You Can Call Me Mrs. Chili

images2.jpegI’ve got a question to put out there to all of you whose opinions I value so much. See if you can help me figure this one out, please.

Most of you know, though some of you may not, that I teach in a small community college in my hometown. It is a two year school which offers degrees in such things as culinary arts, criminal justice and photography. The students generally range in age from 19 to about 23, with the occasional older student thrown in for good measure (this term, I’ve got one 33 year old and one woman in her late 40s). Just for your reference, I am 38.

I am a relatively new teacher and, as such, have certain issues around my confidence in my ability to keep a classroom under control. I am also a little insecure about making and establishing that professional distance that I feel is required, particularly with some of these students. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that there are a good number of students who have never learned the boundaries of respect, and I am keenly aware of how much trouble can be generated when those lines get crossed.

Partially because of these concerns, I have made it my policy to have my students call me Mrs., even though a good many of the professors at TCC allow students to refer to them by their first names. Most students don’t seem to have an issue with it and, in fact, some of them actually DO call me Mrs. Chili rather than using my surname, but I’m fine with that.

I have one student, however, who has decided to go against my wishes and has taken to calling me by my first name in class. I haven’t yet called her on it, but I am going to. Aside from the fact that it’s MY name and I should have a say in how it’s used, I’m concerned that her feeling so casual with me is going to become a problem, particularly because this student is in my Monday/hybrid class which is, incidentally, teetering on the brink of anarchy as it is.

The thing is, though, I’m VERY ‘on the fence’ about whether or not it’s important for my students to refer to me as Mrs. (My Surname), or even as Mrs. Chili. My gut tells me that it’s not my NAME that generates their respect for me; it’s my behavior, my demeanor, my knowledge of my subject matter, and my skill as their instructor. Respect is EARNED, not bestowed, so it doesn’t really matter what name my students use to get my attention. I understand this.

Having said all of that, however, I do have to reiterate that many students do not understand the concept of ‘benefit of the doubt’ and will not assume that respect is deserved until the recipient proves otherwise (not all of them, mind you, but enough to be statistically significant). They will not walk into a classroom assuming that I am a skilled and knowledgeable teacher who is deserving of their respect, and it’s those students who inspire me to establish the professional distance that insisting they call me by my surname helps to establish.

Looking back on my own college experience, I had some professors who introduced themselves by their first names and some who asked to be called by their surnames. I have to admit that I remember feeling a little (tiny bit) differently about those I referred to as “Professor So-and-So;” I felt that they were a little bit more professional or credible or – I don’t know – something (though, to be fair, I was pretty much in reverent awe of all of my professors, so the assumed respect level was pretty high all the way around). Just because it mattered to me, though, doesn’t mean it even registers on my students’ radar.

Fill up my comments box with your thoughts on this, please. Does it matter what I have them call me (as long as it’s appropriate)? If you’re in college (or remember that experience), what did YOU call your professors (to their faces, of course!)? If you teach, what do your students call you? If you have children, what do their friends call you? When I teach my classes next term, should I run an experiment in letting them refer to me by my first name? What else could I do to establish and maintain that professional distance that seems to be so necessary for these students to be able to function in a classroom?



Filed under concerns, Questions

31 responses to “You Can Call Me Mrs. Chili

  1. wordlily

    I’m not a teacher, so I won’t attempt to answer those questions. I do remember college, though, and I think I called all of my teachers (even now, many of them!) Dr. or Mr. or whatever title + surname. However, like you, I respected my profs anyway.

    I do think it (a title, not first name) helps create that boundary/barrier between teacher and students.

    Many of my friends’ children address me as “Miss Hannah,” even though I’m married. I live in the South, though, so that may be part of that.

  2. I haven’t used anything except for a first name with teachers/professors/lecturers/tutors since high school (

  3. This may differ from region to region. I have always called my professors Dr. or Mr./Mrs./MS. so&so. I was never comfortable calling them by their first name. My mentor in graduate school, sat me down one day to discuss this very thing! She said, “My name is Carolyn. I am completely comfortable with you using my first name, so why won’t you?” I told her I just couldn’t. It was too difficult for me. Probably, this is because I am southern. I find that most of my southern students, young and old alike, have trouble calling me by my first name.

