Chintan Girish Modi
Are you one of those teachers who prefers to be addressed by your first name rather than being referred to as ‘Sir’, ‘Madam’, ‘Miss’? I certainly am. I like my name, and I am happy for anyone to call me by just that, regardless of whether the person is younger, older or almost the same as my age; whether the person is male or female; whether the person is higher or lower in the professional hierarchy.
I feel particularly uncomfortable being called ‘Sir’ in teacher training programmes I facilitate, where many of the participants are at least 10 or 15 years older than I, sometimes more. “This is our way of showing respect. How can we call you by your name? That would be disrespectful,” I am told. I find it difficult to wrap my head around this.
My understanding of disrespect is quite different. If one student is making a presentation or asking a question, and others are talking amongst themselves or laughing at this particular student, that to me would qualify as disrespect. Not apologizing for a delayed assignment submission, or not doing one’s assigned share of work in a group project, would be seen as disrespect.
What has the epithet ‘Sir’ got to do with respect? I sometimes wonder. Would I feel less respected if someone used only my name to address me but exemplified tremendous commitment, curiosity and cooperation through her/his participation in my class? Would I feel more respected if someone greeted me with deference every time he/she saw me or touched my feet to seek blessings but continued to show a lack of interest in learning, or be rude to fellow students holding perspectives different from his/her own?
I guess what we consider as ‘respectful’ is, to some extent, shaped by the culture we grow up in. I, for one, grew up being taught that one ought to respect people who are older, not argue with them, offer them one’s own seat, speak to them with courtesy, not question or challenge them, etc. However, as I became older, and began relying more on my experiences and my sense of people, I retained some of what I was taught, and discarded some of it. I do offer my seat, but not at all times. I am courteous, but I do not pretend to believe that those who have lived longer have more wisdom in them.
Respect is also earned, at least in my understanding. Someone’s being older than me or being higher up in the professional hierarchy does not automatically evoke respect. It could evoke courtesy, but not necessarily respect. For example, if a very senior male teacher is given to making misogynist remarks about his female colleagues, I would not be able to overlook the misogyny because of the seniority.
On the other hand, I also find myself wary of claims that the practice of students addressing teachers by first name necessarily eliminates hierarchy, or makes teachers more approachable. I like the practice, but I cannot get myself to overstate its efficacy. I have visited schools where teachers are referred to as ‘Sir’, ‘Madam’, ‘Anna’, ‘Akka’, ‘Amma’, ‘Didi’, ‘Bhaiyya’, ‘Aunty’, ‘Uncle, etc., but that does not mean an absence of warmth, care or friendliness.
Things are far more nuanced than we make them out to be. I guess how people relate to their teachers is also changing because of how teachers look at themselves. There used to be and there still are many teachers who think of themselves as performing the role of a proxy parent. However, there are a large number of teachers who think of themselves as professionals first, not caregivers. I once heard a teacher say, “I go to school to teach, not be a shrink.” I can respect that point of view. Similarly, I can understand when a student says, “I am in her class to learn math. Why is she trying to be my friend? I have my own set of friends.”
What education means to us, how we define learning, the ideal teacher-student relationship we hope for, our own experiences of school and family – so much depends upon these things. Moreover, we also relate to people as individuals. We do not treat all our teachers, or all our students, exactly the same way.
As I wrap up this piece, I realize that I feel fairly inconclusive on this matter. Ideas around the giving and receiving of respect seem contextual and born out of personal interactions rather than matters cast in stone.
The author is an educator, writer, researcher and peacebuilder. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.