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Titles + Names = Mixed Messages: A Raving, Edu-taining Substi-tutor's Rant

02/13/2015 11:29 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

This rant had been in hiding for four years (in an obscure word doc file) until resurrecting my personal blog spot. Because so much time had gone into polishing this huge nugget of a rant, I had decided to use it for my Resurrection Kickoff. It was something I never quite got off my chest (or out of my treasure chest) until recently...

At last, my idea has hatched. The idea to address this issue has been incubating inside my head for quite a while now. I have thought long and hard about how to write this without leaving a bad taste in the reader's mouth ~ gulp ~ which is exactly why I had never written this before.

Someone's taste buds are bound to rebound no matter how much sugar, honey, or artificial sweeteners I use. My conclusion: that's what mouthwash is for. So, if you think you may need some after reading this, have a bottle of it handy. And while you're at it, you may need some pain reliever. This could get mind-numbing if you start banging your head against the wall as you begin reading the writing between the lines. Our names are there in graffiti, announcing clues to the public, clues that describe how we see ourselves.

Most published, widely-read and well-respected authors will have done their homework before writing any piece that creates controversy. No problem: since I am not a widely-read published author, no respect gained is no respect lost. I am not taking the time to research how, why, and when we use titles and names to address people. I am not going into the social etiquette columns to ask for "expert" advice on the proper use of titles. And neither am I conducting a public survey or opinion poll on the matter.

I have had my fill of academia and the higher institutional demands of reading and analyzing other people's research results - all for just the privilege of hopping up onto the shoulders of the forerunners who comprise knowledge-based pyramids as testaments to fact-versus-fiction. Perhaps for fear of what I might hear, I do not pose the question of proper name etiquette to those supporting me on that pyramid. One of the supporters just might shrug... Oops! Did I do that...?

This has nothing to do with spreading or building more knowledge about our educational system or how we are to teach and shape our young minds. However, it can and does get entwined with personal philosophies of education. It weaves itself into a much larger tapestry of religious, political, cultural and social philosophies.

Ergo, as I will take the road less traveled and lean towards a more creative approach to this topic, I will stick to what I know, based on my own experiences and observations, as well as my own reflections on both. Let me begin with this little narrative.

I am a professional substi-tutor ~ a term I have coined to denote what I do that goes beyond the duties of your average substitute teacher. One particular Friday, I had just finished ushering the last period of eighth-grade students out the door with good-byes and I hope to see you again. As an experienced sub, I was feeling the afterglow of yet another successful day's assignment.

I had succeeded in coaxing five groups of resistant adolescents into voluntarily reading aloud for me ~ a total stranger to them. I had edu-tained them out of their routine boredom and helped them make the most of their most dreaded and mundane minutes of the day. Time flew by and they were asking me to come back again.

Unfortunately, because my personal teaching style tends to cross the boundaries that most traditionalists have drawn around themselves, I always risk the chance that I may not be requested to sub for them again. That is the most dangerous part of my job, even though I have worked with some of the most "dangerous" students across the board. What is it that I do that offends the traditionalist and literally provokes them to cross my name out? One of those things, believe it or not, is the use of my first name.

Nevertheless, being the social diplomat that I am, I am also careful to precede my name with the title, Ms. When I first began using that address I reasoned that it would not be a problem with any educated adult. However, I soon learned the difference between the two terms educated and enlightened.

Earlier that day, the instructional aide and I had a conversation about my "name" philosophy and she seemed very receptive to it, respecting my preference. As the last of the students filed out the door, we began to collect books and straighten up the room. A teacher from a neighboring classroom entered our room from their shared pod. She was escorting back to the classroom one of the "troublemakers" who had been removed from the room at the onset of the class - before I had even taken the attendance.

He returned with a forced apology for interrupting me earlier. In the presence of the escorting teacher, a self-designated bad cop on campus, I addressed the student: "I'm really disappointed that you had to be removed from the class before we even got a chance to be introduced," I offered for starters. "However, even though I have a sense of humor and I didn't take your comments personally, I know you are aware of your teachers' expectations not to interrupt when anyone is speaking."