    I have always told my students to do what they are comfortable with. I’ve taught in the college classroom since I was 23. Sometimes, as I get older, I feel a little weird when a 19 year old uses my first name.

    You need to do what makes you feel comfortable and in control of the class. Trust me, I still have a recurring nightmare that my students are all talking over me, leaving, roaming, and essentially ignoring me. But, that has never happened in real life, so I try to forget about it.

    ASIDE: did you get my email back?

  4. I am all for the formality of the practice. It seems like a small thing, but really that boundary is important, and it starts with the first they probably learn about you: your name.

    I can’t call some of my professors by their first names even now that I’m graduated, as is the tradition. They will always be Mr. Lefevre, or Dr. Krause, or Dr. Teweleit, or even Dr. T.

    We’ve had students at my college start referring to profs by their first names, presumably because they played in the local symphony with them. However, it really did make the rest of the students look down on them.

    Though, I will admit that I have referred to some of my profs by their first names, but never to their faces, and only in jest. There is a large amount of respect that must be maintained, even at such an adult level.

  5. Dang, it cut off most of my comment!

    Grr, I can’t be bothered re-writing it.

  6. Leah

    Hi, I read you every day, but this is my first comment.

    I went to a small liberal arts college in the Northeast, and I called every professor either Dr. or Professor. It would never have even occurred to me to use a first name.

    I had one adjunct, a working professional, who taught one night class, who asked us to use his first name, as he was more accustomed to business practices.

    I think that, especially in larger urban areas, the first name thing comes from high schools where the teachers are so desperately trying to reach their students, that they try the first name thing, just to put themselves on a closer level to the kids, hoping that will engage the students.

    I believe it’s a boundary you should establish. By virtue of your higher level of education and experience, you have earned your title. You are not your students’ peer, so don’t accept them treating you like one.

  7. Jangari, please DO rewrite your comment, as you seem to be the only dissenting voice thus far.

    Leah, WELCOME! I love that people read, but I love even more that they comment!

    I’m not sure what the policy in TCC is of being instructors being entitled to use the term “professor.” I don’t have my Ph.D. (yet), so I’m not entitled to “Dr.” I really do prefer that my students refer to me with the more formal “Mrs.,” but I am also interested in really investigating not only the reasons for that, but also the validity of those reasons. I’m depending on you all to help me clarify that thinking, so keep it coming.

  8. So far in my time as as a student, the only time I’ve called my instructors by their first name is in my teaching program. All of the instructors there just go by their first name, which I think has to do with the small nature of the program. I think they want us to think of them as mentors and fellow teachers.

    In every other college class, though, I’ve just referred to the instructor as “Professor.” Usually just the title, too, and no last name (as, more often than not, I couldn’t remember their name anyway). That seemed to be common practice among the students of my university, with others calling the instructors “Dr. [Whomever].”

    I don’t think one necessarily HAS to do the whole formal name thing, but I do think it says something about the class and the nature of the relationship between you and your students.

  9. The crux of what I planned on saying earlier was that in Australian tertiary institutions, you’d be hard-pressed to find an academic who preferred to go by their title, rather than simply their first name. I don’t recall using anything more formal than a first name since High School…

    Ah, I just realised the reason the rest of my comment was cut off. I put in brackets a sign meaning that High School is generally up to and including 18 years old, except it looked like an html tag. Anyway:

    I reckon first-name-basis establishes a different kind of rapport between individuals that makes it easier for students to approach their teachers when they have difficulties.

    However, it could all be a cultural thing; we might just do these things differently in the antipodes.

  10. That’s a tough call, Mrs. C. I was mildly surprised at the number of high school kids during my internship who called my cooperating teacher by just his last name. No “Mr.,” just his last name, which struck me initially as very informal and borderline disrespectful. Somehow, all my students managed to call me “Mr. Falcon.”

