Wednesday, May 14, 2014

To Sir With Love No More

For the five years I taught fourth grade in England before emigrating to the US in 1977 I was referred to by the students in my classes as "sir". At the time, and until this morning, I always saw it as a quick and easy way for students to get my attention or acknowledge me as their teacher. It never even crossed my mind that it was in any way "depressing or sexist" as has been described in an article on the BBC today. I must admit to being torn by the article. Part of me agrees that it could be construed as creating different levels of respect in school based on gender; something I would certainly not want to happen. But, the more I think about it the more it seems that the word "sir" is not being used in the sense of Sir Walter Raleigh or Sir Alex Ferguson as the article suggests.

There's another use of the word that is less formal as in the way it is used in a store when you are customer. The feminine equivalent in this context is ma'am which I guess was used in schools as a way of addressing female teachers in years past. This clearly would not work today especially in the British culture. Neither would 'Dame" work which is the feminine equivalent of  'sir' in  its more refined definitive form; as in Dame Judi Dench. It clearly would not work to call female teachers 'dame'.

The other way to go to create equality would be to have students refer to male teachers  as "master", something I think was done during the nineteenth century in the UK. Or, perhaps 'mister' would work but then that has a bit of a pejorative feel, thanks to its use by children in literature.

As the article suggests, children could call teachers by their first names which may change the classroom dynamic quite significantly. They could also use teachers'  last name which could be quite difficult for teachers with multi-syllabic double-named last names. And then of course there is "teacher" but that has always seemed to be a sign of disrespect.

In the US we have always used last names, a last name initial as in Mr T, or a first name. "Sir" just would not work here, or probably anywhere else on Earth which makes me sort of selfishly wish that it didn't change because it is so uniquely British. 

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