What’s in a name?

What do your students call you?

Does it matter?

I’ve tried to care about names, mostly because my education professors told me that it was a matter of respect. And, when I first started teaching students who weren’t much younger than I was and who were all much taller than I was, I wanted to wrap myself up in all the external respect I could find. I’m not sure that calling me Miss Hoskins impressed the seniors in the “You have to learn how to write a 5-paragraph essay before you can graduate” class. Didn’t seem to, anyway 🙂

I’ve been thinking about some of the names I’ve been called in class (to my face, anyway). They include:

Miss (or Ms.)  Hoksins

Mrs. (or Ms.) Sakamoto







Barbara Sensei

Sakamoto Sensei

Lynn Sensei

Lynn Teacher

Barbara Teacher


I’ve realized that I generally let students name me, and then answer to whatever feels comfortable for them. For example, my young Japanese students tend to address their teachers directly as sensei. I could justify insisting on being Mrs. Sakamoto in order to follow the cultural norm for their age group in my own country, but when they’re in the flow of class they forget that I’m a foreign teacher with different rules and treat me as just another teacher (calling me sensei). We always talk about the difference, but it’s never meant enough to me to insist on it, and it sometimes feels like the focus on what to call me detracts from what I’m trying to communicate in class.

What do you do?

Does your school decide how students should address teachers? How do you feel about the different names students use for you? Does a certain title automatically equal a certain level of respect? And do you feel that the absence of the title equals disrespect?

What’s in a name?

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25 Responses

  1. Hi Sakamoto Sensei,

    It’s funny how many different names I’m called here in the UAE. Some students ask what they should call me and I tell them whatever they feel comfortable with. Muslims have a very deep respect for teachers and feel the use of a teacher’s name is too disrespectful – so my students tell me. Most students call me “Teacher” or “Sir”. I guess “Teacher” is the Anglicized version of “Sensei” or the Arabic equivalent. My absolute favourite is “Sir Sean” – they laugh when I tell them about what a knighthood is and why this makes me feel special. Others include “Sean Teacher” and just Sean. Those who use my given name are generally the more internationally minded students who have travelled and feel comfortable enough with me to dispense with tradition and formality. I like being called “Teacher,” because I feel their respect, but I also like being called by my own name as that means they’re comfortable enough with me to dispense with formalities (all of my students are young Arab women). Last semester, completely out of the blue, one student called me “Seanie” for the whole semester. Cracked me up. It was SO unusual. I have a chat each semester about nicknames – all my students have one (often shortened versions of their names). They ask what my nickname is. I’ve never had one but tell them my nickname is the shortened version of my name – Shh! They laugh, but no one has gone with that and called me “Shh!” One day 🙂

    A great post Barbara – I guess many of us have cultural tales to tell about what’s in a name.

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks, Seanie!

      I got one of my favorite nicknames from a class of 16 year old boys up in Iwate. They called me “barabara hotchkiss” sensei. The way they explained it, my rapid fire English felt like staples being shot at them (‘barabara’ being scattered, and ‘hotchkis’ being stapler). I thought it was quite clever!

      Thanks for sharing your story 🙂

  2. Anna Loseva says:

    Hello, Barbara!

    That’s such an interesting topic and I feel real pity that being a Russian ESL teacher to Russian students/pupils deprives me of all these variations! Because in our culture the only way ppl address their teachers is by First name+Paternal name, thus making me Anna Vladimirovna and nobody else..no Miss or Annie)
    sometimes possible to say Anna (anyway, full name of a person)
    I believe what matters here is this very disctinct line between Russian “you” as private and personal, and “you” as polite and respectful. Any other options besides Anna Vladimirovna would sound private and even intimate to some extent..

    • Barbara says:

      Interesting! So your teachers would always address you as “Anna Loseva”? As a kid, the only time I ever heard all of my names was when I was in deep trouble–by the time your mother called me “Barbara Lynn Hoskins” I knew I had to pay attention 🙂

      Is there a title, like “teacher” that students can use instead of a name? Russian students must have very good memories to keep all of the first and last names of teachers straight! Do teachers also call students by both names, or is there a difference in the language between an older person talking to a younger person (or the reverse)?

      Thanks for sharing this, Anna!

