Should students call teachers by their first names?

New Zealand Graduating Teacher Standard 6.c

“Graduating teachers build effective relationships with their learners.”

What’s in a name?

Well if you are teacher a lot more than what’s on your birth certificate.

I remember being back in primary school where one of my teachers wistfully remarked that the students at a school he visited called their teachers ‘sir’ while in high school I called some of my teachers by their first names. My ex partner’s daughter went to a school where everyone, including the principal, was on a first name basis with their students. The school I am currently doing my placement at had a first-name policy many moons ago only to go back to having students call teachers Mr/Ms/Mrs Surname.

Most of the arguments for teacher sticking with using surnames end to focus on the idea of promoting authority. Using honourifics reminds everyone that the teacher is then senior and as a result gets a title, while the learner is subservient and is called by their forename. According to some supporters, teachers who let their students call them by their first name are responsible for the dumbing down of our education system and the destruction of society as we know it.

However there are some compelling arguments for teaching ditching the old tradition of Mr/Mrs. Firstly it is merely a reflection of a change in society at large for instance, my GP prefers that I call her by her first name and the only people that I would probably to refer to as Mr/Ms Lastname outside of school would be members of the older generation.*

There’s also an argument to be made for consistency. Most teachers in early childhood centres tend to be on a first name basis with their students and it seems a bit odd for a sudden shift towards honourifics once children reach school moreover it sends a rather strange message to students that teachers demand the use of honorifics but that courtesy is sometimes not extended to other members of the school staff such as caretakers and office workers. There’s also the whole Mrs/Ms/Miss debate which I will sidestep for this post (but reflexively flinch whenever I’m called Mrs or Miss). However the most compelling reason is that ditching honourifics helps teachers to create a bond with their students and a more inclusive classroom environment.

Although theoretically I’m drawn to the idea of being being known by my first name, I still find myself wanting to be known as Ms Lastname.  However it is not an issue of respect. I’ve come to the conclusion that for me at least, using Ms Lastname has not been about gaining respect from my students. For me respect is something that teachers earn rather than gain through virtue of their position. In fact I would go as far to say that if the only way you can command respect is through your name, then you may not deserve as much respect as you believe. A name is not the only way to command respect, but it is one way to show respect. Saying please and thank you, listening to instructions and taking constructive criticism are far more important than a name.

For me it is an issue of privacy.

From the moment I enter the school gates I am no longer a person, I am a trainee teacher. I need to be ‘on’ at all times. I don’t swear, I seldom lose my temper. I will hear my name called hundreds of times a day. I give so much of myself to my students that when I come home at the end of the day all I want to do is skulk off to watch TV without interruption for a hour to stop being a student teacher and back to being me.

But who am I?

My parents have a pet name for me, my nickname is used by my friends, my full first name is what my co-workers tend to use while Ms Lastname is usually reserved for official correspondence and at the moment for students. Just about everyone will have several suits of identity which dictate how much of themselves they are willing to share with others.

For the moment, my first name is a part of my identity that I wish to keep private from students. Obviously if I was employed in a school where there was a first name policy, I’d be on a first name basis with my student but I’m not pushing to ditch them either.

Postscript Sure enough I’ve changed my position on teacher names during my next Teaching Experience.

*Though at my last workplace I referred to many of my co-workers and boss by honourifics.

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About Stephanie

Stephanie is a teacher of a fabulous class of year 7/8 students (11-13 year olds). She bakes, goes to the gym and geeks out in Wellington, New Zealand.

Posted on April 27, 2011, in GTS, teacher ethics, teaching and learning and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. I am in the 11th grade, and I call some of the teachers at my school (two of which I have this semester) by their first names, even though some of the other kids in my classes occasionally give me funny looks about it. I don’t understand your desire to keep your first name secret from students; in fact, I’m specifically looking for colleges where I’ll be allowed to call professors by first names. When a teacher allows me to call her/him by first name, I feel like it facilitates mutual respect instead of going all one way. As you seem to know very well, teachers are people too, but calling them by last name makes it seem like their only purpose is to tell us what to do, but using first names makes teachers seem more receptive to our ideas. A teacher who insists on a title may be doing so just to conform to tradition. If titles are mandatory, how are they respectful anymore? And who came up with the idea that using surnames (which originally came about to distinguish between two people with the same name) is “respectful” anyway?

