No more ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’!

Academics say that traditional teachers’ titles discriminate against women and should be scrapped.

Pupils should no longer call teachers ‘Miss’ or ‘Sir’ because these titles discriminate against women, The Telegraph reports. Academics claim that the use of ‘Sir’ for men and ‘Miss’ for women – no matter whether they’re married or not – is old-fashioned.

The use of ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’ goes back centuries. ‘Sir’ was first used in classrooms in the 16th century, when male teachers were trying to reinforce their authority among mainly upper-class boys.  ‘Miss’ dates from Victorian times, when pressure was put on women to give up work after they married, with some schools only hiring unmarried female teachers.

Professor Jennifer Coates from Roehampton University said there is no place for titles in the 21st century. “It’s a depressing example of how women are given low status and men, no matter how young or new in the job they are, are given high status,” she said. “Sir is a knight. There weren’t women knights, but ‘Miss’ is ridiculous; it doesn’t match ‘Sir’ at all. It’s just one of the names you can call an unmarried woman.”

One academic has suggested ‘Mr.’ and ‘Ms.’, followed by the surname, as an alternative to the traditional titles. Professor Sara Mills from Sheffield Hallam University wants schools to go further and use first names. “Sometimes teachers find they can control students more when they try to stress the similarities between them, rather than trying to keep as distant as possible,” she said.

What do your pupils call you – and would you like them to use your first name? Share your views with the Eteach community!

22 thoughts on “No more ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’!

  1. It all depends with individuals really. But I would prefer to be call teacher Gwen. It doesnt bother me if they say Miss I’m married , I guess if I was married there would be an impact.

  2. I read this article with great interest. I am a Headteacher of a special school where I have tried to get our pupils used to using the first names of staff – more for the benefit of the children than the adults, I must say. I have been met with resistance from some staff who feels it diminishes respect. I am trying to get these staff to understand that respect is not about titles. It is about relationships!

  3. I’m a PhD so they call me Dr, gender neutral and meaning “teacher” (subverted by the medics). Perhaps we should call all teachers Dr!

  4. As a male primary school teacher, the only time I get called ‘sir’ is when an ex-pupil, who’s gone on to the world of secondary school, returns to say hello. And it’s a strange experience!

    Day to day, the kids I teach use my name. Mr McAllan works well around the classroom and the children have never needed to shorten it. (Though last year, my year 6s did abbreviate it to Mr Mac, but that was agreed and only after Sats!)

    However, the female teachers to get called ‘Miss’, though more of an abbreviation of their full name than any derogatory term referring to Victorian times.

    Back when I was in secondary school, the teachers were Sir and Ma’am, which were also viewed on equal terms. It works for formal letters, doesn’t it?

    Dear Sir/Madam…

  5. I regard “Sir” and “Miss” as terms of respect. As a peripatetic teacher, I go into lots of different schools and don’t always know the names of all the staff I meet and vice versa. I find the terms Sir and Miss are very useful when I’m not sure of the name of someone.

  6. We have several comprehensives in the Gloucester area where pupils call female teachers “Madam”. I do supply teaching and only moved to the area a couple of years ago. The first time I heard a 16 year old boy say to me “have we got you for science, Madam?”, I thought he was being cheeky and sarcastic, but luckily (before I told him off!!) another child called another female teacher the same and I realised it was the norm!

  7. ‘Sir’ does not signify a knight. It was a common way of addressing any gentleman, and later any adult male stranger, for hundreds of years. The corresponding feminine should be ‘madam’ or ma’am’. In the US, it is still common for people to address a woman whom they don’t know as ‘ma’am’. I agree ‘miss’ is an anomaly, but it is customary, and should stay.
    As for ‘academics’ – ‘Professor’ Jennifer Coates and ‘Professor’ Sara Mills? Is it not obvious by now that teacher-training lecturers are partly responsible for the dumbing down of education over the last 40 years? Is it not time people ignored the dubious experts? They are ex-teachers who got out of school as soon as they could into the cushy position of lecturing in a college, where they do not have chav behaviour to contend with, and writing their ‘research’, most of which is not worth the paper it is written on. There is a big difference between the academic standard of a lecturer in physics or history or music and the standard of someone teaching in a faculty of education. Read some papers in thir journals – BS writ large, personal prejudice, no concept of evidence of scientific method, and often only semi-literate.

  8. It doesn’t matter what they call you as long as they say it with respect !
    I taught for a number of years in International schools , and ESOL to foreign students at a F.E. college,
    Then , students called me Mr. followed by my first name . There was never any problem with that mostly because for foreign students , especially from non-European backgrounds , the differentiation between first and last names wasn’t easily discernible !

    Also, I discovered that foreign students usually respect authority more than British students , who tend to adopt a ‘them and us ‘ attitude to teachers .

    Titles designate ethos and cultural norms . In any event , there are more important discussions to be having about education ,than who calls whom , what !