  3. Hi Barbara,

    Such an interesting thing we never stop to think about. It’s interesting to see the differences regarding the diverse cultures.

    Here in Brazil (the only place I’ve taught at) things are usually very informal and students will either call me teacher or Cecilia. When a student calls me miss I know they either go to a bilingual school or have lived abroad. 🙂

    In Portuguese it’s common for students to call their teachers “tia” and “tio”, which would be the translation for “auntie” and “uncle” respectively. I never liked that very much, but it’s pretty much the norm.

    Thanks for the lovely post 🙂

    • Barbara says:

      Isn’t it interesting how calling a teacher by a first name can be a sign of respect in one country, and a sign of disrespect in another!

      When I taught my daughter’s elementary school classmates (in Japan) I was often called “Miku-chan no okaasan” (Miku’s mom) or “Miku-chan no obasan” (Miku’s aunt!). My significance to them was in my relationship to their friend 🙂

      I think that sometimes in Japan students calling me “Teacher” are trying to use English (since it’s English class) but fitting it into their cultural context (where it would feel strange and impolite to simply use my name).

      Thanks for sharing your experience in Brazil, Cecilia!

  4. DavidD says:

    Hi Barbara,

    Some interesting thoughts! When I first started teaching, I was working with adults doing evening and weekend classes and I always discouraged attempts to call me ‘teacher’ or ‘Mr….’ – it just seemed so formal especially as my classes were full of adults and most of them were older than me!

    Once I started working with kids, things changed as a formal term of address was expected. In my middle school days I was called ‘sir’ or ‘Mr. Dodgson’ which they could just about handle. However, when I started working with younger kids, I soon became ‘Mr. David’, partly becuase I noticed all the other foriegn staff were addressed by the kids in the same way and partly because of thier mispronunciation of my surname as ‘Dogson’ and the subsequent canine jokes.

    But I’ve noticed something strange over the years. Native speaker English teachers get called ‘Mr/Mrs/Miss’ followed by their first name (a direct translation of the way they address teachers of other subjects) but the Turkish English teaching staff are called ‘Mrs/Miss’ followed by their surname becuase “that’s the way it is in schools in England”! Quite a role-reversal!

    • Barbara says:

      Hoskins was sort of a mouthful in Japanese, too–it became Hosukinzu (with the ‘n’ having it’s own full syllable), so I was just as happy to be Barbara.

      I’ve heard of this kind of distinction between “foreign” and “home” teachers (no easy way to put this, is there?) but never in the way you describe. Fascinating!

      When you say a formal term of address was expected, who was expecting it? Your school administrators? Your students’ parents? The students? You? Did yo feel as though the name they used for you affected the way they saw you?

      Thanks for adding this dimension to the conversation, Dave!

      • DavidD says:

        I guess the formal address was expected by society! One interesting thing though was that when I was known as ‘Mr. Dodgson’ in the middle school, some students assumed ‘Dodgson’ was my first name. 🙂

        As with some of the other comments, when referring to teachers not present, the teacher’s first name followed by ‘ögretmen’ (Turkish for teacher) is used, leading to students often talking about ‘David teacher’ in direct translation. They eventually get used to using Mr/Mrs though.

        • Barbara says:

          Ah, the added challenge when we aren’t familiar with given and family names in a given culture! One of the students in my very first classes in Japan was names Takahashi Takashi. While the norm in Japan is family name followed by given name, sometimes people will reverse that to make it “easier” for me (being American, and all). I think I spent most of the first semester mumbling his name because I just wasn’t sure which one to use!

          Interesting note here–students are also generally called by their last names, followed by “kun” (boys) or “chan” (girls).

  5. Nice post !
    Here in Saudi Arabia, it is culutrally unacceptable for students to call teachers by their names; if a student does that, it is considered disrespectful. what is acceptable is to say teacher or (Ustazh). The Arabs have great respect for teachers.

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks, Saeed. I’m glad you liked the post, and I appreciate you adding to the discussion.

      How do students refer to their teachers in the third person? If they are talking to a friend or their parents about you, for example, do they say “Saeed Ustazh” or “Mubarak Ustazh” in order to distinguish you from all their other teachers?