In my heart I knew I could have had the kid eating right out of my hand or reading right out of his book before the end of that class - had he not been busted for being a class clown by another bad cop teacher patrolling our doorway at the start of class. Oh well, at least they left five other class clowns to share the circus ring with me.

After he left, the escorting teacher began informing me of how he is always in trouble and how his mom works there, etc, etc... Don't let me get started on that topic. Suddenly pushing the pause button on her exasperated spiel, as if she had spotted an unusual bug on the white board, she read my name. "Who is Ms. Joanne?"

Already forewarned by first impressions, and anticipating a confrontation, I was gearing up once again to defend my name philosophy. "That would be me."

"You use your first name?"

"Well, I..." Admittedly, I wasn't fully ready and armored for a verbal-sparring duel.

"I had never heard of a middle-school teacher using their first name, until I had a sub once that used his... I never requested him for a sub again." He used the title Mr. before his first name; but even so, she made no mention of how well he conducted the class, how the students minded him, or even if he followed the lesson plans. She used that authoritarian stance that actually revealed more about her own M.O. on power plays.

My first joust was a feeble attempt to not lose my footing: "Well, I use it for a number of reasons. In my case, my last name has changed a few times - my first married name, then back to my maiden name, and then my second married name... Anyway, I would rather not have students know how to look me up with any last name..." I felt the tip of her sword on my chest as she leaned in for another joust of her own.

"Then use your initial."

Okay, my turn... this time with my shield up and ready: "I used that before, when I worked as an instructional aide and had gone back to using my maiden name. Using Ms. D. sounded more like a first name than an initial, and I had to explain that to new visitors every time it sounded like a student was calling me Misty... Besides, I decided that I no longer wanted to be identified by a man's last name, even if it is my family name."

What I might have added, had she not been so swift on the offense, was that using my maiden name Dagonese was literally announcing open game season with jokes like, "Chinese, Japanese, Dago-Knees." Being naturally proud of my Italian heritage, only I am allowed to tell that joke.

"Then use your first name initial."

Problem-solving was obviously not this lady's forte. There are only twenty-six letters in our alphabet, and she was suggesting that I take something as personal as my good name and become the anonymous Ms. F (Fruin at the time) or Ms. J, the latter, also sounding like a first name." I might as well borrow a name from one of the characters in the Harry Potter series.

Not quite ready to throw myself and my name philosophy on a pyre of unsuccessful arguments, this duel was only fuel for my passion to address this issue publicly, once and for all, even if it meant writing a eulogy for a philosophy that was born and died before its time.

I thought, one final attempt, Joanne, and then let it go before you get thrown out of here for addressing her with a name to match her personality. I stopped myself to think something positive (because I believe in Yin and Yang - and I have met Karma personally)... So I thought, this poor soul must be haunted by the memories of her childhood teachers from hell, living in fear of doing something that totally defies social conformity.

"I just got my credential and M.S. in Special Ed, and I spent a total of four years in my own classrooms. Before that, I subbed four years in four different districts. Before that, I spent five years teaching in private schools. And in between those years, I have coordinated and taught hosts of adolescents and adults in several foreign exchange groups. Having had all these years of experience teaching and mentoring people of all ages, I hope this issue doesn't disqualify me from being invited back here to sub."

As she began walking away with an impersonal shrug or chip on her shoulder (I wasn't sure if my last joust actually had any effect) I added, "I believe it's our constitutional right to be addressed in whatever way we're comfortable."

Also counting the former years I spent working with church ministries, there was a total of over three decades of young people addressing me by different names in and out of the classroom. Now, at age 52 (58 at the time of this publication), I feel I am entitled to my right of passage into senior-hood and experiential wisdom. In reflection, I have realized that none of these names ever earned me respect from any young person ~ no more than bearing the title of Mom had granted me automatic respect from my five biological children.

I have done what every self-respecting authority figure does... I have earned my respect by modeling respect. And I do that by first paying attention to how a person would like me to address them. Until instructed otherwise, I use the name that the person first introduces him- or herself with. In the event that they use their first and last names interchangeably during personal communications with me, I might ask for clarification, such as, "What would you like me to call you?" In most cases, it doesn't take long for others to let their guards down with me, anyway, because I make it my goal to resonate respect for all humans, regardless of their titles and names.

