Being Seen

Acknowledging correct pronoun usage fosters more positive learning environment

Aimee Liu | The Chronicle

Illustration by Nishka Mishra

The topic of gender identity is no longer a national conversation; it is right here in Mason High School.

As the United States experiences new ripples of social awareness, MHS students have noticed a slight, yet significant change in their classrooms this back-to-school season: several MHS teachers have incorporated asking students about their pronouns into their student introduction processes.

Mental Health Concerns

Many students, particularly those in the LGBTQ+ community, do not feel they align with the gender they were assigned at birth. In a society full of rigid labels, these students are attempting to navigate the evolution of their identities.

Sophomore Evan Terribilini (he/him), is transgender and spent much of his adolescence feeling like an outcast for his gender identity.

“Sometimes, back in the day, people would shout my legal name, make comments on what I was wearing, or call me ‘alien’ because I was non-binary,” Terribilini said. “It got to a point where it was not okay. All of that definitely was so hard.”

Terribilini isn’t alone in these experiences. Throughout the nation, the community has continued to face personal and public discrimination.

A recent study performed by the nonpartisan and objective research organization (NORC) at the University of Chicago found that 1 in every 3 LGBTQ+ Americans faced some kind of discrimination over the past year, leading to many negative physical, mental, and psychological effects. By recognizing and respecting their identities, staff at MHS, such as Band Director and Inclusive Excellence team lead Avious Jackson (he/him), wish to ease some pain that LGBTQ+ students may be experiencing.

“We know for a fact that suicide rates [among LGBTQ+] students are higher than their peers,” Jackson said. “We can’t just say to people, ‘this is all on you.’ We have to figure out what we can do to [help students prioritize their mental health].”
This is exactly why MHS teachers have taken the initiative to ask students what pronouns they use as the school year starts. Director of Bands and lead on the MHS Culture team Ed Protzman (he/him) has been reflecting on and is hoping to change the environment at MHS.

“We wanted to offer our students [the option to share their pronouns] before they asked for it,” Protzman said. “[Inclusion] has been an evolution over the district’s Big Rock trainings and seeing the world change for the better as far as acceptance.”

Mason Steps Up

In 2018, Mason City Schools Superintendent Jonathan Cooper implemented three Big Rocks, areas he was hoping to improve on in the next three to five years: Culture, Inclusive Excellence, and Personalized Learning. Through increased cultural awareness, a celebration of diversity and push for equity, as well as an emphasis on learner-driven designs, the ultimate goal was to make Mason a more welcoming environment.

Staff members, including biology teacher Jennifer Kassner (she/her), caught on quickly. She had heard about asking students for pronouns in a Professional Development session and said that she felt “empowered” to start doing so, aiming to ensure that every kid in her classroom was supported.

“I just want everybody to feel included, accepted, and safe,” Kassner said. “I think we’ve all been in situations where we don’t feel comfortable. It’s not a good environment or one you want to be in to learn.”

Even when Kassner accidentally uses the wrong pronouns in her class, she makes sure that she apologizes for it. She appreciates her students being understanding, and believes that everyone’s efforts lead to “better relationships and more trust in the classroom.”

Across the board, staff, admin, and students have emphasized the importance of simply trying to use everyone’s correct pronouns. Junior Alex Kirk, who uses they/she pronouns, has found comfort in this effort, saying that it makes them feel “very seen and very accepted,” knowing that “if a teacher asks [their] pronouns,” they know they can trust them.

Beyond Pronouns

The venture to make sure every Mason student feels secure has gone outside of just using the correct pronouns. In band classes, a new concert dress attire policy was implemented to, according to Protzman, let “students know that [teachers] are okay with who they are, with whatever approach they are taking in life.” The new policy includes gender-neutral options for all students — they now have the option between a tuxedo shirt, dress, or blouse.

Efforts like these are not foreign to Terribilini, who told his teachers on the first day of his second semester in eighth grade that he went by he/him pronouns. He said that “all of [his] teachers were very accepting.” Though sometimes people accidentally use the wrong pronouns, he notes that, while there is “a sense of discomfort,” accidents are best to forgive, and “changes are hard to get right.”

Terribilini believes that part of the effort to make sure everyone’s pronouns are used correctly lies in the hands of students. “If you notice people using the wrong pronouns for someone you know, just pipe up and correct them,” he said. “It might be an awkward situation in the beginning, but it likely boosts the person’s confidence a ton and is seriously a lifesaver.”

Many people agree that progress towards radical acceptance can be observed, both throughout the nation and at MHS. English teacher Rachel Cronin (she/her) hopes she has contributed to some of this change in her classroom.

“I think all of the English teachers have been looking for ways to let students see someone like them,” Cronin said. “When we had some LGBTQ+ literature on the sophomore reading list last year, I had several students surprised that I normalized this. Even things like adding my pronouns to Instagram [makes a difference].”

Students, like Terribilini, seem to appreciate the efforts staff have taken to ensure the environment at MHS lends itself to be very inclusive.

“Overall, you can trust the people at this school,” Terribilini said. “Mason is so good at accepting their students and helping us feel comfortable. You can trust that there is always going to be someone there for you.”

Cronin has done her best to show up for her students and get to know them as the people they really are.

“People are afraid of change,” Cronin said. “More normalization of the fact that your identity is who you are will hopefully lead to improved societal change that sticks. The way to combat fear is to get to know people individually.”

Kassner hopes that the impact of increased inclusivity and mutual respect in classrooms transcends just those interactions.
“It’s a personal decision that you make to be kind,” Kassner said. “If everybody has that mindset, we can make some big changes.”