It doesn't matter if children call teachers ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’ at school

Young people simply conform to the culture of the school they’re in without giving it any conscious thought

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The Independent Online

A rose by any other name, as Shakespeare put it. Rightly. As far as respect and standards are concerned, it matters not a jot how pupils address teachers.

I’ve been in schools where students use ‘Mrs Smith’ ‘Mr Jones’ or ‘Miss Wright’. And it’s surprisingly common, especially in London primaries and in some progressive (no perjorative intended) independent schools, for first names to be the norm. In many schools, of course, it’s Sir and Miss and my husband recalls being required to address the only woman teacher in his boys’ grammar school as Ma’am to rhyme, Queen-style, with jam.

Children and young people simply conform to the culture of the school they’re in without giving it any conscious thought. It is usually caught not taught. They respect their teachers – or not – for sensible reasons such as how good they are at the job. And believe me, the front-line customers (sorry, children) are the best appraisers.

Now, for myself – and it was just a personal thing - I always loathed being addressed as Miss because it’s so, well, impersonal and, arguably, a bit lazy as if they couldn’t be bothered to learn my name. It also made me feel faintly like a prison or police officer although I think they get Ma’am. But attempts to persuade pupils to say ‘Mrs Elkin’ in a Sir/Miss culture were always doomed to failure. ‘Jane Mackenzie – Mrs, BA’ a former colleague used to tell new classes and write it on the board before adding, dead-pan, ‘And I worked harder for the former three letters than the latter two so don’t you forget it.’ But they still called her Miss because it was the done thing in that school.  As any manager will tell you, culture is the hardest thing to change.

It’s no political issue though and in the scheme of education problems a pretty minor matter.  Jennifer Coates, Emeritus Professor of English Language and Linguistics at Roehampton University, argues in the TES that there is no place in 21 century schools for the titles Sir and Miss because ‘It’s a depressing example of how women are given low status and men, no matter how young or new in the job they are given, are given high status.’

This, opines Professor Coates (Robin Lakoff at University of California, Berkeley, USA agrees with her) is because Sir is a knight but Miss is an unmarried woman. Yeah, right. That clearly explains five year old Olly’s behaviour problems. He doesn’t respect his teacher because she isn’t a knight.

If I were starting a sparkly new school today I’d probably encourage first names on the grounds that ‘us and them’ is not necessarily the best way of establishing discipline and respect and first names are used more readily now than ever before, from in-laws to Starbucks. Almost all children now use first names to friends’ parents too. So it feels natural. On the other hand, if ‘Miss’ is the custom, then live with it.  There are many more important things to deal with in schools, given the low standards of competence (nothing to do with exam passes) we continue to see in far too many school leavers.