Dear Ted

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
I'm a student secondary teacher. On my first placement, pupils used my first name, but now my subject mentor insists I'm called Mr. Can't I choose for myself?


Some teachers, not only in television fiction, do belong to the "call me Dave" school of thought, but as a student you need to fit in with practice in your school. There may be other crunchy issues on which, even as a student teacher, you would want to go to the stake, but I doubt that this is the biggest of them.

Once you are teaching you can weigh up matters for yourself. If you feel strongly about informality, don't accept a post in a school you would find stuffy and over-formal. Look for a job where you will feel more at home, or where there is at least some room for negotiation. Developing and maintaining good relationships with pupils is one of the most important issues teachers have to manage early in their career.

The most common tip given to newcomers by older teachers is "start off more strictly than you intend to go on" (American version: "Don't smile 'til Christmas"). This is because it is considered simpler to ease up than it is to firm up, once things have gone awry. The snag is that you may fail to mitigate your severity and remain Mr Bastard.

Think carefully about informality, if that is what you want. Children expect you to be in charge. It is perfectly possible to generate mutual respect in a friendly and unthreatening atmosphere, but it is hard work.

Humour is a great gift, provided it does not degenerate into put-downs and sarcasm. Informal relationships work only if based on fairness. You must not be matey with those you like and harsh with others.

If you work hard to be a respected professional with children, fellow teachers and parents, then having pupils use your first name will not be an issue - for anyone. But if you become a lousy teacher, it will be seen as one more sign of your lack of credibility.

You say

Follow school policy

See what the school policy is on being addressed. Everything these days is a whole-school issue, so if most of the staff use their surnames, you should follow suit. Some students may think you don't need to use surnames if you are respected as a teacher, but in my 30 years' experience, most pupils don't think twice about names and would find it difficult to call teachers by their first name. I can honestly say that I have never worked in a primary school where the pupils call their teacher by their first name. Mr sounds fine to me - unless you prefer to be Sir.

Janet Crowther, Fringford, Oxfordshire

You are not a youth team leader

I worked as a teaching assistant for five years in a primary school where the teachers were called Mr, Mrs or Miss, and the rest of the staff by our first names. It seemed to me that those of us called by our first names were often treated as second-class - even children made comments such as, "You're only a helper". It may have been my own insecurity, but at times I felt inferior.

Now I am a student teacher and, at the various schools I work in, there is no title distinction between dinner ladies, classroom assistants, parent helpers and teachers - we are all part of the team and are equals. When you go on placement or start a new job, I believe you will have no option but to fit into the policy of that school and be called "Mr", unless you can find a school in which all staff are called by their first names.

Why is this an issue for you? Although you may wish to come across as friendly and accessible to the children, you must remember that you are not a youth club leader or friendly uncle, but a professional who is called not only to relate to the students, but also to maintain respect and a suitable "professional" distance as you teach. I have found that since I have been called "Mrs", the children still warm to me. That is not about my title, but my attitude and the way I treat the pupils in my care.

Carolyn Lawrence, Lincoln

Mister confers respect

No, you cannot choose for yourself. Convention states that teachers are addressed by the correct title and surname, even in schools where staffpupil relationships are more relaxed than most. This will automatically confer the respect due to your position as a teacher. You need this to gain your pupils' respect. You can then develop your relationship with them by the professional way you teach and by using the personal qualities that enhance your teaching gifts.

It sounds as if your placement is in a secondary school - even more reason for following the convention whereby male teachers are, for the most part, addressed as Mr. Just be glad that you are not a Mrs or Ms who automatically becomes "Miss" as soon as she crosses the school's threshold.

Pupils often address teaching assistants and other support staff by their first name; unfortunately, pupils often show these staff members less respect than the teachers. You will have enough challenges as a student and newly qualified teacher without giving yourself the extra hurdle of having to fight for the respect due to you. If you ever end up in a school where it is acceptable that teachers are greeted by their first name, then you can have your wish. By then you might wish to be addressed as "Mr".

Angela Pollard, Rugby

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, answers your professional problems, big or small, every week. Ask him for independent advice - or offer some of your own - by writing to: Dear Ted, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX. Or email:

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