There are lots of perspectives on how we honour student identity in report cards. Recently, I was invited to respond to the following query:
In some reports, our teachers are using the term “they” to replace all pronouns for he/she (ex. “Mary showed proficiency in their reading comprehension this term”).
I am certainly not an expert on this, but I do understand that the preferred pronoun should be used for each child. However, my understanding is “they/them” is also a choice pronoun and therefore should no longer be used as a neutral term when referring to a child? Is my understanding correct?
Does anyone have information to help clarify correct inclusive language for all?
First, I would just like to amend some language use. Within the question, there is a reference to “preferred” pronouns. There has been a shift from the use of “preferred” to “personal” pronouns or just to pronouns with no qualifier. Many people who use pronouns other than those that correspond with their sex assigned at birth, will assert that these aren’t simply the pronouns they prefer (implying there is a choice for people in how they refer to said person) and that they simply ARE the pronouns that describe them. A helpful distinction to be more inclusive of gender diverse folks.
The best answer I can give to the question posed is “it depends.” In some cases, districts may have some language on this in policy or procedure documents (even if it might not be specific to reporting). I don’t believe there is a definitive answer on this.
I struggle a bit on using they for everyone because everyone’s pronouns should be respected. Many educators are inviting students to indicate their pronouns, and if having done so, should be using the declared pronouns in their references to a child, including in their report.
To me there is a difference between being gender neutral and being gender expansive. In gender neutrality, we essentially disregard gender and use the same words for everyone. In gender expansivity, we recognize the diversity of gender and the ways in which it is expressed, including the pronouns that accurately describe people (typically through self-identification).
Having said that, I also notice that I’m developing the tendency to use “they’ when I am referring to someone to avoid misgendering them in a hurtful way. It does tend to be more harmful to accidentally refer to “he” as “she” than to refer to “he” as “they” and I do tend to think that this is a direction that language is headed in. In part, I believe that this is becoming the practice as we normalize pronouns. It reminds me a bit of a period in time when the distinction between “Miss,” “Ms.,” and “Mrs.” was quite defined, and people were asserting which honourific they used, and eventually, it’s become quite common to refer to all female identifying women as “Ms.”
One of the things to also take into consideration is the possibility of outing a student. In some cases, using “they” can create a situation where it accidentally and unintentionally outs a student – even in situations where students aren’t out or visible to the educators involved. So, I do think that, if an educator is using “they/them” pronouns for all students, they need to have a clear rationale, and to articulate this clearly to students and their families.
With regard to the actual report writing process………..
My tendency when writing reports has always been to use the student name as the stem, and then qualify the performance. I started doing it and drafting a bank of comments that didn’t have pronouns so that when I cut and pasted and used the same statement for multiple students, I didn’t have to edit to ensure that proper personal pronouns were used. The ability to do this depends a bit on how the report form / platform is structured. (For clarification, this was something I was doing before I was involved in any kind of SOGI advocacy)
- makes thoughtful contributions to classroom conversations
- works productively and makes effective use of class time
- completes assignments thoroughly, with a high degree of quality
- continues to need reminders to avoid sarcasm in responses to others 😋
In the comment provided in the example “Mary showed proficiency in their reading comprehension this term,” I would actually suggest adjusting it by simply removing the pronoun. “Mary showed proficiency in reading comprehension this term.” In this regard I have not used any language that contradicts what I know about Mary and I haven’t made any assumptions about their gender. I’m also not using any pronouns that contradict how Mary has indicated how I should refer to Mary (i.e. if she uses she/her pronouns).
This eliminates a lot of potential problems by honouring the student, being gender expansive, and avoiding language that parents might question or take offense to.
This following comes from a resource that I encountered with some tips about using they/them as singular pronouns, but as indicated in the preamble, refers to students who actively use they/them pronouns.
Using “They” as a Singular Pronoun: Some tips for Report Writing