  2. Hi Stephen,
    Thanks for stopping by. At the moment the school I am in placement has a policy of teachers using honourifics, I think there’s also a risk of teachers using first names and slipping back into the do as I say mode. Look for how a teacher is interacting you not what name they happen to be using!

  3. I taught for 4 years before working at a school where most students called the teachers by their first names…

    I actually found out by accident about 4 days before the start of the term and had to make a quick decision what I was to be ‘called’.

    When I investigated it at my the school, about 15 teachers were all called by their first names, excluding 2 male staff. I decided to give it a go. It drove me crazy the first 2-3 days with the kids constantly calling out “Rachel”!!!!

    Five years later, and I have since changed schools. When I started at my new school at the start of last year I faced a dilemma. I could no longer face going back and being called “Ms/Mrs” etc but no one else was called by their first name! After talking it over with my Principal I convinced her to give it a shot. The kids in my class thought it was weird for about 1 hour, the kids in the school for about 2 weeks and never a comment since lol.

    I particularly love how it improves my interactions with parents. Now they remember my first name and are able to speak to me on an equal level in front of their kids, rather than feel they have to be ‘respectful’ and do the whole Ms/Mrs thing (which is quite amusing!).

    I have never found a name to be associated with respect and don’t find using your first name with students decreases this. Relationships are the key here.

    I think teachers should be allowed to use whatever they feel most comfortable with and not feel forced into one particular name…. although 5 years ago I am very glad the time pressure to decide made me take a risk!

    PS – completely agree with why as a student teacher you choose to keep your first name private. I was a very, very young trainee and my age was kept under guard also ;)

  4. AT my last school we were first names and it was excellent and no issue. As mentioned, respect does not come from a title. Respect comes from the relationships we create and interactions with the children. It is also better when you are down town and one of the kids addresses you by your first name rather than title – then its’ not so obvious you are a teacher!

  5. Hmmm. I’ve never been called anything other than by my surname, and I think its important to keep the separation or distinction between the two roles. I guess it depends on what your goal/role is at school. I suppose as I get to do a lot of the discipline side of stuff I dont want to be seen as anything less than ‘distant’ professional (I address some of the teachers by their surname in the staff room and it drives some mad but I’ve always done it since I started teaching). I am quite happy to be seen as the ‘bad guy’ and at times have gone out of my way to cultivate that image.

    But then thats similar to my online ethos, which is quite low key. I was talking about this with someone the other day and its kind of related, but should a teacher put their image online with the students? Its something I haven’t done yet in three years and nearly a thousand class posts, not because its anything dodgy but I think digital integrity is very important.

    Should teachers accept friend requests from students on Facebook? On Twitter?

    • I think you raise some good points. I don’t want to be overly familiar with the students.

      With regards to the online presence. I’m facebook friends with some former teachers but in general their rule is that won’t friend any current student. A good rule I think… There’s also the option of managing your contacts at least with facebook.

  6. I just found this blog, with this very interesting post–I’m the director of a small (40 student) private elementary school in California.

    I’d always been on a first-name basis as a teacher at other private schools, and when I took this job as headmaster of this school, the outgoing director introduced me as “Mr.”, as that has always been the custom at the school. The founders were old-fashioned educators in their 70s.

    It felt bizarre. I’d never given it much thought before, but as the kids addressed me in this impersonal way, I realized that it wasn’t going to last. So after about three days, I told the students that they were to address me as “Mike”, as that’s what I’d always been called at school. The rest of the teachers continued to be “Mr” and Mrs”.

    There was a little bit of noise, but pretty soon the kids and parents got used to it. It came off as a little quirky, but I figured as the new headmaster I got one “thing”, and this was going to be it.

    I’ve been very effective and competent in the 12 months since, so I think that the parents aren’t really too hung up on this little (but in some ways not so little) thing.

