A teacher by any other name

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about formality, professional relationships, and the distance created by using titles rather than first names. I even started a facebook conversation about first names in the teaching profession, but I went down under the tsunami of marking, report writing, and semester 2 preparation that characterizes the end of term 2 before I could pitch in with what I was thinking. So it’s been bubbling away under the surface until now.

I got some really good responses to that post. Some very thoughtful and considered reactions. Some said that titles were important to create that professional distance – to ensure that we remain teachers rather than friends. Others feel that titles are an important means of creating a respectful relationship, and that it was possible to create a good working relationship without using first names.

I vividly remember starting out in teaching, crossing the surprisingly large gulf between academic, tertiary teaching and teaching in a high school (it’s a long, long way, and I didn’t really appreciate that until I leapt across the void and smacked into the edge of the opposite cliff), when a more experienced teacher friend said to me that the relationship was all important. Create a good relationship with a student and anything is possible. Conversely, across a poor relationship the gulf is so wide you’ve got no hope of making progress. If you can’t connect with a student, you’re useless to them.

I have to say that 5 years later this still makes a lot of sense to me. If I look back over the relationships formed in my classes, those kids I connected with were not necessarily the ones with heaps of experience and amazing skills, but the stronger the connection, the greater the progress from the start to the end of the year. It’s not possible to connect brilliantly with every student in a class, and there are some kids I have never reached. At all. I can’t help but feel I have failed those kids, even when they pass the subject. And there are some kids I really struggle to reach, but eventually connect with – and often that connection happens due to something outside the core curriculum. It might happen when they find out that I ride to work and we connect over le Tour. Sometimes it happens when they notice my quirky earrings, or find out that I have five sugar gliders as pets. Sometimes it happens at choir, or over conversations on yard duty about books or Dr Who. Sometimes it’s politics, or something I wrote on my blog. Often it’s chocolate, or noticing a food allergy and providing them with a treat they can actually eat.

Connections can be hard to form, and unpredictable in their triggers, and while I recognise the need to maintain a certain professional distance, I do feel that placing an extra barrier in the way by insisting on titles sometimes puts those connections irrevocably out of reach. In my first year of teaching I was working with a group of students who had met me when I was an academic liaison, and automatically introduced myself as Linda, rather than Dr McIver. When I started teaching those kids I didn’t think it was fair to insist they changed the way they addressed me, so I told them they had special dispensation to keep using my first name. We had an awesome relationship, and even though it was my first year in the classroom I had no behaviour management issues with that class. In fact sometimes behaviour was more of an issue in those classes where I was strictly Dr McIver.

Respect is a two way street, and it is only given where it’s earned. I don’t believe that insisting my students call me by my title gets me respect. I’ll get respect from my students by earning it, and by treating them with respect. Sometimes kids are amazed to find out that teachers are human beings with lives outside the school. Maybe if we emphasized our common humanity by sharing our first names with them, we’d have a better chance of reaching those kids who see us as nothing more than distant ogres.

So what do you think? Should teachers be known by first names or titles? Does it make a difference?

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