On the other hand, many who have earned their doctorate's degree respond without hesitation, Call me Dr. So-and-So. And so I realize that they are proud of their achievements, and I am happy to indulge their self-esteem by acknowledging their successes by addressing them as such. However, because we typically have somewhat higher expectations of those bearing such titles, pretentiousness often becomes magnified when such titles do not match outstanding character traits... traits such as understanding and humility, for starters.

I could even work with a doctor named House, and look forward to going to work each day, since he makes no pretense of appearance and has the uncanny ability to separate his skills from his character. I would have no qualms about being Nurse Joanne around him. For me, his authenticity could actually inspire trust.

Before I worked in the private schools, I was in a certification program to become a qualified classroom supervisor for a non-public, charter-type school. A wise instructor/mentor with his doctorate's (who had us address him by his first name only) said, "I would rather not have my degree and have others ask why not, than have my degree and have them ask why..."

Ironically, I have felt most disrespected by those colleagues who have insistently addressed me in the same way by which they are most comfortable. They have gone so far as to correct the students in my presence, those who have only known me as Ms. Joanne.

I am an educator with a coach/cheerleader mentality. I am not a political bureaucrat. I have found that although my style is different from a more traditional classroom approach, it has also helped me gain almost instant access to the trust factor that is needed in order to hook students' attention right from the beginning of a class. It is especially useful as a "substi-tutor," when I don't have all year to make a positive impact. If our collective goal as educators is to lower the affective filter (a research-based strategy proven to enhance learning acquisition) then we have not only the right to choose, but the responsibility to use whatever strategies are available for us to meet that objective.

I have practiced the art of assertiveness when it comes to establishing behavioral expectations for my students. Just because I use my first name does not give them license to be inappropriate in class. Students know my standards are high (when it comes to character development). Just because I use humor does not mean that I lower the academic standards. Students can trust that I am fair (when it comes to recognizing and expecting whatever their best may be). And they are aware of how I gradually raise the bar as they begin to experience the taste of success.

They know that I am not being paid to be their "Homie." Yet, time and again they have felt comfortable confiding things in me that most counselors would never be able to extract in two or three sessions. Although their confidence is unsolicited by me, I have used that trust to their advantage, oftentimes redirecting them to a professional and caring staff that can spend more time with them on psycho-emotional issues (if the issues are beyond my capacity as a mentor to help them resolve their own problems).

Now let's turn our attention to the mixed messages we send by forbidding a teacher to use his or her first name. The school maintenance man can proudly wear a name tag that reads "Daniel" or whatever his or her first name might be... Are you catching my drift just yet? I believe you blue collar workers know where I'm headed with this... Because this is a no-contest spelling bee, bear with me while I spell this out for your white collared counterparts. What does this say about our value judgments, and in what ways are we inadvertently propagating a caste system?

Follow your own rationale here: if respect is in a name and if using a first name "lowers the respect level," as I've been told by more than one educator, then where is our demonstration of respect for the very ones who are cleaning our filthy toilets, classrooms, floors, lounges, etc...? I can testify to the fact that many a school maintenance employee, groundskeeper, clerk and secretary who are known to students by their first names only have been able to model and teach valuable life lessons where their teachers may not have been so successful.

Truth be told, one of the largest obstacles to my making the decision to get my teaching credential developed from hanging out in teacher lounges, seeing some of their irreverent habits and listening to their conversations. I had vowed that I did not want to be "one of them." It seemed to me that many of the "educated" people I knew at the time had deficits in common sense. I also wondered if the phenomenon had occurred before or after getting their degrees. Does all that studying and research-writing destroy brain cells in some part of the brain that houses common sense or common decency...? Now, there's an idea for a research topic!

Years have passed since I have managed to face that obstacle and cross that barrier. Having become "educated" myself, I'd like to believe that I've kept as much of my common sense cells and my wits about me... The wits are particularly useful as I've also developed somewhat of a righteous sensitivity to the themes that run amuck in our society. Themes shrouded in unspoken rules translate into subliminal messages that speak volumes about individual worth and our socio-economic value system.

