What Should I Call You? Our students’ dilemma over forms of address

I recently began to accept students for private online instruction, and a question that is becoming common at trial lessons is How shall I call you? The students, who come from all regions of the globe, are unsure how to address me. Jennifer? Miss Jennifer? Mrs. Lebedev? Their questions echo the doubts that many of my former students had in the traditional classroom setting. Previous formal learning experiences are ingrained in the adult learner’s mind. If he or she was taught to address school teachers or university instructors a certain way, these habits are often transferred to our own classrooms, be they traditional or virtual.  Do we encourage these habits or try to break them?

My practice now is no different from what it was in the past. I respond to what the students call me. Often the forms of address are chosen out of respect. Ms. Jennifer and Teacher are good examples. I am aware that in other cultures teachers hold a position of authority and honor. Forcing a student to abruptly abandon a familiar practice causes more discomfort for him or her, than hearing an overly formal title causes for me. However, learning a language means learning another culture, so I do make a point of correcting inappropriate use of a title.  I have not earned the title of Professor because I do not hold a PhD. I clarify this for students who address me that way. I also note the difference between full names and nicknames. I will respond to Jenn and Jenny, but I usually make a joke about the latter and with a grimace I explain that I have not gone by Jenny since the eighth grade.  “Please just call me Jennifer,” I say.

What has been your experience? Do you make a point of telling students how they may address you on the first day of class? How do you handle forms of address that go against your personal preference?

4 Comments Add yours

  1. John says:

    All the time I taught in the midwest, I tried to get my students not to call me Mr. John. Then I moved to Florida where the younger people working in the offices called me mister John, and after eight years, I still find it a little odd. I do have a PhD, but I have not felt comfortable being called doctor from my years in the ESL classroom, but recently began wondering if not having them address me that way is going to cause problems when they move into academic classes. I intend to ask teachers in the academic classes about that.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      In truth, the dilemma isn’t limited to the ESL or EFL classroom. As an undergraduate, I sometimes avoided forms of address with my instructors when I couldn’t remember what their individual preferences were. A number of professors invited us to call them by their first names. It was a lot easier in Japanese class, where we added “sensei” to a last name, or in Russian class, where we knew to use a first name along with a patronymic.

  2. Roger says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    I have had similar experiences with how students address me. I usually get: Mr. Roger, Roger and Teacher. I also had recently “Teacher Roger”🙂 In the text book we use there is part of a lesson in which the book tries to encourage students to adopt the U.S. custom when speaking to a teacher i.e. “Mr/Mrs./Ms Last Name”. I too don’t like to have a student change a habit that they have learned from a previous school experience. On the first day I state that they can call me by my first name and some do, but others continue to use the above variations. I’m comfortable with this. I have never had any students use a form going against my preference. I have to say that I prefer the use of my first name to the more formal mister. This is part of my intention to keep the class atmosphere comfortable and relaxed.

    I must tell you again that you have a fantastic blog! Side note: I’m developing two blogs, one to use as teaching tool in the classroom and the other to share with students that they can use after the class is finished. On the second one I am linking your videos. They are quite good. Blogs aren’t finished yet… just need to find more time!

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