I work in alternative education, which means I teach “urban youth” who are coming out of jail, about to go into jail, are on probation, or have been permanently removed from their neighborhood school for fighting, drugs, carrying weapons, etc… Often I find myself frustrated my a system that doesn’t care enough to provide sufficient supplies and teachers to children they’ve decided to throw away. As a result, the students aren’t really encouraged to take pride in their education or themselves, let alone show respect for their school, their teachers, or their community.
I started in a new school this week and was appalled at the extreme lack of respect students showed for teachers, and even more so at the administration’s lack of follow-through on rules and procedures, but I digress. In alternative education, anything you can do to get the students to follow societal norms is considered a “win”. One of my focuses is to get students to refer to me by name. In case you are unaware, urban youth show their disdain for “white society” by refusing to call teachers by their name or their title. For example, if your name is Ms. Smith, the students will refer to you as “Miss” or “Smith” , but will not put them together. Most teachers chalk this up as unimportant and don’t address it, but I see this a critical issue. I feel that students should respect me and their education enough to at least learn and use my name.
So here’s how I did in 4 days what the other teachers haven’t managed to do in 5 months: On Day 1 I introduced myself as Ms. Smith. When students refered to me as Miss, I add the “Smith” before answering them or granting their request. When students refered to me as “Miss” on day 2, I reminded them that my name is “Ms. Smith” and required that they say it before answering their question or granting their request. On day 3, I pretended not to hear students until they say, “Ms. Smith”, which inevitably pissed someone off given the population I work with. When that happened, I simply said, “I’m sorry ______ (insert name), but I’ve already given you enough respect to learn and use your name and I expect you to learn and use mine. If you’re not going to do that, we have nothing more to say to each other.” Then I continued with my lesson. By day 4, most of my students were using my name. At some point during that day, one of the “hold-outs” tried to get my attention and I ignored him. Then he said, “I’m going to call you Ms. S…..Okay?’, and I say, “Fine.” I have just won. While it’s true, the student is not referring to me by my full name, I have forced them to see me as a person rather than a nameless authority figure just like every other authority figure they’ve come into contact with. Our teacher/student relationship has finally begun.