonates in and out of the classroom.
Students should seek to connect with other students and staff through their university’s diversity, equity, and inclusion centers. At many schools, these groups can be found in:
- Offices for diversity and inclusion
- LGBTQIA+ student groups and organizations
- Disability resource centers
- Volunteer and service communities
Where campuses do not already have specific programming, students can rally together to form tailored student organizations. Integrating college resources into the classroom can take many forms; for example, inviting guest speakers to speak about inclusive topics can help students learn and can connect them with the larger community on topics they care about.
Many inclusive communities also exist solely online. Most Gen Z students are what Pew Research calls digital natives, meaning that they grew up connecting with friends and family online via social media and smartphones. Peer-led online communities can provide additional resources for students interested in exploring specific topics related to gender inclusion.
Learn from Theory and Practice
Ideas inspire culture, and culture inspires new ideas. Yet another way for students to contribute to creating inclusive spaces involves bringing their lived experiences into the classroom as examples for discussion and inquiry.
Some examples of inspiring inclusive spaces by sharing lived experiences may be:
- A student showing the class makeup tutorial videos on TikTok and asking whether other students think they play into traditional gender stereotypes
- Students who identify as transgender or nonbinary sharing their experiences navigating a culture that still often assumes rigid, binary gender roles
In academic language, theory (conceptions of what something is or how it works) and practice (activities or ways of doing something) inform and influence each other. As students learn to interrogate examples from the media they consume, they may also create a classroom space that is more open and understanding of gender differences.
Create Inclusive Spaces Wherever You Go
While there are many ways of promoting inclusivity in the classroom, fundamentally these efforts all focus on showing respect and concern for one’s peers. By asking for and sharing personal pronouns, rather than assuming them, demonstrating allyship, and seeking community with people of all gender expressions, identities, and sexual orientations, we create a freer, more equitable campus.
Students who are interested in diversity and inclusion on college campuses can learn more about Maryville University’s inclusion commitment in online programs.
Why Is Diversity Important in the College Experience?
How to Identify and Overcome Your Implicit Bias
7 Tips for Achieving Self-Empowerment
American Psychological Association, Gender and Sexual Orientation Diversity in Children and Adolescents in Schools
The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How to Make Your Teaching More Engaging”
GLSEN, Developing LGBTQ-Inclusive Classroom Resources
Inside Higher Ed, “Fostering an Inclusive Classroom”
Pew Research Center, “On the Cusp of Adulthood and Facing an Uncertain Future: What We Know About Gen Z So Far”
The Trevor Project, “A Guide to Being an Ally to Transgender and Nonbinary Youth”
YWCA, “What’s the Difference Between an Ally and Accomplice?”