What’s In a Name?

What do your students call you?  Would you rather they called you something else?

A couple of years ago, a reader named “Viceroy” left this baffling comment on a post that had nothing to do with his observation.

I notice that your students, who appear to be 17 & 18 years old, are required to addess [sic] you as “Miss”. Is this a symptom of the Anglo-Saxon education system where the student is required to humiliate himself/herself every time the teacher is spoken to? I’ve been teaching now for 25 years, and no student has ever called me by anything other than my first name. Makes I think for a much more relaxed and mutually respectful atmosphere.

After trying to puzzle out what he was talking about, I replied thusly:

What an odd comment. My students are in no way required to call me “miss” – in fact, I and many of my colleagues have struggled for years to get our students to call us by our names, even going so far as refusing to answer when we’re addressed as simply “sir” or “miss.” Most of us have given up the fight, as they persist in calling us by these titles, with no name attached, no matter what we do. I now tell my students that I prefer that they call me by my first name or by “Ms. Curious,” whichever they’re comfortable with, but most instinctively call me by the catch-all “miss,” and I suspect some would be hard-pressed to tell you my name if you asked them.

(The commenter’s choice of username – “Viceroy” – probably deserves some parsing, but let’s not bother.)

This exchange came to mind this afternoon, as my friend Susan and I were playing hooky from our grading and having afternoon tea (scones! cucumber sandwiches!) at the lovely Montreal salon Le Maitre Chocolatier.  Susan, also a CEGEP teacher, mentioned that she refuses to answer her students if they call her just “Miss,” and that after a few weeks of being ignored, they cave and learn her name.  She especially loves it when they call her “Miss Susan.”

I’ve never been able to stick to my guns that long.  And the truth is, although I did try for years to get them to call me “Siobhan” – out of some sort of anti-authoritarian principle, I suppose – I have always felt a twinge of discomfort when they do.  I still hate “Miss” as a generic teacher name, but I’m resigned to it.  “Ma’am,” on the other hand, charms me – I know some colleagues detest it, as it makes them feel old, but as far as I’m concerned, being old is an asset to a teacher.  And I do love “Miss Siobhan,” but when a student calls me “Ms. Curious,” that sits just right with me.  I sometimes wonder if I should instruct them to do so, and refuse to answer to anything else.

(At least one of my colleagues insists on being addressed as “Dr. _________.”  This has always struck me as insufferable, but if we were teaching university, I doubt I’d think twice about it.  Maybe I’m just a self-hating lowly CEGEP instructor.)

I believe we should all get to decide what others call us, but when it comes to choosing battles, this one seems less than pressing.  On the other hand, Susan says that when her students concede to call her by her name, it changes the tone in the classroom – the relationship becomes more reciprocal, and they seem to feel more of a responsibility to treat that relationship properly.

Do you have rules about how your students address you?  Do they follow them?

Image by Jakub Krechowicz

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40 responses

  1. The norm in the department where i work is to address the doctoral faculty as “Dr. _____”. i still get the occasional “Miss ____” with some of my undergraduate students. All the masters students use “Dr. ___” and the doctoral students call me by my first name.

    It took me awhile to own Dr. before my name.

  2. I always figured addressing a teacher as Mr/Ms/Dr insertnamehere was a sign of respect. Not the humiliation tactic your commenter claims it to be. Though I’ll admit, I did a lot of Sir and Miss in high school. I know my mother (a high school teacher) has a very hard time convincing students who graduated to address her by her first name, though.

    • I agree whole heartedly that the title is a sign of respect and nothing more. In fact, I address my students as Miss. XXX or Mr. XXX, ladies and gentlemen, sir and miss. It creates an atmosphere where the students feel respected by the adults as well as the adults feel respected by the students.

  3. I teach at a public high school in the western United States. It’s a pretty informal place, overall. Students use everything from first name, last name, to “Mr.” or “Miss” (I’m convinced they don’t know the difference between “Miss” and “Mrs.”) – we even have one teacher that the students call by his nickname, “Bubba”. Most of my students call me by my last name only, no “Mr.”, and that has never bothered me.

    What does bother me is when students pat or touch me on the shoulder. I’m average height for a man, but it seems that somehow my shoulder is an invitation for a hand-rest. I’ve never had a student do so in a threatening manner, but I’ve had several students over the years come to believe that we have such a close relationship that they can clasp my shoulder. It’s almost always my right shoulder, too. Odd behavior.