      • Students in my school called me Ustazh Saeed in front of me.But if I am not in front of them .They said Ustazh Saeed Mubarak .Because there are many teachers have the same name ”Saeed”.So they called me Ustazh “Saeed Mubarak ” to distinguish me.

        • Barbara says:

          This is actually quite similar to Japan! My husband is Sakamoto Sensei at the university, but because Sakamoto is also a common name, he is often referred to as Sakamoto Takayuki Sensei (family name first) to distinguish him from the other Sakamotos.

          Thanks for the additional information!

  6. Beverly Whittall says:

    This topic came up at a session in the International House Portugal Training Day last weekend. We all pretty much agreed that we don’t like being called ‘teacher’ and it’s quite a training up process to get our students to call us by our first names.

    Last year, one of my 5 year old students was told by his mum to call me ‘Miss Beverly’! I’d never been called that before and I found it quite sweet, although I did feel a little like a character out of ‘Little House on the Prairie’!

    • Barbara says:

      A fair number of teachers I’ve known also feel odd being called “Teacher”. I’m not sure why, but perhaps it’s because it would feel a bit disrespectful in our home countries. When I taught teens in the US, being called “Hey, Teach!” or even “Teacher” sounded a bit like the student couldn’t be bothered to learn my name (depending on the teenage tone of voice, of course!). In Japan, I know that students are trying to accommodate both my language and their sense of respect, even if it still feels a bit odd 🙂

      I wonder where you student’s mum got “Miss Beverly”? That’s pretty common in my classes in Japan, too. I was surprised when I moved to Texas and my neighbors called me Miss Barbara, too!

  7. arjana says:

    Hi Barbara,
    what an interesting topic! Isn’t it amazing to see that the way teachers are addressed actually reflects the differences (and similarities) between us?

    Teachers in Croatia are called “profesor” (male) or “profesorica” (female) + their surname. These two words are used both in secondary schools and at the university level. In elementary schools, teachers are called “ucitelj” or “uciteljica” and younger students often use it with the teacher’s given name. But as they grow up, the given name is replaced by the family name, and it’s considered to be more respectful.

    In my English class, however, my students call me “Teacher” while in my German class I’m Frau Blazic.

    All the best

    • Barbara says:

      Yes, it is interesting. Sometimes respect is shown by a title plus family name, or title plus first name, sometimes by a title alone, and sometimes by a first name or intimate title (like auntie).

      It’s nice to know that behind all the choices is an underlying respect for the person and position, because the way of showing respect can lie at opposite ends of the spectrum 🙂

  8. Jennifer says:

    Dear Barbara,

    What a simple yet fascinating exploration of cultural differences (and similarities)! I loved reading all of the comments from so many different countries. When I taught in Costa Rica (in a small, rural town), everyone just referred to me as teacher. Not only my students, but literally everyone in the town. I would walk into someone’s house, and someone would announce my presence by saying “the teacher is here!” Sometimes when I walked down the road, my students would scream “teacher” out of their windows. I don’t miss my short-lived celebrity.

  9. Marisa Pavan says:

    Hi Barb!

    You’ve raised an interesting issue in your post. It’d be great to share the way teachers are called around the world. I don’t think the way students call their teachers show their respect. In Spanish there are two ways of addressing your listener, depending on the formality of the relationship and on the situation. Nowadays, teachers are treated in an informal way but it doesn’t mean that’s disrespectful.
    My students use my name to call me or they use “miss”, which is common to address teachers of English.
    In the case of the other subjects, kids use a shortened form of the translation of “miss”. The Spanish word for “miss” is “señorita” but kids use “seño.” Secondary school students use the translation of the word “teacher” that is “profesora” for this level.
    Hugs from Argentina!

  10. Jon says:

    Hi Barbara,

    Teaching in Japan I was also called many of the permutations you listed. The most popular being Jon-san or Jon-sensei. In Europe it’s usually just teacher. I was never too worried about names, being over 6ft tall with a deep voice perhaps helps me gain some instant respect, though I agree it is important.


    • Barbara says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Jon. It’s hard for me to imagine the instant respect that might come with height and a deep voice, although my high school students used to tell me that I was much taller when I got angry 🙂

  11. What a fun article! Increasingly we find that teaching (possibly due to the advent of social media) is becoming less formal – for better or worse. And with it obviously comes in change in how teachers are addressed by students.

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