    In fact, we had an all-school, parents/kids/teachers potluck last night, and as Rachel says, I think it added a layer of relaxation as we all sat around and the parents and kids could both call me by my proper name, instead of some kind of referring-to-me-as-a-third-person-in-my-presence” charade.

    I didn’t realize that form of address was that big a deal to me, until I was challenged on it. Eventually I’m going to nudge the whole school to first names (as I hire new teachers, I’ll insist they be introduced by first name), but as the old teachers are known by the kids by honorific, I’m not going to force the issue on them.

    I agree with Rachel–it does take great courage and confidence to be the only person in the school making a change like this, and if I were a first year trainee, there’s no way I would have done so. But as the director, it’s different.

    The kids don’t seem to care on a conscious level, but it does frame the tenor and quality of the relationship, to one that feels, to me, more authentic and honest.

    But not less authoritative, to be sure. I had a 13 year old student ask me last week, in the context of a conversation about an iPod rule, “Mike, we’re friends, right?” To which I replied, “no, we’re not. When you graduate next year and all this is over, I hope that perhaps we can be. But right now I’m the director of your school, and this is the rule.”

    Can one be an authentic and honest teacher as “Mr. Smith?” Absolutely. Can I? No. I’ll never work in a school that requires me to be addressed by honorific.

  7. Thanks for dropping by. I think that context is important, in some communities first names just aren’t going to work. It also needs to be supported by the school leadership.

  8. I honestly think this all depends on the grade. For instance, as an elementary teacher, I know it is much better for them to call me by my last name for this one reason:

    students at that age need to know they are in a protective setting. They need to know that if someone is picking on them, the teacher will chime in to help. This is what a child in elementary school needs. Also, at that age, the teacher is almost a parental figure to the students. (almost to the point where they may mistakenly refer to them as mom or dad.)

    Which greatly supports my point. Children say mom and dad as a sign of protection, not respect. Saying, “Mr. Lastname” allows the child to constantly remind themselves, “I am here to learn. I am the student of this teacher. And this teacher will help me learn while providing a safe environment.”

    But, nevertheless, these are just my humble observations.

  9. Damian Luke Ackhurst

    I DON’T LIKE calling my teacher by miss, mrs or mr do u ?
    If we have to call them by miss ect, then they should as well that’s what i thing if u agree leave comment to.

  10. At the school I work in (in UK), the students address the teachers as Mrs/Miss/Mr Lastname, or simply call them “Miss” or “Sir”.

    As an administrator, most of the students do not need to address me personally, but if they do, it is generally “Miss” (saves learning names). Otherwise it is “Miss Jones” or “Miss E Jones” in writing, including by other staff.

    In my last school (as a teacher’s aide) I was addressed as “Miss Eleana” (Eleana is my first name) to save confusion with another Miss Jones – most staff were known by their surname. Parents with whom I had frequent contact would call me Eleana.

    I think that this more formal environment benefits learning. Also, I have not come across a school here where staff are addresses by first names (by students).

  11. I’ve only gone to one school from Pre-School through Grade 12 but I don’t feel it made any difference (except sometimes I’d get the teachers confused with fellow classmates, haha). Calling teachers Mr or Ms was only reserved for when you didn’t know or forgot their name.

    I remember mum mentioning that one of the reasons she sent me an my brother to Ryan was because of the name thing (another being that it’s prep-12, and a catholic private school).

  12. I work at a school and some of the kids call me Ms. First Name and others by my last name. Most staff uses their last names, but I find it hard when speaking to my children’s teacher about my son I always call them by Mrs. Last Name when I am there as an employee I use their first name. Personally, being an employee I think it helps the staff around me know that when I approach them using their last name they know I am there with my mommy hat on. I have always taught my kids to call adults Mr./Ms. Last Name until told otherwise and then you need to say Mr/Ms. First Name. You don’t earn respect by using last names, you show respect my using the last name.

  13. My friend Aiden says that it is against the law to talk about your teachers first name is that true people pls answer meeeeeee

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