Original Published on Jun 13, 2022 at 19:00

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society wants public school educators to think twice about the words they use in their classrooms and swap binary terms for gender-neutral ones, among other adjustments.

Last month, the union representing roughly 16,600 employees in the K-12 school system, published a guide on inclusive vocabulary.

“We don’t expect that language-use will change like flipping a light switch,” said Sherry Jones, a staff officer at MTS who worked on the project in collaboration with the union’s equity and social justice standing committee.

“This is going to be a process for us, collectively, to first question the language we’re using and to transition to using language that is as inclusive as possible.”

The 14-page document, available to all teachers free of charge, stresses the importance of terminology in creating welcoming schools for all visitors — especially members of minority groups who experience bullying and discrimination at higher rates than their peers.

Educators are urged in the guide to be careful of generalizing and stereotyping, learn about the origins of the words they use and honour every individual’s preferred terms.

“Language is important when speaking about identity because it creates respect by allowing people to use language that describes their identity,” states an excerpt on pronoun usage.

Proper names of nationalities, peoples and culture should be capitalized, according to the document, which encourages teachers to consider whether introducing or describing someone by their race, culture or ancestry is necessary.

The toolkit prescribes “Indigenous” rather than “Aboriginal” as the preferred way to describe people who identify as First Nations, Métis or Inuit.

It encourages teachers to focus on individuals first — for example, writing “person with a disability” instead of “disabled person” — and discourages the use of offensive terms, such as “handicapped.” Educators should also be careful about portraying a person as “courageous” or “special” because they have a disability, per the guide.

Also in the document is an acknowledgement of the various types of diverse families that exist, ranging from blended households to common-law relationships. Teachers should refer to a “birth parent” rather than “natural parent” or “real parent,” it states.

The guidelines have been published in both English and French.

Jones said the toolkit is a working document that will evolve alongside language itself so that teachers can access a resource to help them model up-to-date terminology for their students.

The latest project will bolster the union’s existing initiative to distribute safe-space signs, which are posters displaying an intersectional LGBTTQ+ flag (a new design featuring the familiar six-colour rainbow updated with chevrons of light blue, light pink and white from the trans flag and brown and black chevrons to represent community members of colour) to teachers, she said.

So far, the feedback from members has been positive, Jones said, noting that one Winnipeg teacher has already discussed the document with students who are part of the gay-straight alliance at his school and they are discussing how to share the contents with their wider community.

It was by happenstance that the guide was published shortly before Pride month 2022; union members passed a resolution to create it at an annual general meeting in 2020.

As far as MTS president James Bedford is concerned, inclusive language should be built into all curriculum documents.

One way educators can create spaces that are both psychologically and physically safe for everyone is by adjusting vocabulary in their assignments, Bedford said. The union leader used writing a math problem that acknowledges families can have two mothers or two fathers as one simple example.

“If we’re not paying attention to the language that we use…. We could be sending a negative or an unsafe message unknowingly,” he said.

This item reprinted with permission from Free Press, Winnipeg, Manitoba