Schools allow children to call teachers by first names
Last updated 05:00 04/12/2009

Tradition has gone out the classroom window as an increasing number of primary schools allow children to address teachers by their first names.

The move away from honorifics - reflected across other aspects of society too - has sparked debate among education experts. Teachers say it removes an unnecessary level of authority and encourages more curious and questioning students. Critics say it gives children more freedom than they are prepared for.

Wellington's Mt Cook School principal Sandra McCallum said using Christian names changed the learning dynamic. Instead of passively accepting what they are told, children are not overawed by authority and are more questioning.

"The old adage that children are there to be seen and not heard - that has changed," she said.

But Victoria University anthropologist James Urry argues that removing the age-based hierarchy is empowering kids before they are ready.

"The consequences of this usage in schools is a collapse of authority and a lack of respect which also extends beyond school. Children are empowered often without the social skills to handle their empowerment," he said.

"There has to be discipline, there has to be authority or it's Lord of the Flies."

And the issue of honorifics has extended further than the school gates.

Dr Urry said the trend for less formality could be seen in wider society, with the dropping of uncle or auntie as a form of address for family members, as extended families gave way to the nuclear model. spoke to Wellington woman Bridget Pivac, who said her five year old niece and eight year old nephew still referred to her as Aunty Biddy.

She likes the title, saying it shows a level of respect. Aunty and uncle are used across her family.

"If there's an inlaw deemed good enough, they also get it," she joked.

Dr Urry says mums and dads are still likely to keep their titles. But not always: Actress Nicole Kidman has been quoted as saying her teenage children call her by her first name.


Te Aro School principal Bryce Coleman said children had addressed staff by their Christian names at his school for more than 20 years.

"We find it makes the relationship with the children a lot more personable and less authoritarian which suits the philosophy of our school," he said, adding that there were no issues with the children, who addressed other adults the same way.

Mt Cook School teacher Sam Silby, 22, said having children call her by her first name helped her to bond with them.
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"It's so nice. They come in and say, 'Hey Sam, how was your weekend?' When you have that close bond with them it's much easier to teach."

She did not feel it eroded her authority. "They still see me as their teacher. I'm double their size."

Brooklyn Primary School principal Chris Bryant said his staff were left to decide what they preferred.

There was a risk that the lack of formality could lead to a crossing of professional boundaries and teachers needed to be sure they were comfortable with it, he said.

Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Nga Mokopuna spokeswoman Mere Hawaikirangi said they used the formal Maori terms of "Matua" or "Whaea", meaning uncle and auntie respectively, for teachers and parents at the school.

The Seatoun-based school used the traditional terms of address to ensure the level of respect Maori custom required be shown to elders.

"At some point there has to be that defining line between adult and child and I think if you become too familiar that line becomes quite cloudy," she said.

She said young people were more prone to take liberties if they lost respect for their elders.

Lyall Bay School principal Dennis Thompson said his school still used honorifics, along with other local schools such as Wadestown, Roseneath and St Patrick's.

Pupils used formal references for teachers but not other staff such as caretakers and office workers. A decision that hadn't been questioned in his 20 years at the school, he doesn't think it affects the children's ability to learn either way.

"These days the role of the teacher is more of a mentor for the children as well, so if it helps that mentor relationship role it's a good thing. If it eroded the discipline it wouldn't be a good thing, but I don't see that it would have potential to do that."

Mr Thompson says it is a further relaxation of formalities between students and teachers, moving further away from the old Sir or Ma'am forms of address.


Canterbury College of Education associate dean Barry Brooker said it was "definitely" not an environment for new teachers in particular.

"That's not the way to start your interaction with a group of children," he said.

Dr Brooker said formal titles developed a demarcation between students and teachers and gave the teachers the authority needed to do their job properly.

The use of first names put the relationship between teachers and students on a more equal footing, "and no matter what you think, it's not an equal footing".

It should not be a relationship based on equality as the students were at school to learn. While it worked well in some schools, it would not be successful in others, he said.

Dr Urry, whose wife is a primary school teacher, also refuted suggestions it put teachers and students on a level-footing.

"How could you be equal with a seven-year-old?" he said.

The Education Ministry declined to comment saying it was a matter for individual schools.

From here.