Do You Allow Students to Address You by First Name?

My brother and his family were visiting this summer and, when I was talking to my middle school-aged niece, she told me that all students at her school have the option to address their teachers by first name.

I was just a little stunned. First name? “Yeah”, she told me. “My math teacher is Phil. My science teacher is Barb…”

Not to poop on any institution’s attempts to build community or a spirit of equality, but I instinctively hated the idea as soon as I heard it.

For me, a title is about clear boundaries. I am not a peer of my students. Although my students and I spend a lot of time together and learn together, I am very different from them. I am their parent when their parents are not around. I am responsible for their safety and for their education. It’s also a respect thing. I am an expert. I am highly educated. I want to be recognized and acknowledged for that expertise. When I present information/knowledge to students, I want them to listen to me and trust me.  

I get that breaking down social barriers is a way to build connections, but building connections can be achieved in other ways – without losing the authority/respect.

Still affected by the discussion with my niece about her school, I did some research on titles and the first article that came up on Google was an article by Amanda Dunn, writing for the Sydney Morning Herald. She argued that the use of titles was old-fashioned and “quite jarring”. However, titles like Reverend or Doctor – she stated – were still “worth keeping”. Uh, what now…? If it is socially necessary to use Doctor in society, how is Miss or Mister (for educators) any different? I would argue that Miss/Mrs./Mr. are even MORE necessary for teachers. A doctor sees patients – patients who come to the doctor for help; patients who understand that doctors worked hard and studied for a LONG time; patients who need advice that might affect their life. Patients are a captive audience. Students, on the other hand, are not a captive audience. Yes, they have to attend school. But, they have a great deal of freedom when it comes to HOW they attend school. Many students do not want to be in the classroom. Many students do not want to stop socializing with  their friends when class begins. Many students do not want to do work, and then redo it. Having an authoritative figure in the classroom is essential to management and moving forward. If the person at the front of the room is simply Chad or Mary, why would any student go that extra mile?

Having made this dramatic stand about titles, I don’t want readers to think that I am an automaton in the classroom. I work hard to make an authentic connection to my students. I read the same books they read, watch the same shows they watch, and I listen to the same music they listen to. We joke around (when appropriate), we share pop culture rumors and stories (when appropriate), and we are real with each other (when appropriate). We are interested in each other and care about each other. But, there is a line there – between student and teacher. And, I like to keep that line firmly in place. When the laughing stops, an essay may need to be researched and written. When the sharing of a story ends, someone might need to have a one-on-one about their behavior. I’m not certain that removing social formalities will ensure that separation stays in place.

I’m not saying that many students are not self-motivated or don’t have their own, innate objectives. But, at the end of the day, schools are populated by kids. And kids don’t have fully mature decision-making apparatuses. Keeping kids on the right path and working to their fullest potential still requires a good deal of outside influence. And, in the classroom (especially a class of 35 or more students) that outsider is a teacher – a lone adult stranger.

Let’s give that lone adult whatever tools that will help get the job done. And, a title is a tiny – but necessary – tool in a teaching arsenal.

What do you think? Am I just some kind of cantankerous old fogey? Am I out of touch? I would love to get your take on titles in the classroom.

Hi 5!

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4 thoughts on “Do You Allow Students to Address You by First Name?

  1. David Morgan says:

    Thanks for the provoking post. I always learn something when I read your thoughts. I refer to myself in the third person all the time as Dave but I do ask students to call me by Mr. M. Something that resonated with me was the idea of trust. That is definitely something I would like my kids to have in regards to my teaching – How to bolster that trust is the my question now.

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    1. mrdeehanclass says:

      Thanks for the note. When you say you refer to yourself as Dave, do you mean when you are talking to students? Do they get it that you are doing that? Reminds me of the comedian Jim Gaffigan – he does a lot of self-referential stuff!

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  2. alcithoe says:

    At my school (international), teachers are addressed by their first names, but always with the title “Teacher” (e.g. Teacher Bob, Teacher Mary). I would be uncomfortable without a title of some kind. Honestly, most students drop the name and just say “teacher.”

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