Tiffany Jenkins: Should we keep ‘sir’ and ‘miss’?

THOSE teachers who want their pupils to address them by their first names rather than as ‘Miss’ or ‘Sir’ have got it all wrong, says Tiffany Jenkins

Use of "sir" and "miss" goes way back, but is it still suitable for modern students. Picture: TSPL
Use of "sir" and "miss" goes way back, but is it still suitable for modern students. Picture: TSPL

Should Miss Brodie have been called Jean by her “special girls”, removing the prefix “Miss”? They would have been the “Jeanie set” rather than the “Brodie set”, if so. Should Mr Chips have been called Charles, dropping the “Mr”, never referred to as “Sir”? Or what about a more recent example, the infamous school teacher in the television series Breaking Bad. What if Jessie had called Mr White “Walter” right from the start of the series, rather than Mr White until the end?

Had these teachers been referred to by their first names, none of these stories would have worked. All these characters were referred to using these particular titles in order to denote their elevated position as the teacher in the relationship. But it looks like the days of “Miss” and “Sir” are numbered. Certain academics and teachers want to change this way of talking to teachers, saying it is old-fashioned and suggesting that instead pupils be on first-name terms with them.

This week, Jennifer Coates, emeritus professor of English language and linguistics at Roehampton University (note: not just “Jennifer”), argued in the Times Educational Supplement, the professional newspaper for the teaching sector, there was no place for the titles “Miss” or “Sir” in the 21st century, especially “Miss”.

“Calling teachers ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’ is depressing, sexist and gives women in schools a lower status than their male counterparts,” Jennifer Coates told the paper, continuing: “‘Sir’ is a knight … but ‘Miss’ is ridiculous – it doesn’t match ‘Sir’ at all.

“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.

It is true that calling someone “Miss” outside of a classroom suggests they are young and usually that they haven’t got a partner. The origins of the term in schools is from Victorian times when female teachers were single – women had to give up work once they married. And while that all changed in the mid-20th century, when married women could become teachers, “Miss” has stuck, and remains an acceptable form of address within the classroom even on those occasions – as when the teacher is married – when it is inaccurate.

But “Miss” is OK. For school pupils, it just means that their teacher happens to be female. They don’t think: my teacher is an unmarried girl; they just think “Miss” is my teacher.

The origins of the use of “Sir” is older than “Miss”. It was first used in 16th-century classrooms, when male teachers of a lower social standing were trying to assert their authority over boys, some of whom might have belonged to the higher echelons of society. These days, all of that has vanished and today it just means “Sir is my teacher, the person to whom homework is owed”. Whatever sex and whatever age, students tend to think you are past it anyway and find it hard to believe that you could have any life outside of school.

Jennifer Coates isn’t alone in feeling uncomfortable with “Miss” and “Sir”. Others think the terms antiquated. Professor Sara Mills, of Sheffield Hallam University, said that UK schools were moving towards allowing pupils to address all teachers – female and male – by their first name. “Sometimes,” she notes, “teachers find that they can control students more when they try to stress the similarities between them, rather than trying to keep as distant as possible”.

It is already the case, then, that a Jean, Charles and Walter could be standing in front of a classroom near you, although it is even more likely they are hosting circle time, having decided that standing in front of everyone is off-putting.

Speaking on Radio 4’s PM programme, a headteacher who asks his pupils to call him “Nigel”, rather than “Mr”, argued: “Schools are so behind the rest of society”. He said that in industry, where he worked before, “I called all of my bosses by their first name. A hundred years earlier it would have been Mr and Mrs, but I think schools take a long time to catch up with social changes”.

But in the workplace, both the employer and employee are adults: everyone is a grown-up. This is not the case in a classroom where there are adults and children, or young people. A teacher requires and deserves a certain kind of respect and recognition, because students are not their equals.

A teacher has a specific role: imparting knowledge. That’s knowledge about their subject, be it maths, French, history or literature, and a more general kind of knowledge about how to behave and how to be. The teacher is there to guide the pupils and to tell them what is right and what is wrong. Being a teacher means holding a position of authority and the “Mr”, “Miss”, or “Sir” is a sign of that, of their distance and difference from the pupils. Pretending that the teacher is equal to the student, or a friend, is disingenuous, misleading and an abdication of responsibility.

Demanding that students use these prefixes guarantees nothing, of course. Respect doesn’t automatically follow. Anyone who has stood in front of a room of surly teenagers knows they are very capable of saying “Miss”, “Sir”, or “Nigel” with clear disdain. And every school has a Nigel, a well-meaning teacher who wants to be liked, and usually is – but not because the pupils are on first-name terms with him or her; they are respected usually because they are dedicated. You win authority in additional ways to how you are referred to.

How we refer to and speak to teachers matters. Anyone who meets one of their teachers years later finds it hard not to call them “Miss” or “Sir”, because of the important role they played in our lives: showing the best that has been thought and said, and opening our eyes to the world.

We never forget our schooldays, however much we would like to be rid of them at the time. And we never forget that teacher who made a difference, inspired us, motivated us, or just reassured us that one day it would all be over (school, that is). We owe them their prefix.