“Miss, Miss, Can I…” – To name or not to name?

This weekend I stumbled across a Guardian debate about whether or not teachers should be called by their first name. You can see the original article here. The article begins with a story of a teacher, whom had previously been referred to as ‘Professor’ due to her level of expertise, experiencing a pupil’s unavoidable habit of referring to all females as ‘Miss’.

Coates says: “It’s a depressing example of how women are given low status and men, no matter how young or new in the job they are, are given high status…Miss is ridiculous: it doesn’t match Sir at all. It’s just one of the names you can call an unmarried woman.”

I have to say this surprised me. It had honestly never occurred to me to mind being called ‘Miss’, even though I am a married woman. Perhaps it is because I’ve never had the title which that teacher had, but I know the children do not mean anything by referring to me as ‘Miss’. In fact, I’m sure some of my class would be horrified if they thought it upset me that they’d been referring to me like that for all this time.

The next thing that I found interesting was people’s opinions. Starting on the Guardian website itself, I read through some of the comments. The first comment which is in the ‘recommended’ section opens with

I think the system is outdated. I think our own names should be used in every classroom. Part of behavioural issues come from the fact that kids have an inbuilt need to rebel. If you humanise teachers, rather than make them authoritarian and superior, Then what is there left for kids to rebel against?

To begin with, I agree with this. The use of titles comes from the days when no one would address another adult by their first name before being told they were entitled to do so. This doesn’t happen now. When I first met my hairdresser, she wasn’t ‘Mrs [surname]’ until I knew her on a friendly basis, she was just Sally. When I got to the bank for a mortgage, I don’t speak to ‘Mr [surname]’ I speak to George. The days of using titles to address every day people have long passed, so why do we still enforce it in education?

Following this initial comment was this:

Schools are there to prepare children for life, and there are many situations in life where you would expect to address people formally. You can always relax such a requirement, but it is hard to teach if young people start with a casual attitude.

This seems to go directly against the point I mention before. Actually, I don’t think it does. Yes, we do have to address people formally on occasions. When I had an interview for my current job I was expected to behave in a formal way – I was still introduced to the head teacher by his first name. Knowing his first name, and using it in reference, did not mean I sat down and started regaling the time that young x in my class thought the plague was when the zombies took over the UK. This would not be appropriate for this situation. I would argue that undoubtably children do need to know that there is different lexicon for different situations and that we do not address everyone the same – but this is not taught through enforcing the use of a title before my name. This is taught through modelling and a discussion of expectations.

In actual fact, the majority of comments relating to the reason we should be called by Mr/Mrs instead of our first names was in terms of respect. This bothered me the most out of any of the explanations – why/how would the name someone calls you cause respect? I can think of several teachers who I wouldn’t say were respected by their classes – they’re still called by their surnames. Equally, I don’t believe my class would treat me any differently if I asked them to call me by my first name. If you really think the only reason you’ve got respect is because of the way a child addresses you, is that enough? I hope that I have the respect of my class as I work hard to ensure all my decisions are in their best interest, they’re fair and consistent and that I’m always thinking about our class. My actions have earned their respect, just like their actions have earned my respect. It’s not given to me because of a title.

My tweet in response to the Guardian call for opinions was:

It was here that I noticed the difference. From reading the comments on the Guardian website I felt that the majority of those who had commented were against it. The main reasons seemed to be a worry about the lack of respect it showed for teachers but all in all teachers’ felt that things should stay as they were. Then I checked out the hashtag #nametheteacher to see what was being said there. It was a different story. On Twitter, the majority didn’t seem to mind as long as the name they were being referred to wasn’t rude! This was very intriguing to me. What was it about the demographics of Twitter that made the entire debate be viewed from a different perspective? Now, I am not going to draw any conclusions here – I will leave that to you, but it is definitely worth considering its implications.

At this point I thought it would be interesting to know what children thought about calling their teacher by their first name. Knowing that even on a Sunday some of my class would be checking Edmodo (see post here for more information on this) I posted it there and waited to see what it said.

Surprisingly to me, the first few posts almost mimicked those on the Guardian’s website. The children felt that it showed respect and was formal and therefore should be kept. However, a few of the children expressed that they personally would not like it if they were referred to in this way. Some of the more opinionated within the class specified that they would like to call teachers by their first names but they did not really offer a suggestion as to why they wanted this. Others said that they didn’t care either way and they were happy to use whichever name the teacher preferred.

Overall, 60% of my class would prefer to call me by my first name with one child explaining that it made him feel more ‘at home’. Even more interesting than that was that 70% of my class felt that they would feel differently towards a teacher who let them call them by their first name.

2 Comments [Add Yours]

  • Lee

    June 8, 2014 12:09 am Reply

    I always encourage students to call me by my first name, but am surprised (as I have gotten older) how many will not - even though I encourage it in an ongoing way. They will come to the point of saying Dr. Lee...but few will go further than that. I think it is a sign of respect for our students' experience to encourage them to be on a first name basis with us. In the schools in which I taught K-12, the power differential is expected to be such, that culturally, I would have been suspected of being far too lenient or inappropriate relationships with students had I asked my 6th graders to call me Lee.
    • Sway Grantham

      June 8, 2014 8:01 am Reply

      Yes you're right. You couldn't do it in a regular primary school without it being whole school policy as children need to know the expectations and parents need to feel comfortable.

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