Are 21st teachers stuck in a time warp?
If a pupil calls you by your first name do you go ‘ballistic’ or just carry on with a “nothing to see here” attitude? Teachers can get precious about their titles but what’s in a name? Does it really matter whether they call you “Sir”, “Miss” or “Dave”?
The first time a pupil called me by my first name wasn’t pleasant. It ruffled my feathers, I took umbrage at the bare-faced cheek and I must have said the word “respect” at least half a dozen times in a cloud of rage. Was this the right reaction? I could have handled it better but my colleagues were all in agreement that being on “first name terms” was a no-no and blurred the boundaries. They said, they’d be calling us “mate” next and that would be a “slippery slope.”
Perhaps they were right but I wondered whether I had made a mountain out of a molehill. Junaid is Junaid. I don’t call him “boy” or “Master Junaid”, I call him by his first name. In Junaid’s head, why shouldn’t he get to call me by first name too. He knows my first name but can’t use it because the school won’t allow it.
The thing is, every pupil knows every first name of every teacher. This is something they learn and pick-up on from day-to-day conversations between staff. It’s also on the school website with your mugshot. CSI pupils will also have delved into our social media accounts and know more than our first names.
I worked in one particular school where oddly all the male teachers were just called “Sir”. Female teachers were either Mrs (insert surname here) or just “Miss” but not “Lady” or “Dame”. This was the way it was and that’s what everyone did. This wasn’t a ‘traditional’ school with blackboards and mortar boards either. This was an inner-city primary with zero privilege. For three years, I laboured under the illusion that my kids thought I was knighted for service to education.
Graeme Paton penned a great article for the Telegraph a few years ago that asked whether we are just making a lot of fuss over nothing when it comes to using first names. He cites academics arguing that the terms “Sir” and “Miss” should be binned because they are discriminative against women. Some say these terms are old-fashioned from the dinosaur age of teaching and just shouldn’t be used.
Saying “Sir” can be traced back hundreds of years when men of “lower social standing” attempted to assert their authority on upper-class boys. “Miss” goes back to Victorian times when only unmarried female teachers were employed. Paton cites Robin Lakoff (Professor Emerita of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley) who says that the title “Sir” conveys respect but “Miss” does not. But why do we need to get so hung up about traditional titles?
Just call me Dave
Some argue that we should just chill out and not get so hung up about traditional titles. “Sir” or “Miss” might indicate some sort of respect but it can divide teachers and pupils into a “them and us” and create distance.
Professor Sara Mills, from the Humanities Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University, told the Tes that “Sometimes teachers find that they can control students more when they try to stress the similarities between them.”
It could well lead to a stronger bond, but it can also lead to pupils taking liberties and getting over-familiar with their teachers which can compromise a ‘working relationship’. It’s an interesting debate. Some go for sort of a middle ground of informality and will be happy to let their pupils say “Mrs G” or “Mr P” and that seems to work as an almost title of affection. It’s a mixture of respect and a comfort blanket.
It’s time to name names
But is using our first name really that bad? Pupils can still respect us surely? Schools have their own protocols and ultimately it is the school culture that will dictate what happens. But in the UK, this is fed by a nation obsessed with titles and social class where honour and respect play a huge part.
I had a colleague who insisted we call him Dr Burns because he “spent bloody years studying for that title”. He was known by other names too. However, using the title ‘Dr’ in a school environment really did create distance for this teacher and pupils were often in awe of his expertise and felt intimidated. They felt inadequate and worried about making mistakes. However, Dr Burns loved his title because it made him feel top-dog and important. There was very little risk-taking in his class. They didn’t need reminding he was very well qualified. They just wanted someone to speak on their level and make learning an enjoyable experience.
Around the world
What children call their teachers in other countries around the globe varies but familiarity isn’t uncommon. According to Amanda van Mulligen, in some situations no names are used just the word ‘teacher’. In China, children use the teacher’s last name and add ‘laoshi‘ (teacher) after it whereas “In Finland, it’s first names or even nick-names with teachers, no titles or surnames.” For the most part in Brazil, pupils are on first name terms and the youngest often put ‘tia/tio’ (aunt/uncle) in front of the name.
Take a look at this video by YouTuber and comedy content creator Tal Fishman and the reactions of teachers in the US who get called by their first names.
I wonder. As teachers we are in loco parentis so why shouldn’t pupils use a more familiar term. We can’t expect everyone to call us “Mum” or “Dad” but is our first name really that out of bounds? Why are we so precious about first-names being ‘inappropriate’?
What did you just call me?
It’s a sticky wicket for schools. If you give teachers the autonomy to decide for themselves what they’d prefer to be addressed as then this is likely to create more divisions: “But Sir, Mrs Briggs let’s us call her Kat.” Some schools do have a first-name policy but the reality in most UK schools is that you are still seen as a bit of a bit of a maverick if you let your pupils call you by your actual first name. Either that or you are mad and just asking for trouble.
Remember Dead Poets Society? “Now in this class you can either call me Mr. Keating, or if you’re slightly more daring, O Captain my Captain.”
Personally, I’d prefer it if children were “slightly more daring”.
Recently, I saw a teacher of mine at the supermarket, “Mr Warren, how are you? I used to be in your class!”
I suddenly felt 12 years old again. He replied, “Oh heavens, just call me Brian!” but I couldn’t, it just felt so wrong.