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The Pro-Youth Pages
© 2004, Pro-Youth Pages

Naming Your Teacher, Naming Yourself

As each school-year begins, students must make some crucial decisions, including this one: What do you call your teacher? In most public K-12 schools, teachers call you by your first name, yet they expect you to call them Mr. This and Ms. That. It is a double-standard based on the idea that instructors deserve more respect than students.

We pay teachers to serve the educational needs of students. Where else in the world do people act as though servants deserve more respect than the people they serve? At a store, the customer does not show more respect for the clerk than the clerk shows the customer. Even a criminal is not expected to show more respect for his lawyer than his lawyer shows him. Yet many K-12 teachers act as though they are entitled to more respect than their clients.

Every time a student addresses his instructor with a title while allowing his instructor to address him less formally, the insult is repeated, the student is degraded, and the student feels even more powerless in the environment where he must spend half his waking hours. Any student who wants to feel an inch of dignity must break this pattern.

Any teacher who wants to teach must also break this pattern. The insult makes students resentful, and students will not learn from those they resent. If you resent your teacher, you won't feel like giving him the satisfaction of teaching you anything.

Sometimes even good teachers will pull this double-standard simply from thoughtless habit. They imitate what they have seen others do without considering the consequences of their actions. This can be corrected by politely explaining to your teacher that you prefer to avoid the double-standard.

Power is the main reason bad teachers pull this. If they rub your nose in your powerlessness, if they keep making you feel powerless, you will act powerless. You will let the teachers bully you more easily. Before you know it, they will have you fill your class time picking up trash, cleaning desks, vacuuming rugs, and doing other non-educational activities. (Yes, I've witnessed every one of these exploitative acts myself.)

There was a time when white bigots used this tactic to keep blacks "in their place." The movie In the Heat of the Night has a famous scene where the white sheriff asks the black Sidney Poitier something like, "What do they call you in New York, boy?" and Poitier responds, "They call me Mister Tibbs." That empowering line caused such excitement, it became the title of the sequel.

In Chana Kai Lee's book For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, Lee describes an event in 1963 when Hamer and other civil rights activists were arrested in Winona, Mississippi for not sitting in their segregated sections of a bus. The activists were battered, they were stripped of their clothing, and they were subjected to one other humiliation:

As [activist Annelle] Ponder was trying to talk, the [cops] kept insisting that she reply by saying "yes, sir." "I want to hear you say 'Yes, sir,' nigger," one of them demanded. ... When Ponder and the others first entered the jail house, a white man ... was desperate to know if Ponder had enough respect for him to say "yes, sir" in response to his questions and demands. Ponder replied that she did not know him well enough to do so. During her beating, this officer and his accomplices continued to hound her about this lack of respect. [As the men beat her with belts, blackjacks, and fists, they] repeatedly insisted that she say "yes, sir," and, as Ponder put it later, "that is the one thing I wouldn't say." ... Throughout her stay, police officers kept insisting that she say "yes, sir" or "mister." At one point, Ponder asked why this was so important, but her question only resulted in more abuse.

Recently, Louisiana passed a law requiring K-12 students to address their instructors (and all other adult employees of their school) as "Sir" and "Ma'am." The law lets instructors address students any way they want. State Senator Don Cravins wrote this law, drawing inspiration from how youth are treated in Louisiana prisons (1). (Yes, you always suspected your school was modeled after a prison. Now you know it.) While this law is clearly unconstitutional, it shows how eager some middle-agers are to keep all youth "in their place."

So what should you do as a student? Should you call your teacher by his first name, or should you insist he call you Mr. or Ms.? It is always easier to change your own behavior than to change other people's, so the easiest move might be to go on a first-name basis. If your teacher will not tell you his first name, feel free to make up an amusing nickname for your teacher and call him that. (If they punish you for this, sue them into the poor house. Free speech is still in the Constitution.)

If you prefer a more formal relationship, use titles. Politely but firmly insist the teacher address you as Mr. or Ms., showing you the same respect you show him. This works best if you start on the first day of class, before the instructor falls into a habit of addressing you inappropriately.

"Okay, kids. When I call your name on the roster, let me know if you have a nickname you prefer."

Yeah, my nickname is "Mr. Smith." You can call me that.

Midway though the school-year, it will be more work to change your instructor's habits, but this work is still worth doing. When you remove this hourly insult from your life, you will feel more control over your destiny and more comfort in your environment.


Removing this insult also improves education. Read Successful Schools Finally Found - in Finland for more on the educational benefits.

This ageist double-standard occurs, not only in our schools, but even in our courts. Read "Douchebag" for one example.


Baron, Dennis. "To Sir or Ma'am, with Love?" Online at Viewed August 18, 2003. [Later relocated to]