Though the first day of class is often bogged down with dry syllabus details, the first day is best used to set the tone and rhythm for a class. My teaching philosophy is grounded in viewing the classroom as a learning community, and the first day is instrumental in building an authentic community. Not only do we engage in target-language community building activities, but I also work to establish my classroom as a safe space where all are included, respected, and safe to make mistakes. In this short post, I want to share one of my tools to this end: the introductory questionnaire.
I really want to avoid sidetracking this post with the dark statistics that show just how important it is to support LGBTQ+ youth. I cover many of these in my posted paper on transphobia in La Mante (Netflix), and groups like The Trevor Project are dedicated to reducing suicide and self-harm among LGBTQ+ youth. I do want to draw brief attention to The Trevor Project’s 2019 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health that demonstrated the drastic reduction in suicide risk when LGBTQ+ youth have at least one supportive adult in their lives. Since moving to Oklahoma, I have had several students tell me that my classroom was the first time they’ve had a teacher who was explicitly supportive.
For these reasons, it is important to establish a clear tone in the classroom that students’ sexual identity and gender identity/expression will be respected. While syllabus ‘diversity’ statements have become standard, this doesn’t go far enough. I’ve found that a first day questionnaire goes a long way in setting the tone and providing me with essential information to understand my students’ individual experiences. This is the questionnaire I use:
When asking students for their names and pronouns, I used to leave a blank space for students to write in their pronouns. Unfortunately, many students simply skipped the question, wrote in “N/A”, or even answered with a joke. I’ve found that providing options to circle normalizes giving pronouns for the many students who have never been asked or who think such a question only applies to trans and gender diverse people. Of course, this also means I need to model the behavior myself, including my pronouns (she/elle) in my syllabus, email signature, and first day introductions to students. Bonus: it’s an introduction to their first French pronoun too!
The follow-up questions are particularly important; a student may not be comfortable being open about their identity with everyone, so asking this question avoids the potential of outing students. By asking if students would like to discuss this further, I avoid placing the burden of initiating a conversation on the student; if they mark yes, I email them immediately after class. Since I teach French, this can often lead to additional learning opportunities for students who want to learn about gender-neutral language and neologistic pronouns in French. (See my post on the topic here.)
The other questions are fairly standard, but I’ve found the final question to be the most illuminating. Students have shared all sorts of personal information there that allows me to understand important challenges in their lives – after all, my class is only one small part of their very busy lives. When students share challenges with mental health, grief, family, jobs, dyslexia, or a myriad of other issues, I can better support them through class. It is often too easy to assume a student’s disengagement from class is due to disinterest, so this question sets the tone for the class and reminds me to approach every struggling student with grace and compassion. My hope is that this question indicates to students that I recognize their individual situations and that my class is not the most important element in their lives. Plus, I want them to know from the first day of class that I actually want them to succeed.
In a small program, I see many of the same students for several classes, but I still have students fill out the form for each class. I’ve found that college is a time many students are exploring their gender identity and expression, so the questionnaire allows transitioning students to inform me of changes to their name or pronouns without placing the burden of initiating that conversation on them. Additionally, the final question often changes depending on students’ circumstances and the subject matter.
Some parting thoughts: When creating a gender-inclusive classroom, it is not enough to offer passive acceptance if/when a student provides an alternate name and pronouns. Doing so puts the onus on the student who cannot know how the professor will react to the information. Though many educators respect students’ names and pronouns, there are still many who refuse to support their students in this way. You may know that you will support trans and gender diverse students, but it’s important to make that explicit to students. When a professor offers their own pronouns and provides a space (such as this questionnaire) for all students to confidentially share their information, this signals to students that they will be respected and accepted in the class. As we all know from studying Maslow, students cannot learn effectively unless they feel safe and accepted in their class. By enacting these first-day practices, we can also provide a model for colleagues so that eventually this will be the norm.
Teach for America’s 7 Non-Negotiables for Supporting Trans & Nonbinary Students in Your Classroom
From the American Psychological Association: A Guide for Supporting Trans and Gender Diverse Students and Supporting Trans and Gender Diverse Students in Schools: Key Recommendations for School Administrators
Gender in Classrooms – primarily for K-12 teachers
GLSEN – resources for teachers and students