They?…I Think: The Beauty of Empathy




With the latest round of learning reports (aka report cards) completed and another year in the books, a colleague and I reflected on our reporting of learning to our students this year. A common thing that came flashing back was the use of pronouns in our reports.

We started using “They” as in “They demonstrated an improvement towards mastery of solving single variable algebraic equations”. The student in this case is a male. In fact, unknown to each other we changed the pronoun back to “he” prior to printing the report card. But, it felt cheap and judgmental. Still, this student had not made any requests to use a specific pronoun or even refer to them in any other way then by their name (which to be perfectly honest is one those names that are often coeducational in nature; think Courtney, Ainsley, Hailey, etc.

Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it’s accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify, to plunge ourselves in a story where we see the world from the bottom up or through another’s eyes or heart.

~Sue Monk Kidd

Following our second winter reporting sessions in March of this year, my colleague and I debated at length about the importance of being proactive. Being progressive. Modelling essential language. Being the change…

We assumed that the debate was an either/or one. Should we be proactive and simply use “they” for the collective pronoun for all students? Or are we making assumptions about others gender identity through our use of “they”? Are we treading into Jordan Peterson-like waters of controversy? Should we just keep it simple? As progressive and highly educated (and privileged) white men, should we, without question, accept the general sway of sexual identity and gender orientation politics in the era of inclusion?

Or are we simply overthinking this…?

Collectively, we (us and our students) spent a full day with transgender advocate, Milo Leraar, learning about SOGI issues and LGBTQ+ allyship in a workshop earlier this spring. I even participated in a workshop that focused on educator advocacy for LGBTQ+ students that was offered by the British Columbia Teachers Federation two years ago. More recently, I supported a student-led school-based gay-straight alliance, and helped to advocate and convert a little-used washroom in the same school into a gender-neutral facility for all school community members.


What I observed in that recent aforementioned in-school SOGI workshop was this: students want to know how to support the SOGI movement; they want to get the terms right; and they want fairness and equity for all. The depth of questions and a desire for shared understanding was paramount among both groups. My judgment is that more and more students are comfortable with, and in fact don’t even give, LGBTQ+ issues a second plus. It’s a non-starter. They are coming out. Their friends are coming out and they want to support each other. They don’t know differently. There is no context for homophobia if you are born into, and live within, a very liberal family and community (of which must of our classroom families do).

I think that we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.

~Maya Angelou

recent post by writer TED.ideas writer Mary Halton, a long along bookmarked personal declaration by Thu-Huong Ha, and a podcast by long-time educator, Jennifer Gonzalez have all reminded (and reinforced) my role as a parent and middle school educator. Holding space. Keeping it safe. Keeping the classroom and school free from ignorance. Being and modeling allyship. It seems like s simple role; but nothing could be further from the truth.

As a middle school educator, the effectiveness within my role comes down to displaying and modelling empathy; more specifically, empathy with the importance of intention. If my intention is to support and provide safe spaces for learning for all students then the language, while important, is somewhat superfluous. Acknowledging the individual is the basis for empathy; empathy for the group is difficult to hold and conceive.

Where does this leave us? For me, the importance of getting the pronoun correct is essential, but so too, is honouring the individual. The utilization of “they” in report comments or addressing individuals face to face is, for any clearly self-identified student, perfectly perfect. If that same student were to publicly declare otherwise (and thus necessitating a change in reporting language), my intention of being open can never be criticized. This coming from my own worst critic, me.







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