What do you call your students?

Have you noticed that the issue of gender identity seems to be coming to the fore? A recent BBC programme talked about the ‘gender continuum’ and looked at some of the differences between gender and sex. The programme memorably suggested that sex was what was between your legs and gender was what was between your ears. But then pointed out that it was possible to have female chromosomes and male genitalia.

Why am I wondering about this? Well, because I recently spoke to a school teacher who was in the habit of addressing her class as ‘ladies and gents’, but recently one of her pupils took exception to this and asked why she didn’t use a gender neutral term. So that is my question: how do you address your students? If there really is a gender continuum rather than clear categories is this something we need to think about?

I know that some teachers address their students as ‘guys’, which seems to have become slightly non gender-specific in the plural – but if I said I met a guy recently, wouldn’t you nevertheless think I meant a male?

What do you call your students?



  1. I’ve never really thought about this. When I was teaching children, I generally used a class name or year number to try to evoke a sense of belonging, whether good or bad. E.g. if they had done well, I might say something like, “Oh Year 5, your behaviour was excellent last week! I can only imagine what a fantastic Year 6 you will be next year when you are our oldest pupils!”

    When I worked in Finland, many teachers used ‘oppilas’ or ‘oppilaita’ (students) as a catch-all and they often called me ‘opetaja’ (teacher) instead of using my name. I think that, when done in a nice tone, has a feel of mutual respect.

    Now I’m in adult ed and I’m the manager, I rarely address groups as a whole and therefore tend to just use names. I do unfortunately send emails with a ‘Dear all!’ opening, which is admittedly awful.

  2. When I’m addressing my local musical theatre group (age 8-18), I use their company name – ‘Well done, Harbourlights – that was a fantastic rehearsal!’ Talking to a tutorial group I tend to say ‘Everyone’. – ‘Hello, everyone. Welcome to the tutorial.’ I can’t say I use these gender-neutral salutations because I’ve thought about it, though. It’s simply become a habitual way of talking.

  3. I’d tend to stick with ‘Everyone’ or ‘People’. I don’t think too many students are overly worried, but it can be an issue if you do have somebody who is clearly gender fluid in the class. This has happened to me. It’s hard to know what to do if the do not make clear which, if any, pronoun they prefer. I eventually asked all students to write a short description of themselves in the third person and submit it to me.

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