Teachers Have No Ethics Code. Here’s One Example Of Why That’s A Problem…

In Tarboro, North Carolina, a 5th grade teacher punished a student for calling her “ma’am” in class. Parents of the child, an African-American boy, brought the incident to the administrators of the North East Carolina Preparatory School after he brought home for their signatures a sheet on which he had been required to write “ma’am” nearly two- hundred times.  The parents said their children were taught to refer to elders as “ma’am” and “sir,” and that their son was obviously not intending to be disrespectful. Upon their request, he was removed from the class to that of another teacher. The school has refused to comment further on the incident, other than saying in a statement, “This is a personnel matter which has been handled appropriately by the K-7 principal.”

That’s not correct. This is an education profession issue that should be addressed by the profession as well as the school. And moving the student, who did nothing wrong whatsoever, sends the wrong message. The school and the teacher should have apologized to the student as well as his parents, and disciplinary action ought to have been taken against the teacher. Moreover, other parents have a right to know who  this teacher is, and have the opportunity to have their children removed from her oversight. If that makes it impossible for her to continue teaching, since any responsible parents would insist on her being kept as far away from children as possible, then she might have to forfeit her job.


One purpose of professional ethics codes is that they prime the ethics alarms by putting core ethical principles related to the profession into black and white. Here’s one that might have saved the boy from his undeserved ordeal:

No students should be subjected to punishment without understanding what they are being punished for, and why. The punishment should be proportionate to the offense, which should be substantial enough to warrant more than a verbal warning or admonishment.

It’s too bad that the teacher has some weird, political, social justice or feminist objection to the word “ma’am,” and she should seek help for that. She has every right to ask students to address her in class as she prefers, be it “Miss Asshole,” “Teacher,” “Your Majesty” or “Pookie.” She should not have the right to embarrass or punish students who have trouble adjusting to her demands and keep falling into the habit of using the term of respect taught to them by their parents. Unless the child was intentionally baiting her by using the word, knowing it was unwelcome, there can be nothing penalty-worthy in his conduct. If the teacher has a neurotic horror of “ma’am”—maybe she was abused by a foster parent who made her use “ma’am” or had a kitten named “Ma’am” that was squashed like a bug right before her eyes when she was a child, causing her recurrent nightmares to this day—that’s her problem, not the student’s.

This was an abuse of power and bullying, not to mention atrocious teaching.

Here is another provision of that theoretical but so far non-existent professional ethics code:

A teacher must not intentionally undermine parental instruction and upbringing in matters unrelated to class subject matter and the curriculum. If there is any question about a particular topic, the teacher should consult with the parents before taking any action that they might reasonable feel intrudes on their parental judgment and authority.

I have yet to discover why this particular teacher feels it is so vital to wipe the use of “ma;am” from the language, but it certainly has the stench of indoctrination. There is nothing whatsoever wrong, and a lot right, with teaching children to use appellations of respect to adults. This teacher doesn’t like “ma’am’? Tough. She can teach her own children otherwise.

Never having heard of this aversion before, I researched it on line. After all, I use the term occasionally in my classes: if a woman (of any age) raises her hand, I will often say, “Yes, ma’am?” for lack of a better form of address. Nobody has ever objected, at least not openly. Now I hope someone does. I can’t wait.

A 2014 Reddit post on the question of whether “ma’am” was offensive didn’t reveal much. “Ma’am” is more common in the South; we knew that. Some women feel that it is insulting, because the term makes them feel old, and that they are being called old.  Such sensitive blossoms would apparently prefer “Miss,” which I thought was itself offensive. The impression I got from this and other sources is that the lame anti-ma’am movement is an example of some women seeking power by installing a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” norm.

Well, sorry girls, but I won’t play. I ask professional contacts not to address me as “Mr. Marshall” because it makes me feel older than dirt, but I don’t seek vengeance on the generally younger individuals who slip back onto the good manners they were taught. Grow the hell up.

NPR had a feature on the issue in 2010 after Senator Barbara Boxer admonished a general testifying before her committee for calling her “ma’am.”

Sen. BOXER: You know, do me a favor. Could you say Senator instead of ma’am?

Brig. Gen. WALSH: Yes.

Sen. BOXER: It’s just a thing. I worked so hard to get that title. So I’d appreciate it. Yes, thank you.

Brig. Gen. WALSH: Yes, Senator.

That’s different, though. Boxer needn’t have made an issue of it, but her point was valid: “Senator” is the more respectful term. After noting the exchange, however,  NPR’s guest defaulted to the age objection, saying,” in many parts of the country, a woman doesn’t get called ma’am until she is, oh, somewhere around 30.”

Predictably, I found the most detailed and most obnoxious exposition on the question in a 2016  Cosmo feature, where Jessi Klein, then the head writer and executive producer of Amy Schumer’s cable show, held forth with supposedly hilarious stuff like this:

  •  “Ma’am” isn’t just a form of address. It’s a way for a perfect stranger to let us know how old he thinks we are.
  • “Ma’am” is doubly insulting because we hear men being called “sir” all day. And “sir” is awesome. “Sir” is what knights are and what Paul McCartney is. “Sir” sounds like you are sitting in a castle eating rack of lamb. “Sir” means you are respected and maybe a little feared.

