Relic or really important: Should students call their teachers by their first name

“Sara”, the student shouted down the corridor, “do you have a key to this classroom?”

Often when I visit schools in Europe, we are hosted by students who show us around and tell us about their school. On this particular occasion, we faced a locked door. The student noticed the principal at the other end of the corridor, and shouted, “Sara, do you have a key to this classroom?”. In the group there were a number of Australian school leaders, including one principal who looked as if the blood had just drained from her face,

“Do you call the principal by her first name” she asked.

Across Europe, it is normal for students and teachers to be on a first name basis, and maybe you are one of them and reading this can you believe we are having this conversation. I’ve consistently witnessed mutually respectful relationships in schools where great teaching and deep learning still occur. Over the last decade, or so, as I’ve had the opportunity to visit schools around the world, I’ve reached the conclusion that I don’t think that this personal connection inhibits respectful relationships nor hinders learning.

This subject came to my attention when I noticed that a local radio station commenced a FaceBook poll: Should kids call their teachers by their first name?  It was in response to an interview about schools in another Australian state that have allowed this ‘crazy idea’. At the time of writing, the poll is significantly weighted toward maintaining titles, after more than a thousand responses. I find this startling.

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In opening the segment the radio interviewer inquired, “Can I ask you how the kids respond do they take liberties if they are calling their teachers by their first names, or is it a genuine appreciation of closeness from the students to the teacher?”
(Read the interview transcript Calling teachers by first names, along with listener comments)

Today, very few workplaces that I am aware of maintain this protocol among employees, despite where individuals may be positioned on the organisational chart. The key message is that respect is more about our humanness, than our title. I am reminded of the work of Bryk and Schneider (2002) on trust in school. They describe three types of trust that can exist:

Organic – unquestioning beliefs of individuals in the moral authority of a particular social institution and characterises closed, small scale communities.

Contractual – parties have acted in accordance with agreed terms.

Relational – Social relations of schooling are a valued outcome… A complex web of social exchanges conditions the basic operation of schools.

The industrial era was characterised by ‘organic’ trust, where teachers and principals, as well as politicians, the monarchy, clergy and captains of industry, were trusted based on their position, this mindset was reinforced through the prevailing culture of the day. Today, character, integrity and quality relationship are held in higher than titles, and lead to greater accountability. Trust and respect is not based on what we call people, but how we treat people. It is earned, and takes time. It’s about being real, being human.

In the big picture, this discussion is more about us thinking deeply about the relics of education, and having a considered conversation about what’s really important.

But, if you still need convincing over this, I have one final argument…
They call teachers by their first name in Finland.
I rest my case.


Bryk & Schneider (2002) Trust in Schools: A core resource for improvement, Ch2: Relational Trust

ABC Sydney:

5 thoughts on “Relic or really important: Should students call their teachers by their first name

  1. I’m in my 8th year teaching in a school where the students call us by our first names. Not a problem. In the past I have kids call me Mr Dixon with great disdain, and call me Gary with great respect. They key is relationship, relationship, relationship. If you need a title to earn respect, as a teacher or in any other field, the problem is yours.


  2. Interestingly, during a recent visit to a US school where using first names occurs, the students said they’d rather use the teacher’s last name because it displayed more respect for the role they have in the school and community. Agree though that it’s about the relationship that exists, so the preference to use a teacher’s last name shouldn’t be a significant issue either. Each community and school should decide what works best for them.


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