Friday, June 22, 2018
After reading the constantly dismal news lately, I’ve decided that I can’t solve any of the world’s problems and many of my own. So I looked around for a problem I could solve, one that could decrease the general anxiety I see and hear all around me. I found one.
The problem: What to call a former teacher when you meet them on the street or interact online.
As the former teacher to thousands of students, I’m especially qualified to address this potentially awkward and potentially stress-inducing dilemma. However, as a teacher, I, of course, can’t just give a quick answer. I need to explicate, find context, provide exemplars, and create the mise en scène.
These days, with connections I’ve made through social media, I’m communicating with students I taught almost 40 years ago. Back then, I was a secondary English teacher and students were required to call me “Mr. Hughes.” That was a title I got used to for 12 years until I moved on to teach at a community college where I asked students to call me “Bob” somewhat successfully. Many students were in their 20s and 30s, so calling a man in his late 30s/early 40s by his first name seemed comfortable enough. There were a few students whose upbringing and cultures wouldn’t allow for that, and I understood their insistence and remained “Mr. Hughes” to them. Then I complicated things by earning a doctorate and changing roles.
As I assumed different titles (especially as professor or dean), I gently found ways to remind folks that I wanted to be called “Bob.” I taught, over time, all graduate courses and mid-career adults; so many students were again mostly comfortable with my first name. But there were students and people in the community who only felt comfortable calling me “Professor Hughes,” or “Dean Hughes,” or “Dr. Hughes.” Encountering all of these titles in the course of a day, it’s still sometimes exhausting to remember whom I’m supposed to be to the speaker.
The upside is that the titles generally help me place someone I can’t remember completely. If someone from my past calls me “Mr. Hughes,” that person generally comes from my pre-college-teaching days. “Dr. Hughes” generally means that I’ve known the person since the degree was conferred. These locators help me scan my failing memory to identify when I knew the person so that I can remember the person. But the most confusing is when someone calls me “Dean Hughes.” I had the title at three different institutions, so it’s a roll of the dice as to where and when I knew the speaker.
While I’m on the subject, I may as well admit that the one annoying appellation is when someone wants to acknowledge my professional status and concurrently attempt familiarity by calling me “Dr. Bob.” Sorry, but that sounds like a Muppet character. It’s definitely not me.
Okay. So my problem of what to be called doesn’t rise to the level of crisis, or even “issue.” But it can lead to uncomfortable exchanges. I enjoy seeing people from the past 39 years in education, and I enjoy hearing their stories. I want people I meet to feel at ease. Similarly, I’m guessing that if you encounter former teachers, they also may not want the awkwardness of you being embarrassed about what to call them. That’s why I’m lending my extensive experience and knowledge to solving this one problem. In this age when we need to be more mindful of social conventions because of the complete lack of them in people who should be providing role models, this is one problem for which I can offer a simple solution.
As I noted above, I’ve always preferred to be called “Bob” (not “Robert,” a name which I reserve for my family – another story altogether). Therefore, if you’re a former student reading this, that may solve the problem for you.
But what should others do when encountering a former teacher other than me? It’s easy. Ask this question to your former teacher:
“When we last met, I used to refer to you as ‘[insert name]’. How should I address you now?”
The discussion might even give you a chance to talk about how you and your former teacher have changed over the years. It also puts the decision in that person’s control to address – always a good thing to do when there are questions of propriety in how to interact with someone. You might even consider this approach for other kinds of communications where you ask another person’s preferences on other interactions. For example: “Do you prefer to react to what I’ve said, or should I just keep rattling on?” Or “I’ve been talking incessantly about baseball. Is there another topic that you’d prefer?” If enough people used this approach, we might just start a spark of civility where we talked to each other about our preferences instead of just assuming we know, or awkwardly embarrassing ourselves when we discover that our assumptions are wrong.
Just ask. And if the person asks why you’re asking, reply that Bob suggested it. And feel free to share….