    It is a bit different, I suppose, once you’re out of high school. I usually called my college professors “Professor” and left both their first and last names out of the equation. The only professor I’ve had a Local University that I adress by first name is my internship coordinator, and that’s because a) he insisted, and b) we’ve developed that level of familiarity with each other.

    All of the above aside, the bottom line is, according to the fourth paragraph in this post, it is your POLICY to be called “Mrs. Chili.” A policy needs to be enforced, or it is just so much hot air. If you’ve got a student violating that policy, call her on it. You don’t have to be a bitch about it (not at first, anyway), but call her on it.

    How about something aloong the lines of “I’m sorry, Student X, but I’m really not comfortable with you calling me by my first name. It’s nothing personal, but with all due respect, I’d much rather you called me Mrs. Chili, OK? Thank you.”

    If she keeps calling you by your first name after that, then you can be a bitch. 🙂

    Oh, and I’d check with your boss(es) about what, if any, repercussions could be adminstered to the student if she insisted on continuing to violate your policy.

  11. sphyrnatude

    I spent about 15 years teching at a University. There was a (very small) handfull of student that I allowed to use my first name – and they were all students in my graduate classes. even when a friend took a class with me, I asked them to call me “professor” in any classroom or lab setting.
    It may seem trivial, but that thin veneer of formality can make a big difference. I would be a bit concerned about the one student that is refusing – at this point, it may just be that this individual is use to a much more casual environment, but this could alos be a subtle challenge to authority/control. I would speak to the student in private (initially), and reiterate that you are to be called “Mrs. Chili”. From that point on, if she calles you anything else, the proper response is “that’s ‘Mrs. Chili’ to you”. In cases like this, I would not respond to whatever it was (s)he was requesting until (s)he addresses you properly. This will feel incredibly awkward the first time, but after a couple of “that’s Mrs. Chili”, and immediately moving on to something else, the student will get the picture….

  12. Leah

    I’ll try to comment more often! I have a B.A. in English, so I love grammar Wednesday!! Okay, and I actually looked in my reference book to see if I was supposed to use everyday or every day in my first comment. I am a dork.

    I will want to be known as Mrs. simply because it means I am finally a Married Adult! But, I’m 27 years old and getting married in 3 months (from today exactly!), so that sentiment will probably wear off once it starts to make me feel old.

    I was never given any indication that the title Professor requires any sort of credentials. I always thought it was synonomous with teacher, but is the preferred term at the college level. My college professors who were not Ph.D. usually said either call me Professor or Mr./Mrs.

    I think the best way to convey what you would like to be called is to write your name that way on your syllabus and on the board the first day of class. If you don’t include your first name, it should be pretty obvious that you don’t want to be called by it. Of course, I know you are dealing with college students, on whom social and cultural norms, not to mention subtle cues, are often lost.

  13. I never addressed professors by their first names. I teach 8th grade and the first name is a big no-no.
    It is a boundary that makes thing much easier if it is not crossed.

    I have students who I am still in contact with after many years and they still call me, Mr. V.

    Of course I also address my students as Mr. and Ms. such and such, which kind a freaks them out. I explain that they don’t use my first name out of respect and I try to do the same.
    It actually makes them feel important after a while.

  14. jamie

    First names are for friends.

    I’m almost 40, and grew up calling all adults Mr./Mrs. So and So. Never a first name passed my lips.

    From high school through college, even when it was fine with the instructor, I never uttered a first name. It was just a matter of respect.

    If you are dealing with a peer, then first name seems acceptable, but with students and an authority position, then I believe some sort of formal address is necessary.

    Good luck with your little rebel girl.

  15. The idea of referring to someone who is older by anything other than their surname or title (Professor, Dean, Pastor, etc.) is absolutely foreign to me!

    For example, the Academic Dean, the Dean of Students and the President of the University all know me by name (pretty impressive for ‘Administrators’).

    They know what activities I’m involved in, here on campus. I know their wives and their families and I have been to their homes for meals (when they’re honoring a group of students for various achievements).

