The issue - Should teachers say `I don't' to a new name?

3rd October 2014 at 01:00
Taking your husband's surname can send confusing signals about gender equality, so challenge students' misconceptions

I was lucky. I got married young, before I started teaching. This meant I never had to face the dilemma that a large number of my teacher friends have struggled with over the past few years: should you change your name when you get married? The battle lines have been drawn. My friends are divided.

When I changed my name to match my husband's, I didn't have to worry what my students might think because I didn't have any. And, to be honest, the potential message a new surname could send out to pupils never crossed my mind until friends started discussing it.

Of course, your actual name is often immaterial in schools - as a female teacher, you just become "Miss". However, you are officially known by your surname; it's on books, registers, timetables and letters home to parents. So what happens when you change it? Do students feel that you now have a new identity? Would they notice if you suddenly starting wearing a wedding ring but didn't change your name? What would happen if a male teacher changed his name? In short, what social signals about gender politics are our choices sending out to the children in our care?

A fork in the road

Among my recently married teacher friends there is an interesting division in opinion about what to do. There seem to be various subtly different positions in the change or don't-change camps, which can be split into three general categories:

  • The super-keen spouse: fantastically (if not frantically) organised, she has been waiting a long time for this marriage to happen. She changed the majority of her documents before the wedding and doesn't really care what the students might think (but doubts that they care at all).
  • The ultra-feminist: intelligent, powerful, still happily married a year after the big day and still happily using her own name. She will detail the feminist rationale for refusing her partner's surname. Chief among her reasons is the desire not to indoctrinate another generation of female students into the most obvious form of male oppression.
  • The post-feminist: reflects nostalgically on the radical bra-burning 1970s but also quite likes the traditional unity of having one surname, so has gone for the new classic double-barrelled compromise. She fears influencing students and so believes sitting on the fence is the best option.
    • You will notice that these categories refer only to women. I did canvass the opinions of male teachers and was met with an unequivocal lack of interest. This seems to be a largely female-only concern.

      But what about the students? I did a quick survey with my classes to find out. They weren't overly interested. However, when pushed to voice an opinion, they did say that men taking their wives' surnames would demonstrate a weak character, although the reverse would show women were becoming "grown-up". This is worrying.

      Everyday sexism

      The indifference is understandable. Thinking back to when I was at school, I can't remember any of my teachers changing their name (but, to be fair, I can't remember many of my teachers' names at all). Still, any surname shifts that did happen clearly had little effect on me. I don't believe the distant memory of a teacher taking her husband's name influenced my own decision to do the same.

      But the views of my students are a real concern. Clearly, somewhere in their brains, they register that when a woman marries and changes her name, she becomes someone else (nominally but also symbolically). And the students seem to believe this change is a significant one. Their views suggest that gender-stereotyping is still alive and kicking and, crucially, that changing a name does have consequences.

      So, as responsible adults, influencing our students' lives and opinions, should we be taking a more political stance? Men could take their wife's name to challenge the perception that this makes them weaker, perhaps, and women could wear a ring but retain their original surname.

      But it is an emotive topic. Everyone has a different view. For that reason, the final decision has to rest with the individual. Personally, changing my name hasn't made me feel empowered or disempowered; I am as bossy and opinionated now as when I was a Miss. Now that I am older and, theoretically, wiser, would I still change my name? Probably. But that is more to do with being a soppy romantic than making a political point.

      So do teachers have a duty to think progressively when it comes to changing their names? I would be a hypocrite if I said yes. But perhaps there is a duty to explain the choice - to put it in context and dispel unhelpful misconceptions - if a student asks.

      Katie White is an English teacher at Kingsbridge Community College in Devon

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