    It’s not only students who do this, but other male colleagues feel this compulsion, too. I suppose it’s some sort of dominance thing, or maybe an act of brotherhood – but it just bothers the hell out of me. When I get the shoulder pat or shoulder squeeze, I usually give back the most evil eye I can compose. By then, sadly, the damage is done; the shoulder’s assaulted; the dominance established. Oh to be 2 inches taller – with an unassailable arm socket!

  4. At the beginning of the semester, when I introduce myself to the class, I tell them directly that I’m comfortable with them calling me Scott, Mr. Weaver, Professor Weaver, etc. As long as they’re comfortable calling me one of those things, I’m comfortable answering to them. But I try to give them a choice.

    Some students call me by the first name (younger ones usually — I teach at a community college, so there’s a mix). Some go the whole semester clinging to the “Professor Weaver” thing. Doesn’t matter to me, as long as they’re comfortable talking to me, which I think is the most important part.

    I feel uncomfortable telling students to call me by one specific name. I’d rather they use the one they feel comfortable with.

    Of course, they call me all kinds of things outside of earshot, I’d imagine, which means the universe is working as it should.

  5. As an assistant teacher in Japan, I get ‘Sarah,’ ‘Sensei,’ ‘Sarah-sensei’ (which I particularly like) and ‘Sarah-san’ (which I don’t, as it suggests I am not a teacher).
    I find it difficult referring to former teachers as anything but ‘Mr./Ms./Mrs. ~’ but I’ve never seriously called a teacher ‘sir.’

    • Sarah: when I was in Japan, I had to sit one of my fellow teachers down and ask her to call me “Siobhan-sensei” and not “Siobhan-san” in front of the students. She found this highly amusing, but did as I asked.

  6. I tell my students that they can call me whatever they want behind my back, but to my face I always prefer “Adam.”

  7. I always introduce myself by my full (rather long) name in the beginning of the school year. Some of my students refer to me as Angel (it is kind of close to my first name, Ingela, which is probably how it came to be once upon a time), others refer to me as Darth Vader (always wear black and am kind of harsh when it comes to being on time, deadlines and things like that), but mostly they call me by my first name or the Swe equivalent of Miss (Fröken) if they do not know me well enough to know my name. Some use my online moniker, Morrica, since they know me from Twitter or follow my blog, and since that is also part of my real name it makes very little difference to me.

  8. I’m not 100% sure if this is applicable, but here in the South little kids still say “Yes, Ma’am”, “No, Sir”, “Miss” (even if they are in fact married), and “Mr.”.

    This is still a strange one for me, not a lot of people teach their kids to say that where I grew up in Michigan. When I moved to TN as a 13 year old, I had to learn quick; just saying “Yeah?” or “What?” to a teacher was a big no-no. My mom’s a teacher, as well, and being referred to as “Miss Kathy” and “Ma’am” had to have been a head turning experience- especially knowing that it was done out of respect. It’s still weird for me when my husband and I babysit a friend’s child, and I’m referred to as “Miss”; all these years later it’s still a shock to the system for me; but I have to confess I like hearing it, and I can’t wait to teach our kids.

  9. I am not and have never been a teacher of any kind (not clever enough!!) but I do remember in school (left UK high school in ’93) we were asked to call teachers ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’ or, when the situation called for it Mr/ Mrs/ Miss ‘Surname’. I never understood why and just assumed it was a respect thing. It always seemed a bit silly if I’m honest, as if their first names were somehow taboo.

    It did make me giggle a bit to read that your friend is called ‘Miss Susan’ as I am an avid fan of Terry Pratchetts Discworld series and ‘Miss Susan’ is the name of one of his biggest characters ;)

  10. I’m an American teacher in North Africa, and in this country, all the children are trained in French and Arabic schools to call the teacher “Miss,” or “Teacher.” Therefore, even in English-language schools they do it. I used to explain to my elementary children that it was not polite in English to use a title without an accompanying name, but because it is polite in French, as well as what form of politeness they are being taught at home, it is difficult to overcome. It’s hard to fight the whole society. Perhaps some of your students are influenced by the same thing, being Canadian, and French being one of the official languages? It never occurred to me not to answer a child who called me “Miss,” or “Teacher,” although I always pointed out to them what they should say. It was generally the same children who forgot over and over. Now I tutor from home, and have one student (perhaps my most polite student) who always calls me “Miss” even though he was one of my elementary students and should know better. It always grates on my ears, but I overlook it because I understand that it is his intention to be polite. I think I’ve just given up on this!

    –Lynne Diligent
    interculturalmeanderings.wordpress.com

    • Lynne: You might be right about the influence of French, but I grew up in an area where French was not an influence, and we also called our teachers “Sir” and “Miss,” with no names attached. In fact, one day we were flummoxed when our junior high school principal stormed into our classrooms and berated us about not calling our teachers by their names; the thought of calling them Mrs. X and Mr. Y was strange – laughable, even – to us, and we had no idea why he’d get all upset about it.

