Thursday, March 13, 2014

Are We Out of Respect?

A Facebook group amuses members by posting historic photos from my hometown of Tomahawk, Wisconsin. Each post usually touches off a string of comments. Most of the writers are men and women who were in grade or high school in the 1960s or 70s.

A picture of a grade-school classroom in a rural school appeared last week. It touched off a lengthy discussion of people known to have been on the faculty. The 60- and 70-year-olds writing comments referred to the teachers this way: Mr. Obey, Mrs. Leverance, Mrs. Sparks, Mr. Schindler, Mrs. Jackson, and Mrs. Wurl.

Notice anything? An old friend once told me that growing up in a small city in Oregon he and his friends seldom knew the first names of adults--because it was completely unacceptable for kids to use them. I'm told that was true elsewhere, and it was in my hometown, especially in the schools. If we knew the first name of a teacher, we did not use it, at least openly.

As youngsters, we often created derogatory nicknames for other kids and a few adults. It frequently was a form of bullying among school children. But in the case of adults, the labels stayed just between us kids. We were extra-careful about using the names in the grown-up world.

Teachers got an extra measure of respect. Beautiful wife Sandy and I carefully searched our memories and could come up with only one case in each of our school experiences where a nickname was coined for an adult. One of Sandy's teachers got the honor. In my school, only one administrator was tagged. Both insulting labels had to do with a shortage of hair on the heads of the victims.

The geezer no longer is in direct contact with practices in our schools, but a brief internet search reveals differences, and some controversy, about how students address their teachers. Apparently, in the early grades some teachers encourage use of their first names by the kids. That practice continues into the higher grades in some systems. Other school districts change the protocol as students advance.

Several stories spoke of  school districts changing policies to force a return to the old "Mr., Mrs., Miss," or perhaps "Ms." titles of respect at all times. I didn't find any accounts of school administrations endorsing, "Hey, Dude."


Alan G said...

Well the short answer to your question has to be a resounding “YES!

Like the old friend you spoke of, I’m not sure as a kid we even knew grownups had first names. I seem to recall reaching the 11th grade before my peers and I coined some measure of disrespect when speaking of a particular teacher. She was a nightmare of an English teacher and we use to call her “old lady Browder”. Perhaps quite tame by today’s standards, I don’t know.

Although I think ‘respect’ remains a strong thread in the fabric of our generation, it certainly seems to be deteriorating in the modern day classrooms right along with cursive writing which is another one of my personal pet peeves. And taking it outside the classroom, I shall not even get started on ‘respect’ as relates to my fellow operators of automobiles!

Tom Sightings said...

I know we had derogatory nicknames for our teachers in high school; I just can't remember them. Except one. Our 10th grade math teacher. We called him Jesus. And you can bet it wasn't in any complimentary sense of the word.

PiedType said...

I grew up thinking the first name of all adults was either "Mr." or "Ms." (The distinction between Mrs. and Miss usually blurred into "Ms." (Ahead of our time, we were.) And of course there was "Officer." I still use that to this day. (Can't swear it was all out of respect, though. I'm sure fear of consequences also played a part.)

I can't speak for other schools, but my grandkids are taught by Ms.'s and Mr.'s. I'm appalled that any teacher would encourage the use of his or her first name and would hope (although these days not expect) that their parents would set them straight on that.

I don't recall any nicknames for any of my teachers. I distinctly recall some who were much liked and some much disliked, but not their nicknames, if there were any.

jhawk23 said...

Right on the mark. I had the good, or mis-, fortune to attend 9 different schools, from K to 12 and in none can I recall referring to teachers as other than Mr. or Mrs. (there were no "Ms"s in those days but "Mrs" was often pronounced "Mzzz", in the Southern way).

By high school, we generally knew the first names of the teachers, but didn't use them to address those personages. And I agree it seems a mistake for teachers to encourage their pupils to address them that way.

Banjo Steve said...

After 40 years of teaching (many different grade levels), my conclusion is that respect is something you are given initially - but then is something that is either retained, strengthened, or lost. First name or not, the teacher is the one who needs to define the classroom atmosphere. I find that teachers that the kids disdained were most definitely addressed as Mr. or Miss or Ms. or Mrs., since there was no love lost concerning them. And in my experience, use of a teacher's first name is pretty rare - except for "progressive" schools or in grades of the very young. IMO, this ain't a real widespread controversy.

Related to that respect issue, I found that the diminished respect for the teachers came (comes?) primarily from those few parents (certainly not most) who have become so overly protective of their kids that they defied anyone who dared to make their kids struggle with arduous work or make them endure punishment for misbehavior.

Dick Klade said...

Good points, Steve. My mother served on the local board of education for many years. She told some real horror stories about dealing with demanding parents. She developed much empathy for teachers who didn't get the backing they deserved from parents.

Marc Leavitt said...


A society's mores determine modes of address.
I recently went to a convenience store. As I waited to pay, the cashier, a young man who might have been as old as 22,and who had waited on me a fdew times (and therefor assumed that we must be buddies),turned to me and said, "Hey, Dude, whaddya need?"

"Where do you get off calling someone like me 'dude?'" I said (in addition to my beret and rain slicker, clad in righteous indignation).

"What should I call you, 'sir?'" he asked, visibly taken aback.

"That's exactly what you should call me," I said.

Thre's magic and mystery in names, and the practice of calling authority figures nicknames or first names without individual or social sanction, is an act of aggression, irrespective of conscious intentionality.


Dick Klade said...

Marc, for a time I was taken aback when someone called me "Sir." Now I'm quite taken with it.

Kay said...

It's a Hawaii custom to have kids call their parents' friends "Uncle --" or "Auntie --". It felt weird on the mainland when a young child was told to call me by my first name. I can't say I liked it at all.

As a teacher I always taught my students to refer to an adult by Mr. Ms. or Mrs. I know my granddaughter's pre-school teacher was called Ms. Karen or something like that. It's OK...I'm getting used to it. I do think respect, consideration and kindness need to be taught.

Dick Klade said...

Interesting, Kay. In northern Wisconsin, my sister and I were taught to call one set of our parents' friends "Aunt Lutie" and "Uncle Bill." I never asked why, and never asked why we addressed all other adult family friends as "Mr." and "Mrs."