I had an interesting conversation on Facebook recently about the correct way to speak to your teacher. In many countries, it's important to show your teacher respect in the language you use but things are a little different in the UK, especially in adult aducation. Keep reading and learn more!
School and University
When I was at school, I called all my teachers by their title and surname, for example, Mr Smith or Mrs Jones. I think this is probably mostly still true nowadays in the UK, although I have heard of some situations where children can use first names, such as in a special needs school.
When I was 16, I moved to a different school and I was surprised to hear my classmates call the teachers “Sir” (for a man) and “Miss” (for a woman). To me, it seemed lazy, as if they couldn’t be bothered to learn names! To you, it might sound like a sign of respect but, believe me, it wasn’t always spoken with a respectful tone of voice!
At university, we called our lecturers Dr Smith or Professor Jones, still no first names. This was over thirty years ago though so I don’t know for sure if it’s the same now but I think it probably is!
Then when I was 21, everything changed! I did a teacher training course and our lecturers all said, “Please call me Jane/Peter.” I found it really difficult to adjust at first but then I got used to it!
After teacher training, I worked as a primary school teacher and the children always called me Miss Salter. The parents did too! We mostly called our colleagues by their first names except perhaps the headteacher.
After six years of primary school teaching, I retrained to teach English. I went to Poland for two and a half years and taught adults, teenagers and children. All my students called me Katie, no matter what age!
In 2002, I got a job in a language school in Cambridge, teaching adults (although the school defined “adults” as anyone above 16 years old). I always introduced myself as Katie and all the students, even the young ones, were allowed to call me that.
Not everyone actually called me Katie though. Some people called me “Teacher”. At first, I didn’t like that because I felt like they were not interested in learning or remembering my name, even though I learnt all their names! Eventually I discovered that in some countries, this is actually polite and a sign of respect so I didn’t try to stop them after that. But some teachers may feel that it’s actually more polite to learn your teacher's name and use it.
In fact, I know some students found it too difficult to call me Katie! It just felt so impolite and uncomfortable for them! Occasionally, students called me Miss Katie but it was usually Katie or Teacher!
On Facebook, learners often call me "Madam", "Ma’am" or "Mam". I even get "Mum" or "Mommy" or "Sister" from time to time. This made me a bit uncomfortable at first but I don’t mind so much now because I understand that different cultures have different ways of being polite.
But if you ever come to the UK or work with British people, it might help you to know what’s OK and what’s not OK in this country, so keep reading.
"Madam" is very formal in the UK and perhaps even old-fashioned. Hardly anyone says it these days, except perhaps in a really expensive hotel, restaurant or shop. Plus it makes me feel really old!!
I'm definitely not "Sir" because I'm not a man! Again, "Sir" isn’t used much these days in Britain.
"Ma'am" isn't really right either. In Britain, we only use this to talk to a queen or princess, or a commanding officer in the police or army! In America, it’s used more often as a polite way to talk to a woman when you don’t know her name.
"Mam", "Mom", "Mommy", "Mum" and "Ma" mean Mother! We only use these words to talk to our mother and nobody else. (I think “Mam” is often an attempt at “Ma’am” actually but it’s a spelling mistake, because “mam” means mother.)
Other ways to show respect
When I told my Facebook followers they could call me Katie, some people got quite upset with me and said that it was disrespectful to call a teacher by their first name. That may be true in other cultures but it’s not true in the UK.
Some people even seemed to think that we don’t respect teachers here or that British people are less respectful than other cultures. I don’t think that’s true at all! British people just show their respect in different ways.
For example, it’s important to listen to the teacher when she’s talking. It’s rude to look at your phone in the middle of a lesson. It’s OK to ask questions and it’s even OK to ask a teacher if she has made a mistake but it isn’t polite to tell her that she is wrong. I’m sure those things are true in your country too.
It’s also important to remember that the relationship between teacher and student is different when the student is an adult. When I started teaching in Cambridge, my students were almost the same as me and some were actually older than me!
In adult education the relationship between the teacher and the student is a bit more informal. Using first names between adults is not a sign of disrespect in this country. Friendliness and relationships are important, as well as respect.
Adult students can and should take more responsibility for their learning and the teacher is sometimes seen as more of a friend and a guide, helping students to achieve their goals, rather than an authority figure.
So what should you call your teacher?
Well it depends on your age, your culture and perhaps the nationality of your teacher. Perhaps the best thing to do is just ask your teacher what he or she likes to be called! Alternatively, you could see what everyone else does.
However, if you come to the UK as an adult, it’s very likely that everyone will use first names and it’s important to know that this is not a sign of disrespect.
If we ever meet, you can call me Katie if you like! I know some people are uncomfortable calling me Katie and I won't be upset or angry if you call me something else because I know it's your custom and I respect your culture.
You might also like this post about how to be polite in English.
And if you want to speak better English, you may find this English Speaking Challenge e-book helpful:
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