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?