Friday, June 20, 2008

What's in a Name?

A commenter at LT's place (check the third comment) brings up the issue of how teachers and students address each other. Since I had a particular (peculiar?) stance on this when I was subbing, I wanted to lay it out.

First, I should say that I think it's within a person's rights to determine their own name, even a high school student. Obviously this could conflict with both common sense and generally established rules around so-called decency; I prefer to handle such situations on a case-by-case basis.

That said, here was my approach: Most subs write their name on the board before students came in: "Mr. X" or Ms. Y."

I just wrote 'Dennis'. No last name, no Mr. Sometimes I would write "Sub's name:" in front of it.

Needless to say, this resulted in a lot of confusion from students, especially early on. They would ask - "Is that your first name?" "Can we really call you that?" "Where is the Mr.?"

When that happened, I would tell them yes, that is my first name. I prefer you call me by that, though if calling me Mr. Dugan is more comfortable to you, you are welcome to do that.

Then I would drop the proverbial bomb: I would tell students they could call me whatever they wanted as long as it was not vulgar. Generally, this resulted in a fair amount of laughter; however, very few students ever used anything but my name. I chose that route because I felt it was a way for students to know that I was relaxed and had a sense of humor.... and because it was true. If it made students happier, I was perfectly willing to be known as Sparkle McFluffypants (though none of them ever thought of that, thank goodness).

After several months, I would hear whispers among students right after the bell: "Is that his name? What do we call him?" Students who knew me would explain to others how it worked. I was always amused by that.

The other thing I would tell classes, when they kept asking questions about why I chose to be on a first-name basis with them, was some version of this: Calling someone "Mr." is done as a sign of respect. Demanding that students call teachers Mr. (or Mrs, Miss, or Ms.) does not mean that students actually respect teachers - in fact, I would say, you know and I both know you can use an honorific and not respect them. Therefore, I don't see the point. Call me what you want - and I will do the same, as long as it's not vulgar.

Like I said, students almost never called me anything but my name, and when they did, it was usually funny and not vulgar. In fact, my favorite nickname was Bear Man - and second to that, Leonidas. Go figure.

Anyway, the point of the post is this: Instituting a set of guidelines around how students are forced to address teachers seems unlikely to create respect. It might help in creating expectations of specific behavior, or even change the environment a little. But respect? That is and should be accomplished by other means, like the behavior of the staff. How students address the staff is a byproduct of existing conditions, not the other way around (mostly).


Michael Faris said...

Agreed. I too left a comment over there.

This comes down to: Does behavior equal feelings? No, I don't think so. "Respectful" behavior does not mean respect for an individual, but rather for that individual's power.

Anonymous said...

Disagree here. The original poster on LT was commenting on one way to make a place more welcoming to strangers. It is not demanding or expecting respect to have students address you in one way or another. It is folly to believe that respect is anything but an expectation from the society. Has a student I thought and still do think that it is rude not to acknowledge my elders by Mr/Ms. I may not of thought they were worth dirt, but their position as leader in the classroom was important. If the original poster was referring to respect, I think they were off base. But as a matter of courtesy to visitors, I think the issue is important. The more informal the atmosphere the less discipline seems to occur. I know several teachers at LHS that have very informal classrooms and have no difficulties. They do not track tradies, limit cell phones, and other minor issues. This is great for them but it is a pain for others in the school who are trying to follow the rules that, as employees, they should be enforcing. It is unfortunate that teachers do not support each other but it is the nature of teaching. Many teachers violate their contracts by not enforcing rules, lax grading, and other issues usually due to their beliefs in what education is about. Most teachers tend to be social liberals who stress emotional needs over rigorous rules and structures. One example from this past year, a student graduated despite having over 270 class absences in the year. All unexcused. The teacher whose class they needed decided to make up an assignment for them to do in order to pass. The teacher passed them and they graduated. Now in the grand scheme of things is this bad, probably not but it does allow students not to stand up to their responsibilities. And it is a violation of school rules which state 10 unexcused absences from a class results in an automatic F.

Michael Faris said...

Anonymous is right that the comment's purpose was situated in making the school more welcome to visitors. Whether using Mr./Ms. or not actually creates a more welcome environment to visitors is up to debate. Not sure where I sit there.

I think there is a lot of conflation of issues in the concepts that you bring up, Anon. Not that you're conflating them, but that our society conflates them. Discipline and order are important, but they aren't necessarily opposed to emotional needs.

Having a lax atmosphere with no clear expectations doesn't help a student understand expectations and what needs to be done to "succeed" either.

However, I also don't believe that using a first name or solely a last name as opposed to a title will immediately result in a lax atmosphere. I believe it's important to have metadiscourse around the decision (e.g., "this is why I choose to go by my first name. let's discuss the way we name people and what that means"). Without some form of metadiscourse, we fall into habits.

Anonymous said...

I would say on an individual basis, what you are referred to by is unimportant. It is a developing relationship that you are forming. However, I do not know of anyone who would be offended by adding the title to their name. I do know some people who would be offended by students calling them by their first names or just their last names. The point was to make a welcoming atmosphere. Students, unless taught carefully, often fall into habits and do not recognize the change in situation when a visitor arrives. So, as to not risk offending and become more welcoming, addressing adults, with title, is probably the safest route to take.

Dennis said...

So we should teach students what the traditional proper forms of address are - and why they don't need to use them except to placate people so concerned with status they get upset if someone doesn't call them Ms. or Mr.

I like it.

Anonymous said...

Actually Dennis, yes, being polite and welcoming entails doing things that do not upset others. I can be respectful of a person, not for the power they wield or not, but just because I want to make them feel better. I personally would tell students that the proper way to address anyone is to use Mr/Ms until told otherwise. It is not placating necessarily but if that is what it takes to make them feel welcome, so be it. It does me no harm.

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