I walked into a classroom recently where the student teacher I supervise for the university had made a sorting chart with the children. On one side was the label NATURAL and on the other MANMADE. In each section of the chart the children had pasted appropriate items. In the lesson I was observing, my student teacher was talking about community helpers and referred to them as firemen, policemen and garbage men.
In our post lesson conference I mentioned that MADE BY PEOPLE would have been a better chart heading than MANMADE and that words like firefighters, police officers and sanitation workers were more inclusive than firemen, policemen and garbagemen. Apparently my student teacher’s exclusive language had already been pointed out by the regular classroom teacher and my student was a little embarrassed about unconciously slipping back into using terminology that might send the wrong message to the girls in the class or children who may not be sure about their gender identity. In another class I visited, the student teacher was leading a science lesson on the characteristics of animals. Every single time an animal was mentioned she referred to it as ‘he’. In the post lesson conference I suggested that perhaps the word ‘she’ could have been used equally when referring to animals or a more neutral ‘it’ could have been used. The student agreed completely telling me how dedicated she was to feminist ideals. She thanked me for pointing out the exclusivity of her language.
Language is a powerful thing and using exclusive language in even little ways sends a subtle message to some children that they aren’t included. We’ve come a long way since my childhood when exclusively male language was the norm but there is still reason to be vigilant about trying to raise a new generation for whom the use of inclusive language is a natural thing.