  9. If all Prof. Jennifer Coates and her colleagues have to discuss is this, then I would suggest that they be assigned to other more productive employment. They are trying to make an issue out of something that isn’t, in my opinion.

  10. It’s about time this archaic practice was dumped! If the reason that academics have come with sticks, fine! It stands a far better chance of success than making the challenge on the grounds so appropriately drawn attention to by E P Aliferis above. The main thing is that it be abolished.

    Rather than attempting to extort respect by the means of insisting on whatever form of address, teachers should be having to earn respect through their own respectful example. No wonder pupils in Britain tend to have a “them and us” attitude when many teachers have been getting away with aggressive behaviour bordering on abuse, in the name of good discipline. Not only does this lead to huge levels of resentment among pupils, but it also make it much harder for those of us who refuse to be aggressive. Let’s see an end to the days when pupils respond by murdering their teachers – not a common occurrence, thanks to remarkable restraint by most pupils and ex-pupils, but once is too often.

    When the legislation goes through I’ll drink a toast to its success!

  11. Aggressive behaviour of teachers? (Peter Brodie) Where on earth have you been teaching? I am really shocked by your comment. With regards to the issue of making sure that female and male teachers are addressed in a similar manner with similar status, I am very much in favour of this. I have always thought it slightly ridiculous that male teachers are referred to as sir and demeaning that students use a term that means a young girl or unmarried woman for female teachers. I have always insisted on being called by my title and surname. The use of language is an important issue in fighting discrimination as has been proved by the recent couple of cases where even the unwitting use of the n word has resulted in one person being sacked and another being reprimanded. I totally understand how Professor Coates felt when the pupils in the school where she was doing some volunteer teaching reverted to calling her ‘miss’ whereas younger, less experienced and less well-educated men were called by an inherently superior title. My Chinese students often use the term ‘teacher’ which is actually quite suitable and totally non-sexist.

  12. Does it really matter? There’s so much else to be concerned with and, really, respect is the key thing here. I’m not convinced I’d gain more respect or lose respect on the strength of a title, and I certainly wouldn’t think of myself any differently. I don’t care whether I’m addressed as Miss, Ms, Mrs, teacher, professor, or by my first name really, what I care about is HOW I am addressed, in terms of attitude, respect, politeness and appropriateness, whether from colleagues, pupils or anyone else.

  13. I too was shocked and disappointed by the comments of Peter Brodie. Teachers are not trying to exhort respect that isn’t earnt through hard work. They are earning their respect through doing a professional and demanding job, trying to cater for the many ( learning, social and pastoral) needs of an average class of thirty plus children. I have always found that the relationship of pupil and teacher doesn’t have to be a war between ‘them’ and ‘us as implied by Mr Brodie. I see nothing wrong with the calling of a male teacher ‘Sir’ and a lady teacher ‘Miss’ as long as the relationship is good and the child is benefitting from the stimulation and quality teaching that is taking place. However, I see nothing wrong with Carol’s comment neither that all teachers are referred to as ‘teacher’ regardless of their gender. Surely, there are far more important educational questions to be answered before Michael Gove and his cronies send education and standards generally back to the Dark Ages! Who is addressing the problem of yet another National Curriculum and the problem of recruitment with many young teachers becoming despondent and leaving the profession within the first three years of qualifying.

  14. I do think it’s an important issue – keeping control of one’s classroom and earning respect from one’s students is vital for proper teaching. And “little” things like titles can make a huge difference in the amount of respect given to teachers and the amount of classroom control a teacher has! Even in a tuition class or an after-school class for adult students, I always request them to call me with some respectful term. Even calling teachers first names in some universities and colleges in the USA, rather than Dr. and the surname as we did at Emory, diminishes the respect students have for teachers.

    In schools in the USA, most male teachers are called by Mr. and their surname, and most females by Mrs., Miss, or Ms. and their surname. (Divorcees can use Ms.!) In Sri Lanka, where I taught for years, students would always call me “Jenny Teacher” and in Myanmar “Teacher Jenny.” (Some of them tried to call me “Jenny Auntie,” not just for aunts but used for any older female there – but I do not feel this is appropriate in a class context.)

    I agree with the other commentator that many foreign cultures have different naming patterns – the surname may be first, as for Chinese. Sri Lankans may have as many as 5 or 6 names designated by initials on forms, including caste names and “ge” names (e.g., M.S.F.W. Abeykoon). Tamils follow different surname practices for daughters and sons in the same family. And Latinos have both their father’s and mother’s surname. So the given name and “Teacher” may be easier for foreign students to understand.

    The important thing, however, is to have some term that shows respect, not specifically what that term is. In many other societies – even Muslim countries like Egypt – women do not change their names or titles when they get married. So it is better to have the same respect term for unmarried, married, and divorced female teachers. How about “Madam” – it’s a common respect term that I am called travelling in Asian countries, by people who don’t know whether or not I am married. “Madam” is the standard female accompaniment to “Sir,” not “MIss.”