  11. I’m old fashioned. A good ol’ mister and misses will do the trick. It’s easier to keep the line clear between learner and teacher, and it instills proper respect long forgotten.

  12. If I meet some of my previous teachers in the supermarket, etc. and have a chat, invariably I will call them by their first name as I know most of them very well. If I didn’t know them so well, it would probably still be by their first name as I’m an older person now. As a younger student I felt more comfortable using Miss, Mrs, Mr, Dr., or Professor, sometimes before a last name, sometimes on there own.

  13. I’m fine with Laura, Dr.Little, or Ms. Little. Just DO NOT CALL me Mrs. Little; that’s my mother’s name. I have been getting that a lot lately, and I’m not sure why. I’m at a rural community college.

  14. This is such a funny debate to me! I am a high school teacher. Call me close minded, traditional, whatever, but I think Mr./Ms. should be required at my level. My students call me Ms. ______. Like your friend, I refuse to answer to “Miss.” If they call me that, I call them “student” until they stop. If they call me “Ms. S”, I call them student “Student S” until they stop. Sure it takes resolve, but I think that everyone deserves to be addressed by the name they choose. I have over 200 students and I take the time to learn their first and last names each year. If they want to be called a nickname, I learn that too. I also learn the way they spell their name (Seriously, I have like 6 “Natalies” this year and they each have a variation. “Natalie” “Nathalie” “Nathaly” “Natali” Drives me bonkers, but I learn it).

    Maybe it is different at the college level, but I know most teachers around here would be horrified if a students called them anything other than Mr./Ms. and their name. We had a teacher who let the students call him by his first name and they thought it was super weird and most continued to call him Mr. Soandso.

    In undergrad, I called all my professors, “Professor Soandso” or “Dr. Soandso.” In my master’s program it was the same thing. I don’t see how this is demeaning. To me, it is simply a sign of respect.

  15. For most of my career I’ve worked at international schools and have just followed the cultural norm of wherever I’ve lived. I love it here in Indonesia because it’s very unusual to be called by your last name and your first name is often shortened to a nick-name, so I’m Ms. Ali instead of Mrs. Armstrong. The only time it becomes a problem is when I’m trying to email a colleague (because we use first and last names in a generic email) and I have no idea what their surname is!
    When I lived in Singapore in my mid twenties I started taking singing lessons from a lovely Korean soprano. I made the mistake of calling her by her first name (as we were both adults) and later — two years later — found out that all her students (incl. adults) called her Ms. Jeong. I expressed my embarrassment to her, but she laughed it off and said she thought I was being disrespectful at first but then realised that for me it was culturally appropriate and that I was in fact very respectful of her.
    I think the safest bet is to go with what’s culturally acceptable at your school/ in your community.

  16. When I teach in the local technical college, I tell my students that my name is Catherine. They never use it, prefering ‘Madame’ after I refuse to own ‘Mademoiselle’ (I’m forty). Catherine would be fine. In fact, where here is a trainer-learner situation we find, us lot in France speaking french, that the default address is ‘vous’, even when the trainer begs and pleads for ‘tu’… so I think that the respectful thing to do is to go with the flow.

    Coming back to Viceroy (I am, in fact, the Queen of Sheba) I think that it would have served his arguments better had he respected other peoples’ choices rather than attempting to lord it over them from the moral high ground ; )

    Good post – as usual.

  17. Hi, I read with interest your post, so I decided to write you an answer even if my English knowledge isn’t so good. I’m a teacher too, I teach in a Secundary school. Here in Italy, where I live, there is a different tradition about names to give to the teachers.
    Here students tell to their teachers calling ‘Professore’, ‘Professor’ at the high school. While in primary school they use to call their teacher ‘Maestra’, ‘Miss…’.
    I think it is a form of respect, and it is good to teach them that in life (as in school) there are different roles to respect.
    I know, here in my country we are a little bit ancient, but I think that’s quite good.

  18. I grew up always calling my teachers by Miss____ or Mrs_____ or Mr______.
    But now as a teacher in the same area I see more and more often that simply calling a teacher ‘Miss’ is more and more common. I think it is weird.
    I understand why many students use that with me as I am a relief teacher at the moment, but some students use that with their teachers they have had all year…..
    I prefer the term Miss_____ because I am reasonably short and I am young so it helps get me more respect in the classroom.

  19. Well, I’ve never called anyone ‘Dr. so-and-so’ in direct address…it sounds way too much like I’m citing them in a paper or something; it just feels impersonal.