    However I would NEVER even IMAGINE calling them anything other than, ‘Dean Smith’, ‘Dean Washington’, or ‘President Johnson’!!

    To me, a first name assumes a sense of familiarity and equality. I am NOT equal (in a professional/academic setting) to any of those men and therefore would never treat them in a way that suggests I am.

    I have earned their respect and admiration through my academic achievements, being a woman of my word and working hard. In fact, when introducing me to faculty or other administrators, all three have ALWAYS introduced me as Miss Cassandra Blaine.

    If they are willing to extend this courtesy to ME, I have no reason not to do the same for them.

  16. PS: Does it make anyone else’s eye twitch when Jangari uses the “s” instead of “z” in certain words? (I know it’s proper!!!! It just looks weird. Put that vein back in your head Jangy sweetie….)

  17. Cassie, give Jangari a break; I think he’s still a little dazed from banging his head on his keyboard over my last Grammar Wednesday post….

  18. I want to weigh in on this (again, since you and I, Chili, have had this conversation before), but it will take up a lot of comment space. Bear with me, and I’ll put it up on my blog. It’s something I’ve been meaning to post about in my own space, anyway, and this way it won’t get in the way of everyone else’s comments.

    For those of you with whom I have not already discussed this, I’m in the camp of “first names are good”. Give me just a little bit of time to lay out the reasons for this, is all.

  19. Denever

    As a student, I’ve been addressing professors the same way from the time I was an undergrad 30+ years ago to last week when I finished my second semester of a weekly class at my community college. In class, I use the teacher’s title and last name; at social events, as soon as I’ve been invited to do so, I address them by their first names. That continues as long as we have a student-teacher relationship. I only use first names all the time after I cease to be that person’s student.

    I don’t think of this as an equality issue; it’s just basic courtesy. I don’t even know how you’d sort out the equality issues for older students like me at a community college. I have a more advanced degree in my own field than my teacher has in hers. Then again, she’s 21 years older than I am. Regardless of differences in age and qualifications, in her classroom, she’s the professor and I’m the student, so I use her title.

    But I happen to like a little formality in the classroom, and I’ve been known to insist on it with total strangers in stores and restaurants who think that my handing them a credit card with my name on it is an implicit invitation to call me by my first name. It’s not.

    And don’t even get me started on doctors who first-name me but expect to be addressed as Dr. Last Name.

  20. Give me a break?!

    What’s wrong with using standard British spelling conventions? And that’s just what they are, conventions, they differ from country to country.

    Secretly though, I do hope to render the the letter ‘Z’ (that’s ‘zed’, not ‘zee’) utterly superfluous, even if I know it’s impossible.

  21. bowyer

    I have also had conversations with wayfarerbrian about this subject but I will have to respectfully disagree with his opinion. I believe that first names are not appropriate in the setting of a learning institution. I believe titles are more than an artificial construct. They convey a sense of respect for the accomplishments of the bearer of the title. Professor, Doctor, Pastor, Sister, Brother, even Mr. & Mrs., show that a person is willing to acknowledge the position of the recipient of the title, whether that be a position of authority, responsibility, or some other valued position. The only professor I have ever called by a first name was one that I worked with as a peer as well as a student, and this was only after I earned my Masters degree.

    I also believe that students need to learn to respect boundaries. Too many students are willing to push the envelope, they want to see us as friends and then expect us to respond to their situations as their friends would (even when that would be obviously inappropriate), but few of them have ever earned that right (in my eyes). I agree with Denever, this is not an issue of station or equality, but rather it is one of respect.

    In my classroom I am Mr. Bowyer, end of discussion. When I went to high school the same rule applied, but it came with the knowledge that the moment the caps flew in the air we were allowed to call all of our teachers (with the exception of the nuns and brothers) by their first names. We were also allowed to enter the teacher’s lounge and sit down to a cup of coffee with our former teachers. This was a special thing to most of us; a right of passage so to speak, and we looked forward to it. I don’t think anyone resented being required to call our teachers Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so, but we definitely appreciated the acknowledgment of graduation with this small gesture. (I offer this gesture to all of my students as well, though I teach primarily 1st year students and I do not see them often after they graduate.)