    Etymologically, however, both “Mrs” and “Miss” derive from the word “Mistress,” which doesn’t have to mean married or unmarried – it is just a term of respect! Titles can have different meanings in different contexts, and here the context is obviously that of respecting the teacher, not of whether or not she is married or unmarried (which the teachers’ students don’t even need to know!) So I don’t think any female teacher needs to be offended by being called “Miss” even if she is married. However, she has a right to tell students what to call her, and set the name from the beginning of the class. And in a school, it’s better if there’s some consistent pattern as to how teachers are called by students, so administrators need to set some guidelines.

  15. Why Sir and Miss, not Sir and Madam? In the southern USA and in most Asian countries, Sir and Madam are seen as the gender opposites, not Sir and Miss. Madam is often a respectful term people use for me when travelling by people who don’t know whether I’m married or not, so I think it’s a good solution of what to call female teachers. Having a female change her name when she marries but not a male IS sexist. I don’t see anything wrong with Sir, though – even if it came from knights, knights were worthy of great respect and are good examples for us today!

    On the other hand, Mrs., Miss, and Ms. all etymologically came from the word Mistress, which is a term of respect. So no female teacher needs to be offended by the word Miss, as in this context it is obviously a term of respect and not referring to whether or not she is married (which students don’t even need to know!)

    For a comparative perspective: in the USA, students call their teachers by Mr., Ms., Mrs., or Miss plus their surname. In Sri Lanka, students call their teacher by their given name plus teacher (e.g., Jenny Teacher). In Myanmar, it is the reverse, with Teacher and then the teacher’s given name. All these practices seem to work perfectly well. The main thing is the intent of the name, and that SOME RESPECTFUL TERM IS USED!.

    In my experience, a respectful name for the teacher makes a HUGE difference as far as classroom control, even with adult students and even in tuition classes. For example, in Sri Lanka when I made the mistake of allowing some students to call me “Auntie,” I never established the same respect as I did in most of my other classes! At Emory University where all professors are known by their surname and Dr. or other title, there is more respect and classroom control than at my Vermont graduate school, where we used first names.

    Naming customs, of course differ in different societies. In some countries, women change their surname when they marry, but in others (surprise example: Egypt), they don’t. Some people have both their father’s and mothers’ last names. In some societies, for example, Chinese, surnames come first. Some have additional names, like caste names, or different practices for surnames of sons and daughters in the same family. So, in the case of a foreign teacher in one of these contexts, the given name plus “Teacher” is easy to understand and appropriate.

    So ANY RESPECTFUL NAME FOR A TEACHER (not the first name!) is important. Teachers also have a right to tell their own students what to call them in their own classroom. So if any female teacher is offended by Miss, she can tell her students what she would prefer instead. However, in a school, students also need some consistency as to what to call their teachers, so the administration needs to set some guidelines in this area. It could vary between different schools – doesn’t need to be the same in every school, as some areas have more traditional people.

  16. I worked in a school where I was not allowed to refer to my students as Mr.X or Miss Y, even thought they were expected to refer their teachers by these terms. I never understood why. I never met a student yet who really cared about any of this as long as they felt they were treated well and with respect. Too much hot air on this topic, I feel.

  17. It is clear that Professors Coates and Mills are academics and not teachers of young and teenage children; otherwise they would not make such odd statements. In 16 years of teaching I have never heard a single teacher say that they had a problem with “sir” or “miss”. To say that “sir” is another word for a knight is a strange thing to say. It may be but it’s alternative use is as another word for “mister” as in “Dear Sir”. I agree that calling married teachers “miss” is illogical but it is simple; it does not offend and it is accepted practice. Teachers would be the first to object if they thought that these terms implied any difference in status and they are the people who matter in this debate.

    Lastly, the idea of Professor Mills that teachers should allow students to use their first names is bizarre. We are teachers (them); they are students (us). I have the responsibility for their care, their discipline, their progress and their reporting. These are clear differences and we should respect these. Very few children call their parents by their first name but I suspect Professor Mills may be one of these. If I permitted students to use my first name this would be overfamiliar and the old saying “familiarity breeds contempt” seems very relevant here.

  18. Disappointed to find that my perfectly good comment was moderated out by eteach staff. It had no swearing or abusive terms in it, but was a legitimate criticism of lecturers at teacher training institutions, such as “Professor” Jennifer Coates and “Professor” Sara Mills as above, generations of whom with their BS “research” are responsible for the decline of respect and the dumbing down of education over the last 40 years.

  19. As a School Technician I loved being called Miss in school, but would have vastly preferred Mrs Syril, which is actually my name. I hated it when a teacher revealed my first name, I felt diminished.

  20. As a School Technician I loved being called Miss in school, but would have vastly preferred Mrs Syril, which is actually my name. I hated it when a teacher revealed my first name, I felt diminished. From my experience, primary schools use title and surname, secondary, Miss or Sir. At Upper School, where students are more mature minded, it can be first names or a short form such as Mr F or Doctor Val.

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