What's in a Name?

By the Diversity Committee of the Board of Trustees

During the first week of school, fifth grader Owen McKenna came home with some important questions for his parents. His class had read My Name by Sandra Cisneros and had discussed the origins of names and different naming practices. His homework was to learn how his parents had chosen his name and to ask how they would prefer to be addressed by his peers at TPS.  

Owen was excited to learn what his name meant and why his parents, Michele and Patrick, had chosen it for him. But the conversation did not stop there. Owen was also interested in why some people liked to be addressed by a title and last name whereas others preferred to be addressed by first name only. When Michele explained  that different groups, shaped by their history and culture, think of naming differently, it became clear to Owen why a name and a title could be a very powerful part of a person’s identity.  

At TPS, students have traditionally addressed their teachers by first name. Many alums remember this practice fondly, especially after moving on to schools and workplaces where things are more formal. Grads can feel closely connected to teachers they addressed from the beginning as “Janet” or “Judith.”  For their part, many TPS faculty have supported the practice as a way to create community, to emphasize other ways of showing respect, and to remind students that teachers are learners too.

Not all members of the school community favor this practice, however. In many families and cultures it is considered impolite for children to address adults by their first names. TPS students who address teachers and staff by their first names tend to do the same when talking with parents, guardians, grandparents, and other adults in the community. Although this feels comfortable for some families, it feels quite uncomfortable for others. Some students have expressed concerns that their adult family members are inadvertently disrespected when a schoolmate  addresses them by first name.

While concerns about first-naming adults have been raised by a variety of families at TPS, the practice has a particular meaning for many families of color. For those families, titles (such as Mr., Ms., or Dr.)  can mark respect and achievement that are important to honor. Deep histories of race and racism play a part as well. Under slavery  and Jim Crow, the use of first names in addressing African Americans was a marker of their lower status-- it reminded both whites and blacks about who had power and who did not. Even today, when a white addresses an African American adult by a first name,  it may still, however unintentionally, tap into that history. In thinking about our naming practices at TPS, as elsewhere, we need to be mindful of the impact they have on different individuals and groups.

In March of 2014 we held a public event at TPS to increase our awareness of the implications of our community’s modes of address. The speakers on our “What You Call Me Matters” panel—several teachers and parents as well as an alumna—talked openly about whether the school’s naming convention made them feel more or less included in the community. The following spring, the faculty held a discussion about the modes of address in the school. These events made clear that the TPS community should revisit its naming practices. Our goal in doing so is to make sure that our practices are explicit and do not inadvertently exclude or unsettle members of our community. We also want to ensure that we are preparing our children to be sensitive citizens of their complex world.

As part of this work, different units are exploring the implications of modes of address in their own ways. Teachers are asking parents explicitly how they would like to be addressed by their children’s classmates. In one Junior Unit classroom, a teacher has asked to be called by his last name, while the other teacher is using her first name. In sixth grade, as part of a year-long unit on Africa, each of four advisors learned the word for “teacher” in a different African language; the teachers initially introduced themselves that way. However, they found it difficult for students and one another to use these titles and, somewhat inadvertently, returned to the use of their first names.  

By engaging in each of these discussions in age appropriate ways, we hope to show students that what we call each other matters, that treating each other with respect is essential, and that respect has a different look and sound for different people.   

At dinnertime, Owen and his family continued to talk about the power of naming practices and why they matter so much. The McKenna family decided that Owen would start with the most formal mode of address when meeting an adult and use a less formal mode only if that adult invited him to do so. We invite you to begin similar conversations with your children-- not because there is one “right” answer, but because this is a case where thoughtful conversation and raised awareness hold the greatest promise for TPS living its aspiration to be the most equitable  and inclusive school possible.