    In the end it doesn’t really matter what any of us think or what evidence or anecdotes we can come up with to support our individual stances.

    What do you want to be called Mrs Chili?

    If you want a title then take it. You have earned it.

  22. I, too, haven’t called a teacher by anything but a first name since I left high school. Geographically I went to HS in New England, undegrad in New York City and did a post grad year in London.

  23. OK. Here’s what I’ve got. I apologize for its length.

    Whether the use of formal address is accepted practice in a classroom is a function of many things: Conditioning, cultural perceptions of authority, institutional tolerances and accepted practice, and the sensitivities of the individuals (teachers and students alike).

    I would argue that respect is not part of the equation. Deference, perhaps, but not respect.

    My argument for rejecting formal address in my own classroom is grounded in two essential points. The first is that motivation is tied to the presence of respect, not simply the appearance of it, between teachers and students. While we might indicate subservience to a perceived authority with formal address, doing so has no relationship with our level of respect for same. We always kowtowed before our parents when we were kids. Why? Because we respected them? Pfft! More importantly, we would consciously reject the lessons our parents had to teach us while they forced us to sit there and listen. Yet, all of us who have had mentors value what they’ve taught us, even if it was the same lesson. Supporting this point is a growing body of research which shows that students do not learn well when extrinically, rather than intrinsically, motivated. If they don’t want to learn what’s being taught, don’t see the point of it, don’t appreciate or value it or (as relevant here) the person from whom it comes, it will not stay with them.

    My second essential point is that teachers cannot effectively do their jobs in a vacuum. To sit at the front of a classroom and lecture does very little to promote lasting learning. Students need to be participants in the process. I offer Dale’s Cone of Experience as evidence of this. A student-centered classroom relies on activities that students can–and want to–actively take part in, that are meaningful and relevant to them on an individual level. I cannot create effective learning opportunities for my students if I can’t see things from their place and, since my perception of my own power as a teacher can blind me to the truth of how my students see things, allowing myself to rely on my power to teach inhibits my ability to create a student-centered program. How, after all, can I guide my students if I have no idea how they feel about what I’m showing them, let alone how they feel about me as their guide? Taking away the need for formal address prevents me from viewing my position as one of power rather than one of support, and demonstrates to my students that the structure of my classroom dynamic (e.g., that it is not all about the teacher) matches the format of the material.

    Given all this, my choice is to foster mutual respect between me and my students by forming quality relationships with them. I do not need formal address to do that. Quite to the contrary, I cannot do it as well when I am constrained by a title or a space that demands subservience, so I encourage my students to call me by my first name and I set the classroom up in a variety of positions that allow us all to see and interact with each other.

    It is important to note here that I work at an institution that supports this view and embraces the attempts of its teachers to approach their practice in this way. Before I came here, I worked at a “traditional” high school, where the custom of using formal address was the norm. I was new to high school teaching then, and so I did not fight against this trend. I was Mr. Wayfarer. At the time, I didn’t know how the students would take to using my first name, and it was important to me that my students felt safe, so I chose a convention that was familiar to them. I made it work, but it did not suit me.

    I appreciate and respect Bowyer’s comments about boundaries, and I absolutely agree that they are important. The thing is, though, that boundaries are a function of relationships in practice far more than they are a function of expectation. Sure, we have well-established rules about interacting with law enforcement and royalty, but most of us live day-to-day creating and negotiating boundaries one person at a time. I value the ability to create boundaries on an individual basis far more than I do the ability to abide by a set of imposed rules of respect which presume that people are worthy of deference simply because they hold a badge, a degree or a title. Talk about artificial constructs!

    Bowyer is right, too, Chili, that the eventual choice is yours. There’s no defined rule here. Teachers, being the ones with the inherent perception of control in the classroom dynamic, have to make individual choices to make about the tone they set in their classrooms. Do they want students to be deferential or collegial? Do they want to maintain a clear manner of authority or do they want to nurture a mentor/mentee relationship? Do they want the course to be teacher-centered or student-centered? Do they want to follow the institutions conventions (if there are any) or stand out there as rugged individualists? All of these questions have consequences for learning.

