A recent poll by the ParentPing app discovered that parents don’t like being called “Mum” or “Dad” by teachers.
I know I’m fussy about names…but, really? In the age of instantly available digital information, can we stop addressing parents as “Mum”? Or. indeed, “Dad” or “Grandma” or even “Step-Grandad”? Can we not just find out the name of the child’s carer and use it? Use it when we’re speaking to them, use it when we – as we inevitably have to do – discuss them when they’re not there.
The first time I heard “Mum” used this way was 30-odd years ago. A head of year said to me, “If she doesn’t sort her shoes out, we’ll need to invite Mum in.”
At first, I had no idea what she was on about. To my youthful eyes, my colleague looked as if she was knocking on a bit, and I envisaged her own ancient mother tottering into the school foyer answering a summons to “sort out” someone’s shoes. What mysterious powers did Mrs Taylor’s mother have, which made her the only solution to a stubborn teenager’s uniform infraction? Why on earth was a school rich in pastoral staff outsourcing jobs to elderly relatives?
The moment passed, and it dawned on me she meant the student’s mother. Having recently moved from Cumbria to work in London, I thought perhaps, as I did about most unfamiliar London ways – chips without gravy for example – that it was a Southern thing. Fair enough, although it seemed incredibly rude.
Becoming a parent: resentful invisibility
It’s not a Southern thing. It’s everywhere. And it’s not just teachers. It would appear that in almost every profession working with families, there are practitioners who think it’s OK to refer to a parent as “Mum” or “Dad”.
As someone who found becoming a parent a challenge to my identity, this irks. My loss of sense of self was hammered home well before I even gave birth, when I agreed to allow my obstetric consultant to use my appointment as a live lesson for his pupils.
Lying supine on a narrow couch – introduced under the pseudonym “Idiopathic Hypertension” – with my top hitched up and a bunch of earnest young strangers peering at my bulging form, was already uncomfortable. But when the consultant asked if anyone had any questions and I put my hand up, he snorted irritably: “Not you.” Adjusting my clothing with the little dignity I had left, I slunk back into resentful invisibility.
I understand in schools there might be hundreds of children, some of who have multiple carers. Juggling names and titles can be tricky. Surnames are not always the same, but although it’s frequently cited as a sure sign society is going to the dogs, parents and children having different surnames has always been the way.
Let’s face it, patronymics are very much a North European tradition; many cultures create thriving family identities without a shared surname. There are also cultures where addressing a stranger as “Mother” or “Ma” or “Aunty” is a term of respect – but that’s not where we are.
Of course, there may well be an emergency where a name does not spring readily to mind and Sims is having a strop, in which case “Phoebe’s mum is here to take her to A&E” might do. But why refer to “Mum” when she’s not there? What does it mean?
Would you want to be addressed as 'Teacher'?
And whose nomenclature are we using, anyway? Most of my students call their mothers “Mam”. I would imagine that “Mummy” or “Mammy” is the name of choice in most primary or early-years settings. So why do we choose the middle-class, middle-England BBC sitcom friendly “Mum”?
But it gets worse. I’ve been in meetings – as a professional – where a carer is called “Mum” (or “Dad”, etc) to their face, including times when a document requiring signatures has been passed around the table. “You sign here, Mum…and now Stepdad…” How would it be if the anonymised parent turned round and addressed us as “Teacher”?
I never handled it well as a parent. When glibly asked at parents’ evening, “What does Mum think?” I had to restrain myself from snapping, “Am I your mother? No? Then call me by my name. It’s written down in front of you.”
The only time disquiet was expressed was when my daughter chipped in, “We don’t call her ‘Mum’ – and she gave actually gave birth to us…”, leaving her teacher speechless.
Working in partnership
I was even more infuriated when a social worker at a review meeting for my own mother – who has dementia – referred to her, in her presence, as “Mum”. For me, that said it all. Most affected, least involved, the nameless person in the room.
Why not address me as “Daughter”? Because you wouldn’t bloody dare. It’s rude, it’s patronising and it suggests that the person being addressed or discussed doesn’t matter.
Other professionals, in finance, law, call centres, washing-machine mending – the kind of trades that charge by the hour and rely on our goodwill for their custom – call us by our chosen names, rather than “Client” or “Customer”. (That said, my washing-machine repair man, in moments of justified extremity, has been known to answer my desperate calls with “Oh Christ – not you again.”)
We’re under so much pressure at the moment, but it’s also a time when good communication makes everything run smoothly. It’s perfectly OK to ask how a parent wants to be addressed – “Is it Ms or Mrs…?” – or to check a name out: “Let me get this right. Is it Mr Harrison – and you’re Caleb’s grandfather?” We’re supposed to be working in partnership after all.
And, in their absence, let’s afford the parents of our students the respect they deserve, and call them by their names.
Sarah Ledger is an English teacher and director of learning for Year 11 at William Howard School in Brampton Cumbria. She has been teaching for 34 years