What’s in a name?

Whats in a name?

Danielle Zukowski

While at work, I heard some coworkers discussing how calling a professor by their first name made them uncomfortable. They were saying that even if their teacher introduced themselves as “Taylor,” for example, they would still refer to them by their last name. Most teachers in college have introduced themselves as professor so and so, but occasionally some do not follow suit and some students are caught off guard.

In high school, it was extremely irregular to refer to teachers as Kim or Joe. It was always Mrs. Johnson or Mr. Simons. Last names were considered a sign of respect. It was formal, polite and created a barrier. The roles were clear. Teacher. Learner. This was very typical. Only once did I have a substitute teacher that insisted on being called by his first name.

However, there are many differences between high school and college. In high school, students are still in their teens. There are opportunities to become close with a teacher, but many things are considered inappropriate. There is a distinct authority that often has to act as an educator as well as behavior mediator.

On the other hand, in college the teacher is not your babysitter. They are not here to spoon-feed you every bit of information. They are extremely educated, well experienced and certainly have the potential to influence your life. That in and of itself commands respect. In lecture-based classes, the role of an educator is very prevalent. I would expect teachers who choose this format to be more formal. It is likely that teachers will introduce themselves by their last name. Interactions in these classrooms are probably minimal.

However, students also have the opportunity to form a relationship with professors. They may become close with them if they are working on a research project, for example. Students may reach a point with teachers where they are collaborating. Discussions will occur. They will learn and teach together, work together, come to an understanding together. In these situations, students may actually feel more comfortable to voice their opinion when they feel more equal to their teacher. Addressing a teacher by his or her first name could flourish an environment more condoning of partnership. The student could potentially feel like their ideas are more valued and respected when treated on the same level.

It is much less common for situations like these to be present between student and teacher, but some circumstances could benefit from being on a first name basis. There are certainly situations where this inappropriate, and there are many factors that go into it. It is dependent on what type of class or interaction it is.

Some spaces are more casual than others. I think there is definitely a cultural element that may influence it as well on both sides. Some cultures may prefer one over the other. It is also an individual issue between teacher and student. Everyone has their personal preferences, and the ultimate thing is to make sure everyone feels comfortable.