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How to stay ahead in the name game

Nicknames, rude names - it can be a real minefield, warns Mike Fielding

Shakespeare may not have thought there was much in a name, but schools are still plagued by the tensions of what people call each other. To some extent the way people address each other defines the organisation: usually, the more formal the style the more hierarchical the school.

For children it's simple: they apply a bewildering variety of real names, nicknames, insults and inventions to each other but remain formal with teachers. Which goes no way to explaining why children who throughout primary school address teachers by title and surname universally adopt "Miss" and "Sir" when they reach secondary school.

Teachers, though, face more complications. What to call children may be enshrined in school policy or at least be an obvious custom. But there are still traps: do you, for instance, use the full name - Margaret - or Maggie, as all her friends call her.

And what about more difficult to pronounce names that children have modified for themselves? It's never safe to assume what a young person feels comfortable with, but this can easily be checked out the first time you take the register - "are you Benjamin or Ben?" for instance.

New teachers - particularly if trying hard to be friendly - may be tempted to use nicknames, but generally this should be avoided. As should any invitation to children to use the teacher's first name.

There is nothing harmful about them knowing what you're called, but they will usually feel uncomfortable being asked to use it. There are schools, of course, which have proved that, so far as names are concerned, teachers and children can live informally together like sensible human beings. But these are few are far between.

The naming of children, however, is simple compared with the difficulties that can arise over what teachers call each other and where they do it. For instance, people who use first names in the staffroom often revert to titles the moment they walk out of the door.

In some schools everyone addresses each other formally; others use the first name when talking to someone but not when talking about them. Headteachers are the most problematic. Some believe formality denotes respect, others that informality helps team-building. Whatever the prevailing mode, some teachers have difficulty using names at all and still prefer "head" or "boss" or some other title. This leads to a lot of mumbling and heavy use of pronouns in conversation.

As part of the jungle that new teachers have to negotiate, what to call people can generate an inordinate amount of stress. Does it matter? Probably not - if you get it right. But it does if you get it wrong and new colleagues suspect you're stuck-up, precocious, insensitive or naive because of your failure to recognise the subtleties of the naming game.

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