Small changes can have big impact for inclusive classrooms

The question of how to effectively communicate and connect with students who don't identify as gender binary -- exclusively masculine or feminine -- was raised at a recent Faculty Senate meeting. Creating a supportive and inclusive environment for nonbinary, transgender and gender-nonconforming students in the classroom is something all faculty can plan for.

"These conversations are happening everywhere, and it is applicable in every area from engineering and agriculture to hospitality and kinesiology," said Brad Freihoefer, director of the Center for LGBTIQA+ Student Success.

Steps to take

An increasing number of faculty and staff allow students to share information about their gender identity.

"Instead of taking roll call on the first day, pass out a notecard and let students introduce themselves with the name and/or pronouns they want used," Freihoefer said. "By doing that, it truly transforms a class for many of the students we work with. It is important to just listen to the students."

The name on the class roster may not be the one a student desires, and using preferred pronouns shows respect, Freihoefer said. When determining the correct pronouns to use, it is important to consistently ask all members in the class, and not single out individuals.

Mistakes will happen, but the key is to not dwell on them.

"Our system doesn't quite allow for all options for preferred names or pronouns as students would like to use them," Freihoefer said.

Being proactive

Iowa State has added programming to support a more diverse student body. One example is the Inclusive Classroom Workshop available through the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT). It's been offered monthly for nearly three years and more than 300 people completed it.

The workshop focuses on inclusion and gets faculty and staff thinking about changes -- no matter how small -- that can make a big difference.

"It gets them to start to think and learn how they can help make their classroom experience more welcoming for all students, no matter who they are and what type of identities they have," said CELT program coordinator Laura Bestler.

It helps teachers create syllabi and classrooms that are as inclusive as possible. It often brings up topics teachers may not have considered restrictive -- such as questions on surveys or studies that limit options for gender and sexual identities.

"We had students taking pictures of syllabi that had been updated to ask for preferred name and pronouns and posting them," Bestler said. "It creates an atmosphere where the educator in that room cares about all of the students and who they are."

Instructors have begun changing materials they use to bring in other voices.

"When students talk to our staff, it is often to navigate classroom spaces and sometimes the curriculum where they are trying to find inclusivity," Freihoefer said. "Students are asking, 'Where are transgender people, nonbinary people in all of these researchers and history?' They know they are out there and want to get them included in the curriculum."


The center's Trans@ISU Guide provides a variety of resources, including a template students can use to inform faculty how they identify and want to be referred to in class. The center's website has other tools designed to help faculty and staff: