Since I don’t have the ability to be in a classroom all of the time, I educate school staff on ways to make their learning spaces inclusive and safe for all kids, specifically those who identify as LGBTQIA+. A student doesn’t need to be out or even know they identify as something other than cisgender and straight; all classrooms should be affirming because acceptance matters and the queer community needs informed and motivated allies.
Ace Schwarz is a 7th grade science teacher who teaches in Maryland, and if any teacher knows the value of inclusion, Ace Schwarz does. Mx. (pronounced mix) Schwarz is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. They created a Get To Know You sheet that needs to be used in every classroom.
In an Instagram post, Schwarz showed an example of the simple half-page sheet they use to collect information from students which they can use throughout the year. The simplicity and thoughtfulness of these questions not only provides a space to kids who need it to find support for sharing and exploring their identity, but it informs the cisgender and heterosexual kids about the importance of other identities and gender neutral pronouns.
It’s a privilege folks don’t always realize they have when someone correctly genders them or assumes their preferred pronouns based on appearances. Knowing this privilege will hopefully help students and teachers (and anyone) realize that there is more to the story than the gender stereotypes and implicit biases that cause us to label someone a male or female. It also helps facilitate conversations that explain gender is not binary; there are a variety of genders with many gender expressions to accompany them.
This type of inclusion can (and does) save lives. Yes, literally.
The simplicity and thoughtfulness of these questions provides a space to kids who need it to find support for sharing and exploring their identity.
I am queer and identify as nonbinary. I like to assume all people are a little bit queer; I don’t assign labels because of this, but my mindset shifts. Gender and sexuality are fluid, and I’d rather be more open-minded than exclusive. This is also in part because I am trying to provide what I so desperately wanted as a student — and still would like to see offered to me and others. I go out of my way to not gender people and students because I don’t want to be gendered. I talk openly about gender, gender expression, and sexuality because we all have unique labels (even if changing and evolving) for those human characteristics; we shouldn’t feel shamed into silence for not talking about who we are. I speak louder for the ones who can’t speak at all.
Ace Schwarz does too. They use their platform and role as a teacher to be an advocate for LGBTQIA+ students and teachers. Schwarz runs their school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) and is developing a transition plan with administrators for teachers and students. They were recognized as Educator of the Year for 2019 by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) for the advocacy work they do to create LGBTQIA+ resources and inclusive spaces for parents, school staff, and students. They are amazing.
Referring to the Get To Know You sheet, Schwarz says this, “These papers are for my eyes ONLY. I keep them in my class binders and use them as references throughout the year. This is also just one of the activities I do on the first day (I use it to model how to complete class warm ups).”
I love that Schwarz makes it clear that students’ answers are for their eyes only. This is indicated several times on the sheet itself by the consent Schwarz asks of their students when it comes to who (if anyone) can know how a student wants to identify vs. needs or wants to be seen. For some kids that is where the depression, anxiety, and fear live. A student may know their gender does not align with the one assigned to them at birth but they are be terrified to fully admit it to themselves and their parents.
For the kids who know their family will not be supportive of their questioning or transgender identity, the secrecy of their struggle turns into shame and self-harming thoughts and acts. A closeted and fearful kid is often seen as a distracted or disruptive student, but they are just trying to get through the day in most cases. If an LGBTQIA+ student has just one accepting adult in their life, their risk of suicide is cut almost in half. Ace Schwarz is that person, and they are under no obligation to inform anyone—even parents—about the student who is requesting a private conversation about pronouns that can’t be used at home.
When parents are not accepting, coming out isn’t emotionally safe. It may not be physically safe either. Coming out isn’t an option and being outed is dangerous.
Even in the most accepting and diverse homes, a child still feels the need to come out, and that is more than telling the parents and siblings who we live with.
If a student wants to be called a different name or use a pronoun that is not the one assumed to be the “right” one, then that trickles into friendships and classrooms. It also means a new, more authentic life of finding and loving an identity that is rooted in truth and happiness. But gender nonconforming, gender fluid, nonbinary, and transgender folks can’t get to that place without the safety and compassion of adults like Ace Schwarz.
A closeted and fearful kid is often seen as a distracted or disruptive student, but they are just trying to get through the day in most cases.
The Get To Know You sheet is a respectful way to ask a student how they would like to be addressed, and it’s a great way to take the emotional labor off of the kids who shouldn’t have to explain any of this to their peers.
Not only do we need to normalize saying our pronouns, but we need to normalize the fact that there are gender neutral pronouns that folks use too. All pronouns are valid, and it shouldn’t be a burden to anyone to respect and use them appropriately.
Inclusivity and kindness start in the classroom, but the lessons learned from teachers like Mx. Schwarz extend beyond school walls. Taking the time to get to know someone can be applied to everyday life.
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