I will never forget the first time a professor made me question my choice of language. As an undergrad in the secondary education program at Michigan State University, I had already been in college for three years, had already done work as a student teacher at three different schools. Beyond that, I thought of myself as well-spoken, and when my group presented our mock lesson, I wasn't expecting his response.
"I noticed something during your presentation, something I've seen a lot. Do you ever wonder why we say 'okay, guys' to classrooms in which half the students are not guys?.
At first, it's easy to dismiss that question as nitpicking. I know at the time I sort of rolled my eyes, because of course we all know that "you guys" is a colloquialism, much like "folks" or even the highly embarrassing "peeps" trend that took over my middle school in 2002. And of course, my group and I were mildly offended at being singled out for a phrase all of us used regularly.
That's fine and good. But when the colloquialisms we accept as normal begin to stack up, they reveal a disheartening pattern. When we say "ladies first", we are drawing a line between genders that need not be present in the classroom. I often see teachers tailor rewards by gender: "Oh, we have like cute erasers for the girls and car stickers for the boys." Again, minor, especially as a lot of boys are conditioned to love cars and engineering from age one, as girls are conditioned to admire cute things. In itself this is not wrong, but it becomes wrong when statistics reveal that girls are more likely to be praised for their sweet behavior, while boys are praised for their intelligence. In PE class, it can be so tempting to default to boys vs. girls. All these minor habits add up to something that can be really very pervasive.
I'm using the vast gender umbrella as an example, but the weight of words is broader. When we teach about health and fitness, we must be sure we don't let our students make "diabetes" jokes ("oh, you'll get diabetes!") or accidentally encourage shaming. Years ago we banned the phrase "sitting Indian-style", but I still see students giving each other "Indian burns" and I have seen teachers teaching colorblindness, saying, simply: "It doesn't matter what color someone is." Of course it does, especially in a historical context, and erasure of racial identity might be easy but it's not how you teach empathy. Sometimes those questions require complex, thoughtful answers and discussion.
For anyone who reads this and thinks something so dismissive as "wow, triggered" or "oversensitive" or "snowflake", I have one question for you: Why would the idea of putting in the smallest effort to spare another person pain be repellant to you? Why not just try it? What on earth is there to lose?
It takes time and it feels weird sometimes and it's difficult, but does that mean it's less worthwhile?
Now more than ever the tides are turning, and though the seas are rough, it is a turn for the better. We can choose to be specific with our words. If we aim to build inclusive classroom environments - and we should all be aiming for that - we should be willing to admit that the words that are easiest are not always the words that are right.