    My default in high school was just ‘Ma’am’ or ‘Sir’, though I had a few tell me it made them feel old so I used ‘Miss so-and-so’ or ‘Mr. so-and-so’ instead…I’d never have thought to use ‘miss’ or ‘mister’ by themselves, since that sounds like I’m addressing a stranger on the street.

    In college, it’s always ‘Professor so-and-so’ or simply ‘Professor’.

    I refer to my teachers by their last names when talking to other students, but I’d never address a teacher like that…let alone by their first name, unless they specifically said that’s what they wanted.

    None of this has anything to do with dominance or control as some seem to feel, it’s purely respect for their position and for the teacher-student relationship I’m willingly in by choosing to be in their class.

    • Asur, I think some of the people who go by Dr. aren’t doing so out of snobbishness, but because it immediately lets parents know their qualifications. In some communities/ethnicities/countries this is considered quite important. I teach in North Africa where parents often assume teachers are unqualified, so this immediately reassures parents when they hear such a degree.

  20. My grandmother started teaching in a one room school house on the prairie. At that time, all female teachers were referred to as “Miss” because they weren’t married. As soon as they did marry (which was expected), they simply were no longer kept on as teachers–they were to assume their proper positions as wives and mothers. A married teacher’s place was in the home, and not at school. My grandmother insisted (along with many other women) that this wasn’t exactly fair. She fought to continue her career and also fought to be referred to by her name or as Mrs. ____. I tell this story to my students (the same story my grandmother told to me) and ask that, recalling the struggle of my grandmother and so many other women, the students call me by either my first name or my title, which, given the fact that I have a PhD, is Dr. (Some students are more comfortable with an honorific–so they tell me)
    If this makes me insufferable, than so be it. :)

  21. This is an interesting discussion. When I was taking a Teaching Composition class in grad school we also talked about it. My professor was a woman and though we called her by her first name she said that for her undergrads it was always Dr. _______ or Professor ________. Unless a teacher told me otherwise I would have felt really uncomfortable calling them something other than Dr./Professor/Mr./Mrs/Ms.

    My professor suggested that we do what made us comfortable but not to forget that there is power in a name, and that sometimes having your students call you by a more formal name helps define who is the authority figure. I don’t mean that out of a power complex, like your early commenter, just that for some of us new teachers it can be very hard to get used to being in charge of a classroom and the title would help lend us some authority while we worked on gaining it more legitimately (she pointed out that women seem to have power struggles in the classroom sometimes and that this can help to curb them).

    Especially as a young professor (I usually had a few students per class that were older than me) it helped me remember that I had done the work to be qualified to stand in front of them and teach. I told them either Professor Byrd, or Ms Byrd was acceptable, and always signed emails with the professor title. In a different situation or with more years of experience I think I might shift this, but I think it’s important to show respect, both for teachers and students.

    • Meredyth/Professor Byrd/Ms. Byrd :) :
      This is a very good point, and may be one reason that I feel a stab of discomfort when my students use my first name, even after I’ve asked them to!

  22. My students call me “big dog” or by my name.
    ["big dog" is a nickname that they give me]

    P.S.: Sorry for the poor english. :/

  23. My first teaching job was an elementary school in the north, and all the teachers were addressed by their first names, which felt odd to me. Teaching high school, the first several years I didn’t even want my students to know my first name, let alone address me by it. I’m more flexible on them knowing it now (as it’s part of my work email address), but still expect them to call me “Ms. De Jong” and refer to other teachers in that manner, rather than just by last names, which they generally do. Instead of “Mrs. Smith” and “Mr. Jones” they refer to “Smith” and “Jones” which I find disrespectful. They do tend to call us “Miss” and “Sir” in classroom settings, which I don’t object to outright.

    • Angela, I agree with you that to call someone by a last name without a title (in English) is extremely disrespectful. I live in North Africa, and find that here it is quite normal. Everyone, when you ask their name, tells you, such as in business situations, “Call me “last name.” In many cases, I did not even know until later that this was the person’s last name! So I think that English culture is different from some other cultures. In America, students should certainly know better than this, and as a teacher, I always explain that to my students. But here, it’s hard to fight the habits of a whole culture even though we teach in an American international school.

      • Lynne: A lot of my North African and Middle Eastern students ask me to call them by their last names – I’ve never understood why, and have resisted until recently. This clarifies things – thanks for the info!

