Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What's In a Name: Or, What's Up With These Quaker Schools?

At my daughter's Quaker school, the kids call their teachers by their first names.  It wasn't the case when I was at Quaker school back in the Neolithic era.  It was Mrs., Miss, Mr.  "Ms." was still a news item at the time, not yet filtered into the culture.

Some people are convinced that this breeds disrespect in the students.  I'll concede that names are powerful. As a kid, I had trouble saying my own name when I met people.  For me, anyone labeled Mr. or Mrs., was, by definition, someone I couldn't open up to.  My job was to be polite to the "Mrs." I encountered, and the relationship ended there.  I probably I lost out on some potential relationships--"Of course I can't risk opening up to adults"--which the adults I encountered would, in fact, have encouraged.  Of course, the problem was bigger than how I addressed anyone. When my kids were little, I had a lot of ambivalence about how they should address adults, and the result was a piebald mix of Mr., Mrs., Ms., first names, and the occasional 'Aunt.'

 What about respect for authority?  What I've noticed at C's school is that the kids who are disrespectful to teachers are the same kids who would, in another, more traditional school, be just as disrespectful--if more outwardly conforming than at a Quaker school.

I'm very grateful that C. is in a place where teachers are approachable.  The first-name-basis thing is symbolic of that.  The authority/respect issue is mediated by the mutual respect that this community works very hard to maintain across the board.  It's not static, and I'm sure it's more time-consuming than the traditional approach.  Teachers are accountable for how they interact with students, and students mature in respect as they get older.  It can be a messy process, and this is the heart of the matter.  Openness is hard to maintain skillfully, but it's necessarily not the doorway to laxity and disrespect.


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