Teachers: what do your students call you?

Lesson Of The Day

I’ve been a Ms ever since the issue of what “title” I ought to have started to come up. I think the first time was when I set up my very first bank account, aged twelve. I was put in a little grey room with no windows and given a very long form to fill in, and at the top there were tick-boxes for “title.” I chose “Ms.”

It was because I had a super-cool teacher in high school who was a Ms, rather than Miss or Mrs like all the other female teachers: Ms McLean. She was my French teacher, and one of the coolest people in the world to my twelve-year-old self. I didn’t really dig French, and I was pretty terrible at it, but I used to like going to her classes. She was young (I think she was in her late thirties, but next to some of the dinosaur-like people who taught at my school, that was super young), hip and funny — she had short bleach-blonde punky hair and wore shimmery lipgloss. Unlike most of the other teachers, who’d sort us into seating plans (usually making us all sit boy-girl-boy-girl), Ms McLean let us sit with who we wanted, and seemed totally willing to take on the extra crowd-control, which she was a master of. She used to sneak up behind chatting students and then slam the board eraser down on the desk in front of them, making everyone jump about four feet in the air (this is a trick I have always fantasised about using, but never have). When we had school talent shows, she was always one of the few game teachers who’d get up and sing and/or make idiots of themselves. She usually did a turn involving very tight leather trousers and a Blondie or Madonna song. My Dad had a crush on her.

I remember asking around about the whole “Ms” thing — what did you have to do to be a Ms, rather than a Miss? I remember someone — maybe my Mum — telling me that “Ms” was a title invented for divorced women to use when they went back to their maiden names. I’ve since learned that this is an old wives’ tale and actually, Ms was initially used interchangably with Miss or Mrs — often as a failsafe for anyone unsure whether the woman they were addressing was married or not — but fell in and out of fashion until the 1960s. Then feminists picked it up as a handy term for a woman who doesn’t live by the patriarchy’s rules (yeah!) — as “Miss” and “Mrs” both stem from the word “Mistress” — and Ms Magazine was born. In the 1970s the term began to appear on official documents and forms, and these days Ms is considered the “default” title for women.

A few of my classmates speculated that Ms McLean was gay. After some thought on the matter, I decided that the “Ms” was more likely an act of rebellion on her part, against the other stuffy, mumsy female teachers among whom she found herself. To me, her “Ms” seemed like a punk statement and therefore, insanely cool. (I now realise, of course, that Ms McLean was a happily married techically-Mrs, but just a bit of a feminist.) The first opportunity I got, therefore, I formally declared myself a Ms. And being a messed-up, angsty teenage girl, I obviously made the simultaneous decision to ever-so-slightly pity any girl who chose to stick with the safe, traditional and rather sissy-sounding “Miss” option.

I had not planned on becoming a teacher.

My students seem utterly determined to call me “Miss.” Let me remind you: I teach at a FE college, my job title is “lecturer” and these students are technically adult learners. They don’t even want to call me “Miss Askew” — which would be no less hard to stomach, but it might be easier to understand — they just want to reduce me to the title. I urge them, daily, to call me Claire. I joke that anyone who calls me Miss will be docked marks from their assessments; that I keep a tally of how often each person says it. They all laugh and promise wholeheartedly to call me by my name… then they come back the next week and it’s “Miss, are we writing today?” and “Miss, how do you spell onomatopoeia?”
A small number — almost always international students, Americans, Canadians, students who have attended smart grammar schools — want to call me “Ma’am”, which I think I’d also dislike if it weren’t for the novelty value of the word (us Brits just never use it… except to refer to the Queen). One former student would go the whole hog and call me “Madam.”

Lovely Boyfriend suffers from the same thing — he also teaches in FE and his job title is also “lecturer,” and we teach the same subject. But he does more outreach work than I do — going out to community centres and Prince’s Trust sessions to work with the kids there, rather than on campus. And still, all the classes he has seem determined that he should be “Sir.” (Personally, I think this is slightly preferable to “Miss”, because at least all men are “Sir,” and there’s no element of your age or appearance coming into it as students try to gague whether or not you’re unmarried — though it’s always amusing when you get a new class and you can hear their mental cogs rapidly whirring). I always find it funny whenever anyone calls LB “Sir” — waiting staff do it sometimes — because the title just doesn’t suit him at all. He happily lectures in a Mr Scruff t-shirt and his old jeans, and he usually wears his long hair loose and unbrushed. He’s a scruffy hippy… he’s so not a Sir.

I try to see where it comes from. These are students who, often, have come straight from high school, and though we call them adult learners or mature students, many of them are still in their mid-to-late teens. Most (of the ones I see, anyway) take vocational qualifications like HNCs and HNDs, which means they do a suite of modules and see lots of different lecturers for lots of different subjects (LB and I teach Communication, one of the essential Core Skills and usually a necessary module at HN level). So they’ve just come out of, or most recently been in, an education establishment where “Miss” and “Sir” are the norm… and they have a lot of lecturers’ names to remember. (Mind you, in a week I see about 150 students, and I toil and struggle to make sure I get all their names down within the first few weeks of term. If I can do that, surely they can remember the ten teachers they see each week? Apparently not.)

Also, I remember how tricky it can be to know what to call your lecturer. I’ve never been a student in further education, but I am currently in my eighth consecutive year of University. Luckily, these days I just have to see my supervisor, no tutors or lecturers or anything, and I think I’d be perfectly happy to call him “dude,” never mind “Alan.” But as an undergrad, there were lecturers, lecturers and lecturers. Obviously, I spent the first six months of my first year calling everyone “Dr [Lastname]”, before realising that there were some people who’d be totally cool with — and probably vastly prefer — being called by their first name. I had other lecturers that I’d never even dream of referring to as anything other than “Dr [Lastname]” (or sometimes “Prof [Lastname]”). Then there were the tricky in-between ones where you just couldn’t be sure. With them, I just tried to avoid ever getting into a situation where I’d have to initiate conversation with them, or ask a question. Not that smart really, when it came to seminars.

So I sympathise with my students somewhat… though I do explicity tell them that I want them to call me Claire. Do they think this is some kind of test, perhaps? Are they just incredibly forgetful, or too lazy to remember my name? I have no idea. Perhaps they’re confused — perhaps other lecturers insist on other forms of address and they just can’t remember who’s who? I have one friend who’s taught in FE before, who’d ask her students to refer to her as “Instructor [Lastname]”. I’m sure Lovely Boyfriend confuses his lot with his first name, which he interchangeably shortens and does not shorten. And I think mine is a name that does not easily roll off the Scottish tongue — or indeed, any tongue, except that of a French person. So perhaps their lot is harder than it looks.

And in a handful of months, I will (hopefully) be Dr Askew. Just to add a bit more confusion to the mix…

Teachers, your feedback, please! What do your students call you? Why, do you think? Do you ask them to call you something, specifically, or do they pick up on a title? What do you call yourself, in your professional capacity> I’d love to hear your thoughts.

(Photo by Boy_Wonder)

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