    My only counsel on the matter is this: If you accept the assumption that you are not there to teach, but to help your students learn, your decisions should not revolve around you, but them. What helps your students to learn the best? The answer to that questions is your path.

  24. I am utterly weary of cashiers looking at my credit card and calling me by my first name. That name is reserved for people who know me, for people who are my friends. All others may call me “Mr.” or “Sir.”

  25. A day late and a dollar short on reading this one. Sorry, Mrs. C …

    First off, it’s YOUR classroom and so YOU decide what you want to be called. The students are obliged to follow suit, IMHO.

    Secondly, whatever you want to call it (deference is fine), their calling you what you wish to be called is a sign of their (choose word) – understanding and acceptance that you are their teacher and not their bestest buddy.

    Perhaps it IS a Southern thing but I, too, would never dream of calling any professional by his first name.

  26. It’s not just a southern thing, by the way: I was raised in PA (and remain a yankee at heart!) and I still have difficulty calling my colleagues by their first names when we’re at school. It’s just… you’re a teacher. You’re Mr/Ms/Mrs Lastname, unless you’ve done additional work to get a different title.

    Although if I had gotten William to abdicate and marry me, I suppose I would have let my students call me “Princess Dana.”

  27. Pingback: I Don’t Do Drama « A Teacher’s Education

  28. As someone who didn’t hide the premature grey hairs until she was 25, I can relate to the question of what’s in a name! Like you, I’m at a 2-year college; however, I’ve all three generations in my classroom (Boomers, X’s, and Y’s). I’ve found that the simple “Mrs.” keeps that necessary separation for students to function as students. In all honesty, I believe that the name has a role in how they react to us. It establishes a professional boundry by default.

    It’s a tricky boundry, since a number of the students are indeed our peers in all areas outside of the classroom. I’m trying to figure it out myself. I want to treat my students as professional adults, but at the same time I have to remember that the reason they are in my classroom is that they are only learning how to be professional — which means that there needs to be some line somewhere. Thus I err on the side of (sometimes) rigid professionalism.

    The surprising benefit to that is that word travels fast and students learn that you “don’t play” games. They end up respecting you in the end for your unwillingness to lower your standards.

    Hope that you were able to manage the little… um… rebel!

  29. Nesta


    I have had only one professor in college who has gone by her first name, and I must admit she *was* kind of a flake. I don’t think I would have respected her any more if I had called her “Professor,” though.

    In my primary education I spent time in both the NY and California school systems. In the former, last names were the rule, in the latter, first names were usually preferred. I had equal respect for all of the teachers. I do remember feeling that if I was *required* to call them by their last names, they should return the favor.

    Perhaps, to create a real atmosphere of respect among adults, you should call your students “Mr.” or “Ms. (or whatever)” and expect the same courtesy.

  30. Nesta

    Oh, also – if you think there’s much chance you’ll become real friends with any students, be aware that once you have started calling someone “Ms.” or “Prof.” it’s really hard later on to get accustomed to calling them by their first names.

  31. sphyrnatude

    I have to disagree with Nesta. I have been in a number of situations – both academic and in industry – where I have required my students to refer to me as “professor” (in academia), and “Mr.” in industry.

    When an individual has become friends socially, it is very simple to continue to use the appropraite title in the academic/professional setting, but use first names in social settings.

    In academics, I do NOT call students by their last name. A large part of the formality of calling me “professor” and calling them Joe or Jane is a suble social clue as to who is in charge. My classrooms are not democracies, they are dictatorships, and the formality that I demand reflects that.

    In industry, I tend to be a bit more formal with the staff that work with me. As an executive, there are plenty of social clues as to who is in charge, and I tend to call me staff Mr., Mrs., or Miss., and circumstances require. For staff that I work very closely with (for example my secretary), I have, on occasion, called them by their first name, and on rare occasion, I have allowed them to call me by my first name – but only in private. In a public business setting, I will always be Mr.

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