by Neal Brown, Head of School, Green Acres School
In “What Happened to Kids Addressing Adults by their Last Names?” (Washington Post, September 18, 2015) Danielle Larkins lit a small fire under larger cultural “wars” in this country about traditional etiquette, parenting, and respect for elders. While I respect her view and can see how in some settings using an adult’s last name conveys respect and certainly upholds tradition, I don’t agree with the necessary link she makes between children calling adults by their first names and a loss of respect for adult authority or a culture gone overboard in building children’s self-esteem.
In many school settings, calling teachers by their first names is a deliberate and values-driven choice. In my experience leading a school where students call adults by their first names, this practice has helped us to break down unproductive barriers and to engender mutual respect between adults and students. A way to foster respect and inclusivity, a sense of belonging and community, it also helps our students see the adults who teach them as whole people with interests that transcend what they do in the classroom—just as all the research suggests that teachers, to be most effective, need to understand their students as “whole children.”
From what I have witnessed, addressing both students and teachers by first names fosters the feeling of being partners in learning. Students begin to develop strong relationships with their teachers and they are less afraid to make mistakes or advocate for themselves. I notice that the anxiety of talking to a “grown-up” is diminished and many students speak of a sense of respect and empowerment. This sense of respect is mutual.
This practice is not born out of a desire for students and adults to be equals, to undermine teachers’ authority, or to diminish the amount of respect students give to their teachers. None of these three undesirable outcomes has resulted from our first-name policy.
Of course whether students demonstrate respect for their teachers or other adults in a school, and, as importantly, vice-versa, depends much more than on just a name. It leans on the messages that students receive daily about their behavior and about treating all people with respect, on the genuine interest that teachers take in students and their ideas and concerns, and on the opportunities students have to make choices and take initiative.
I respect tradition, and we all want our children to be respectful to adults and to one another. Yet it is important to remember that etiquette and respect are not the same, nor does one necessarily lead to the other. A call for traditional etiquette hardly engenders a solution, nor does it demonstrate a concern for how well we as adults nurture children and model to them a sense of respect. Perhaps where the author and I most agree is in her statement that “[…] adults earn respect through their actions, not by their title.”