        • Siobhan,

          I just spoke about your article and comments in great detail with two North Africans, to ask them why it is so common to call people by just the last name here. After two very long discussions, here is what came out. They said that no one ever taught anyone here how to call someone, that the rules mostly seem to have been imposed by France, or just by common default. Furthermore, it was pointed out to me that here, “If a person comes from a good family (even if he is a bad person), then he is considered good because he is from that family. If a person comes from a bad family (even if he is a good person), then he is considered bad because he is from that bad family. There is no individualism here; your family is considered to be everything. What other people are interested in is to know what FAMILY you come from. This is why it makes sense why people call each other by their family names, rather than their first names.” Also, one of the people I spoke with was a teacher, and he thought that sometimes having several Mohameds or Mehdis in the same class can lead to confusion, so this is one reason teachers also use last names when calling on students. I thought all this was very interesting, and hopes it helps you with your own North African students.

          Best regards,
          Lynne

  24. I teach religious ed at my church. I tell the kids to call my by my first name but most add miss to it.
    I work at a university and I have a hard time calling the faculty who have PhD’s by their first name. If its someone who was one of my teachers. I still call them Dr. ___, but if it’s a newer person I try to call them by their first name if they introduce themselves that way but it’s still awkward.

  25. I have pondered this question before. In my own teaching, since I work with homeschool students, my students address me by name; I have often wondered what is in a name. Not sure that I have any definitive thoughts on it. I do, however have 3 anecdotes about how I have seen “the name game” work in my own experience:

    In the schools I attended in high school, the students were required to address the teachers by their title and last name (Mr. ____ or Mrs. ____ or Miss _____ ). My dad was a teacher at those schools, and I remember him telling students that after the students had graduated from high school, they could call him by his first name. He told this to the students that were not trying to be disrespectful but were curious about how the relationship status worked. It became a rite of passage of sorts, a way of “calling out the adult” in them (to borrow a phrase from the movie _Courageous_), letting them know that by passing high school, they had entered a bigger world of adulthood. That they were now adults as he is an adult. I found the same thing from some of my college teachers as well, and appreciated the way that their welcoming me to call them by their first name affirmed my colleague-ship and achievement. However, I had come to love them and respect them by their title and last name for so long that it was often hard to call them by a different name =)

    When I began teaching, I told my students the same thing. It was a sweet thing to have my first student–the first one that asked me about it, the one that had asked me about it as far back as 8th grade–call my by my first name after graduating. It was actually a surprise because it was the first time, but it was a sweet moment to be able to reinforce that adulthood and the mutual relationship of respect in that way for her as had been done for me.

    Personally, since my dad was my teacher, the name game helped us to keep the values straight–at school, he was my teacher and I called him “Mr. _____” for anything school related; home-related topics were dealt with under the name “Dad.” By high school, we had become so used to the system that it was both second-nature and a bit of a fun joke between us. It puzzled the other students sometimes, but I don’t think that they realized how it helped us to keep from any appearance of injustice in the classroom (they could see from the name and from the classroom itself that he treated me as much like one of the other students as possible), how it helped them to know they were getting fair treatment. I also don’t think they realized how it helped to protect me from people who might have tried to use my “special relationship” with my dad as a classroom strategy ;) It also helped me to know how to deal with him and on what terms to come for what kinds of help.

    Since beginning my teaching career, I have had the privilege of teaching alongside my dad and also of being a teacher under his administration. At this point the name game has become even more humorous since now many of my colleagues refer to him by his first name, while I am left with . . . “Dad”? It seems a name that is too unprofessional, but his title “Mr. ____” seems too stiff and formal. So I bumble through and we chuckle about it. In the professional world it still matters a little, but not nearly so much as in the classroom!

    • ATWB:
      What a lovely story. I had friends whose parents were teachers of ours at school, and I don’t remember any of them having a name system that worked as well as yours clearly did!

  26. Fascinating discussion!! I personally don’t care what my students call me, provided it comes from a place of mutual respect. When I notice something else in the voice and demeanor, I pounce–for their good and for my own–to bring a bit more formality to the situation as a starting point for developing mutual respect: “I prefer Professor Pitts, thank you.”

  27. I teach at a private elementary school that follows the progressive model; teachers are viewed as facilitators of learning rather than authority figures, and everyone goes by their first name. When I had my first interview at the school a few years ago, I knew right away that there was something different about the school when second-graders were addressing their teachers by their first name. After teaching there for several years now, I have found that I much prefer to be addressed by my first name; when I student-taught in a public high school, and my students called me “Miss _________,” I almost didn’t know who they were talking to! While I am more comfortable being called by my first name, I have noticed that it does create a sense of familiarity and companionship rather than a student-teacher relationship. This may also have to do with the culture of the school, but I think as long as there is still a way to maintain a sense of boundaries, each individual teacher can decide what they’d like to be called.

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