It doesn't help cool my indignation either, when I am privy to much of the Peyton Place activity that happens behind closed office doors, ironically, with many of those same "professionals" who feel threatened by the use of my first name in the classroom. These sorts of things happening over and over again have inadvertently led me to believe that I am not from this planet.

This name issue has been only one of many unresolved menaces for me, as an educator who has devoted a huge percent of time, energy and finances to becoming even more than an educator, a role model. As a change agent for the next wave of young leaders who have been reared under mixed societal messages, I hope to inspire and motivate thinking beings to examine and re-examine their fixed opinions and ideas. If we can only ask ourselves, why do we do the things we do and who do we do them for ? Only then will we have taken the first step necessary in shifting the old paradigms that no longer serve us to a new set of blueprints that align more closely with our constitutional rights and freedom to choose.

In the process of our metamorphosis many Baby Boomers have transformed themselves into Boomer Babes. We've taken the time to re-examine our value-systems and the ways in which they are expressed. We've decided to give our belief systems a complete overhaul by recalling what it was that our generation fought for. Not to sound cliché, but it's high time that we become the changes that we imagined we could produce in our younger days. It's never too late to advocate for the freedom to pursue our dreams through creative individual sparks, and modeling them, respectfully.

Without forcing our young people into destructive patterns of rebellious behavior that throw the baby out with the bathwater, let's take the best of our traditional upbringings and merge them with our ideals. We can begin by establishing how we choose to relate to each other with such a trivial thing as in our titles and our names and how they reflect what we believe about ourselves.

I do not wish to be forced to defend myself one more time just because I choose to use my first name. However, I would hope that my Constitutional rights would be upheld if my ability to earn a decent living is being threatened by unspoken societal rules that dictate how to regard something as meaningful to me as my name.

If ever it came down to that, in this world or the next, if my friend Jesus wasn't available, I would call upon Dr. Phil to be my defense attorney and Judge Judy to hear my case. Ideally, the jury would include Romper Room's Miss Rita, who taught us more through her magic mirror than any of those nasty old hags ever could, who were just hanging around their classrooms until retirement years would mark the end of their duties; Mr. Roger(s) ~ rest his soul ~ whose ambiguous name could be either first or last, but who always knew how to make us feel welcome and wouldn't have given us any reason for detention; Captain Kangaroo ~ who if he were still with us, could probably command a class full of wild little hellions, because of his character and not his title; Mr. Green Jeans ~ may he also rest in peace ~ a blue collar worker, who modeled good work ethics and upstanding character traits; Bill Nye, the Science Guy, whose style gives him the ability to capture our attention to the allure and wonder of the world we live in; Dr. Laura, and a host of others whose first names have (or had) not lowered their respect levels ~ or their ratings, for that matter.

And speaking of lowering respect levels: for a whole year after using Ms. Joanne as my substi-tutor identity, no one ever questioned whether it was my first or last name. It wasn't until a teacher who had disagreed with my name philosophy snitched on me to her elementary school principal where I had often reported for assignments with repeat requests. Early one morning, I received a summons to report to the principal's office before reporting to my assigned class.

"Miss Joanne," she began without attempting eye-contact. As she stayed glued to her computer screen she continued with her lecture-voice, "a certain staff member brought it to my attention that Joanne is your first name..." Taken off-guard, I was left speechless and feeling like my character had been assassinated by an intimidating authority figure in no way resembling a professional colleague. Now, brace yourself for this one: the irony of it all was that the teacher informant was young enough to be my daughter, and although she hardly knew me, she always addressed me as "Sweetie." Where did she get them apples?

Respectfully Yours,
Joanne of Frank

P.S. ~ FYI, if it pleases the reader to know more, and if it's not TMI, my name is Hebrew in origin and means "God is Gracious." My dad's name is Frank... Although it alludes to an inspirational young author whose name has lit some pages of history books, her style is alive in me... If anyone has a problem with that pen name of mine... well then... all I can say is, brrring it...!