As many of you know, I ask students to refer to me as David. Some do, but some are uncomfortable with it and use Mr. David or Mr.O’Connell. Either is fine, but I let them know I prefer David. This choice is intentional and built around an approach to working with children that leverages positive relationships.
For some, dropping titles is a bright red line that children should not cross. The argument against dropping titles often revolves around the concept that using the title implies respect, and dropping the title is a sign of disrespect. But that is a false dichotomy. Respect is built around the entirety of actions, words, and tone. Daily, the messages students receive from us are about positive behavior and treating everyone with consideration.
Pedagogically, students learn better when teachers get on their level. When we talk to a student at a desk, we are much more effective if we crouch down, get eye to eye and have a conversation about what they are struggling with. Standing over them to have that same conversation does not feel collaborative. It feels top-down. When we are on their level, our interest in their ideas and concerns feels more genuine. Leveling the playing field between teacher and student builds respect between the two.
In my experience of going by David over the past ten years, the name has never been used disrespectfully. If anything, it has fostered respect, inclusivity, and belonging with students. They see me more as a whole person with interests and a life that transcends being Head of School. It removes some of the anxiety of talking with me and enhances the opportunities for me to partner with students in their learning journey. Partner does not mean equals; students understand I am the senior partner and do not need a title that asserts power over students. Respect and authority come from my daily interactions and positive relationships.
Using a teacher’s first name is not the magic pill to building positive relationships; it is one of many ingredients. We also know that just because a teacher uses a title doesn’t mean they lack strong positive relationships. But removing a title is one small way to build those relationships.
This past Monday, I talked with the Saklan teachers about my experience and preference for using first names. We discussed the pros and cons of making the change and also watched a video on the topic. At the end of our conversation, several teachers decided to drop their titles, and some did not. We have left it as a personal preference. With the students, it is the same. If a teacher states their preference to be called by their first name, students may still choose to use the title.
I respect tradition and think we should all be respectful to each other. That said, etiquette and respect are not the same. Nor does following traditions or etiquette create an atmosphere where respect is authentic. As we like to say, respect is earned, not given.