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Fostering a gender inclusive learning community

Michelle Guarino, PYP Coordinator, Albert Einstein Academy Charter Elementary, USA

In this article you will find easy to incorporate practices to ensure all students, including those who identify with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community, feel safe and supported at school.

«When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing.» ~ Adrienne Rich

When I first read the above quote during my credential program in the 90s, I related to it deeply, but narrowly, from my own “person of color” perspective. It never occurred to me to see it from a nonconforming gender point of view. Times have changed.

The IB mission statement highlights the philosophy we embrace as IB educators:

The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. …These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right.

Therefore, caring, respect, understanding and differences are all ideas which IB schools foster and celebrate along with the PYP attitudes: empathy, appreciation and tolerance. However, many of us are at different stages of understanding when considering these ideas from a standpoint of gender neutrality. This may be largely due to the fact that creating an inclusive culture on school campuses has often focused more on cultural diversity rather than gender identity. In order to create an inclusive learning environment for all of our students, we need practices in place which will affirm each student’s unique identity, including those of our LGBT students.

The language we use with students is an important starting place in exercising open-mindedness in support of gender neutrality. It is not difficult to replace binary language with language which is more neutral. For example, instead of saying “boys and girls,” when addressing a class, teachers can say “students,” “friends,” or “scholars.” Another option is to name your class. My classroom number was 12, so my class decided upon “Team 12”.  Additionally, gender specific terms, can often be replaced with neutral ones, whenever possible (e.g. “fireman” becomes “firefighter). Instead of using he or she, one can refer to the “student,” etc. While these changes may seem insignificant to some, to students who may be experiencing gender dysphoria, these language choices can reduce the unease they may experience when constantly messaged with gender conforming terms.

We can also take deliberate steps to negate gender stereotypes inside and outside of the classroom. Teachers should incorporate a rich body of literature with examples of women and men in non-conforming gender roles (e.g. women as scientists or men as dancers). These types of resources are not just important for LGBT students, but to help all students understand that they can reach their full potential, instead of feeling limited by gender stereotypes. In turn, when assigning roles for plays or needing help with classroom chores, teachers should not feel constrained by standard boy vs. girl assignments. A boy can play a traditionally female role in a play and girls can help move desks and lift heavy objects. On the playground, all students, regardless of gender, should be able to play whichever activity they so choose, be it jump rope or soccer. (Human Rights Campaign, 2015)

While crushing stereotypes is critical, our grouping of students should also be considered. Instead of having students line up boy/girl or work in separate groups based upon gender, teachers should consider other ways to groups students. Students can line up in number order, divide into groups based upon even and odd numbers, and attend field trips placed in mixed gender groupings. (Human Rights Campaign, 2015)

While the aforementioned practices help to foster a more gender neutral and, therefore, more inclusive environment for our LGBT students, there will be times when students make comments reinforcing gender stereotypes. “Why does Randy have long hair? Long hair is for girls.” When such comments are made, a learning opportunity has been created. As is recommended in the online article “Be Prepared for Questions and Put-Downs about Gender,” teachers can respond with statements or questions which negate gender stereotypes. For example, “Boys can have long hair, just like girls can have short.”

Teacher understanding of gender inclusive practices, in conjunction with a school’s anti-bullying policy, work together to create a learning environment in which all students feel welcome and safe. According to “Schools in Transition,” “Gender inclusive messages encourage greater acceptance of diversity and discourage children from expressing judgments about people based on factors like race, class, sexuality, gender, family structure, ethnicity and religion.” When students feel honored for who they are, they thrive socio-emotionally and academically.


Michelle Guarino has worked as a PYP educator for nine years and is currently serving as a PYP Coordinator for a German immersion school. She also taught in Taiwan. Michelle is passionate about creating learning environments in which all students can thrive. 

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