By CELA on 21 Apr, 2020

Are you a Miss Jane, or a plain Janey? We live in an age where most children call their friends’ parents by their first names, and that’s usually the case for early years and OSHC educators too.

Yet it wasn’t always so. A generation or so back, ECE staff were more often Miss Jenny or Mrs Smith with a rare Mister in the mix. How did it change? And why has the same trend not applied to school teachers who are still almost universally known by title and surname?

More importantly: does it matter?

Personal identity

The use of Ms, Mrs, Miss, Mr or Mx (non-binary) as an honorific in the English language is, broadly speaking, a mark of respect. In daily life, we use titles with people we don’t know, or whose role in our lives requires a little distance to the relationship.

These titles also, however, identify the holder by gender, for males, and both gender and marital status for females.

In the United States, it seems the higher the status of an individual, the less tied their honorific is to gender. Doctors, professors, police officers and the president of the United States are all addressed using completely gender-neutral titles. Teachers, parents and Gymboree instructors, on the other hand, are typically referred to using the default terms: miss or mister. Washington Post, Oct. 15, 2019

Traditional English language honorifics don’t provide a comfortable title for people who don’t identify with either male or female gender. According to this article on non-binary teachers and honorifics, Mx has been around since the 1970s and its use may be increasing with more awareness of gender identity in education.

Professional identity

In early childhood education settings, as in schools, the use of honorifics like Miss and Mr traditionally identified the educator as holding a professional role in charge of children. In Danielle Bopping’s experience (see her full case study below), the services still applying ‘Miss’ to educator’s titles are often more formal in their other practices.

“In most of the places I have worked … I have been known as Dani,” she says.

“The exceptions have been Early Learning Centres attached to independent schools, where formalities also included children as young as three-years-old shaking hands with the teacher upon arrival and departure.”

Capturing the change

Most educators we spoke to had started using their first names with children either from their first job or as a result of changing jobs and joining a new culture. Many found it hard to remember when they noticed the balance tipping from mostly ‘Miss’ to mostly ‘Jane’. The feeling is: ‘somewhere in the ‘90s’.

A contemporary account from two Australian schools making the change may be helpful in understanding what was at stake for ECE a generation before.

In this ABC report from South Australia, Toni Burford, the principal of Lobethal Primary School, says titles don’t build respect.

“When I went to school you didn’t dare call the teacher by their first name…,” she said.

“But the whole approach to building relationships with students has become very important; we know a surname or a title doesn’t necessarily build you respect or trust from the students.”

A teacher at Woodville Gardens School, Sue Charlston, told the ABC her students call her ‘Sue’ and she feels it builds relationships more quickly.

“I feel like I’m positioning myself as a learner alongside students, rather than this holder of all knowledge,” she said.

When did it change for ECE?

‘Outside the circle’ ECE thinker Molly Rhodin, agrees the use of first names was part of a shift in thinking for the sector.

“Systemic and traditional expectations coupled with a greater need for young children and educators to be co-learners led us to a cultural change,” Molly said.

She points to a shift toward post-structuralist theory moving early childhood educators towards “respectful and mindful placement of equality and equity”. To achieve this co-learning culture, Molly said ECE services had to ‘give up the power’ that titles commanded in the past.

In Molly’s own words:

Call them what you will, from professional titles to salutation, to being respectful of one’s elders and culture: to me, titles are just a box. In particular, when used with children that’s a box of perceived power and a need to be quickly identified.

I am not a Miss, Mrs or Mz. I am not a set age, weight or personality. I am fluid. I am unique.

In a world where folks are looking for a quick fix to everything, there is merit in letting one’s identity be a bloody good story, not just a title. I think about classic books children love to read and have read to them. The title triggers their interest, but it’s the content that tantalises!

Case study: Danielle Bopping

Danielle Bopping’s tale of titles takes us from her own entry to education through to her current role as a teacher and trainer of adults.

When I was five years old, in the Christmas holidays before I was due to start school, I spent a long time learning the name of my soon-to-be teacher, Miss McCormick. It was a mouthful. Not long before we started school, we were informed that Miss McCormick had gotten married and would now be known as Mrs McGaw. More practice ensued.

Back then, a more formal school setting meant addressing teachers by their title and surname was just the way it was. It was considered respectful and was expected behaviour. By the time I reached the later years of my secondary schooling a very few teachers were semi-comfortable with us calling them by their first name … so long as the school hierarchy was not within hearing distance!

In my first role as an early childhood educator more than 20 years ago, in a long daycare setting, all the educators were known to the children and families by our first names. I found ‘Danielle’ was tricky for young children to wrap their tongues around and so I made it even less formal by shortening to Dani. Incidentally, it is quite amazing the number of children that decide of their own accord to shorten it even further to ‘Dan’.

In most of the places, I have worked since I have been known as Dani. The exceptions have been Early Learning Centres attached to independent schools, where formalities also included children as young as three-years-old shaking hands with the teacher upon arrival and departure.

As an educator of young children, I feel far more comfortable with both children and families calling me by my first name. The title ‘Miss’ feels like it creates a divide rather than building a partnership with children and families that is reciprocal, equitable and mutually respectful.

Reflecting on this, I have wondered whether using a title, in an unconscious way, creates an unbalanced level of power, because using it suggests more respect should be given? We are guided by the EYLF, of which one of the key themes is ‘Belonging’, and we know that children learn best when they feel comfortable, safe and secure. We want children to feel as relaxed and comfortable with us as they do with their own family in order to support their sense of belonging. I believe the formality of being known by a title detracts from and could potentially hamper those relationships with children and families, especially when they are new.

Now, as a trainer and assessor of mature, mostly international students studying the Certificate III and Diploma of Early Childhood, I have also encountered situations where those students have insisted on calling me “Teacher” or “Miss Dani”. Even after explaining to them on numerous occasions they can and should call me simply “Dani” they have continued.

For many adult students, it is a cultural habit in education settings as that is how teachers are referred to in their home countries. For some, it goes deeper and links back to wider notions of respect. But it is not the use of the title that calls for respect in this context. It is the high esteem in which the teaching profession is held in their home countries that influences their use of the title, similar to that of the medical ‘Doctor’.

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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