Even she admitted at the end that women have never come up with an acceptable alternative. Of course, the age obsession makes no sense when applied to a fifth grader. Every woman seems old to a kid. A teacher who is offended by the word on that basis, when the speaker is 10 and only trying to show respect, is taking her neurosis out on a vulnerable and innocent victim.

21 thoughts on “Teachers Have No Ethics Code. Here’s One Example Of Why That’s A Problem…

    • . . . I asked Google, politely. It answered, in the particular,

      Addressing Queen Elizabeth II in Person

      Make a small curtsy, bow, or nod. …
      Politely shake the Queen’s hand if offered. …
      Wait for Her Majesty to address you. …
      Address her as “Your Majesty” the first time in the conversation. …
      Address her as “Ma’am” for the rest of the conversation. …

      • Jeepers PA, you forgot a lot of real real important stuff; what if the Royal asks someone if they like President Trump?

        Their answer (one would hope) would be an emphatic No Ma’am

        Which, in a compelling twist of fate, happens to be the acronym of a group founded by Ed O’Neill’s Al Bundy in the nonpareil lowbrow Married With Children:

        National Organization of Men Against Amazonian Masterhood

        Heck, it even has its own set of secular Commandments.


        No need for six degrees of separation to connect the aristocratic to base crudity…

        • It is credibly reported that when the late comedian Alan King met Queen Elizabeth, after practicing his “How do you do, your Majesty?” for days, she said. “Hello, Mr. King!” and he immediately answered, “Hello, Mrs. Queen!”

  1. As a freshman in college (in the northeast) I (from sort of the Sayouth- Miamuh, Florida, before it became a province of Cuba and Venezuela) was scolded by a professor who, born and raised outside Philly, had done his undergraduate and graduate work in the Sayouth (at Duke- Winston-Salem, as Deep South as you can get) for saying “Yessir,” to him. He thought I was blowing him off. I don’t think I was. We became great friends. But he had a temper.

    I will never forget the time in third grade we had a substitute teacher. She told us to pull out some paper and put the date the upper right hand corner. She asked someone what the date was and that some one didn’t know the date. So we all to cover our pages of paper with the day’s date. It was sometime in April, as I recall. It was clearly a set up. She didn’t want to do a thing. So she framed us and then sat there for the rest of the period while we all wrote the date, over and over again. A very vivid, early encounter with sloth, false guilt by association, and abuse of power.

    Who knows, the teacher could have in good faith thought the student was sassing her by calling her Ma’am. He could have been grandstanding and being a disruptive jerk. Perhaps the administration threw her under the bus. Whatever her reason, it should have been articulated to everyone involved. But since it was all swept under the rug, maybe out of fear of social justice warrior wrath, we’ll never know and no one will be any the better for it. A teaching moment, I think our former president would have called it. You’d think a school would have been a good place for one to be put to good use.

    • Yes, there are people who interpret the use of Sir or Ma’am as sarcastic. I ran into a lot of those people when I worked with the public.

  2. I wish I knew more about the why. I agree with all your points, but I yearn to know what motivated her to object. I hate having to speculate.

    I know that “m’am” among younger women is sometimes off-putting because of the age implication. I’ve heard the waitstaff of restaurants joking with “you got m’ammed!” a few times, apparently with the joke being the server receiving that address was perceived as older than she was. I have never heard or seen anyone actually offended by it, but that wouldn’t surprise me.

    This is yet another brick in the wall of hostility to long-held traditions. We usually see this on the extreme left, where traditions are subjected to complex analysis with the ultimate objective being to declare it intolerable for some reason. I suspect, but don’t know based on the available facts, that this is more of that tendency.

  3. Humiliation and shaming is the mode at my little Texas town school district. You wouldn’t believe the vile and vitriol placed upon students by certain power hungry, control freak staff should ever a student dare speak up or, God forbid, quit the football team, and even if they have to sit out per doctor’s order.
    It’s compounded by the fact that this behavior is endorsed by administration and board all because of the glimmer of glory of what could be a state championship trophy this year.
    The grievance process is a sham.
    Nobody seems to care.
    Everyone is scared.

  4. The apostrophe in the middle is, as apostrophes in most contractions, a substitute for a letter. In this case ‘d’. The original word was ‘madam’, which was, in Britain, a sign of respect for upper-class, but not noble, women. It wasn’t until it got to the US that Senators and Representatives appearing on ‘Madam lists’ led to it being an insult. I have heard, but cannot verify, that black women believe it to be (erroneously) a shortening of the word ‘Mammy’, which they now consider an insult.

  5. The only thing I can think of that might be reasonable in this situstion is that it’s not uncommon for people to use “yes, ma’am!” sarcastically (sometimes with a mock salute) to imply they think you’re being tyrannical or overly fussy. I could see that being something it would be difficult for the teacher to convince the parents of if their kid was not being entirely honest (“All I said was “yes, ma’am!””)

    Of course, that also depends on the teacher reading the student’s tone correctly, so even if this was the case it still would devolve into he said/she said.

    • Calls for speculation. Also, Yes Sir is also used in a mocking manner.

      The miltary’s protocol is for those of junior rank to address females with superior rank as ma’am. Thus, the general’s use of the term is hardly demeaning. If the good Senator Boxer was not simply trying to get a sound bite in which she asserts her superiority over the general she would have not pushed the issue.

  6. Was this particular teacher out of line? Yeah, sure, and likely an idiot or maybe just pushed over the edge that day, who knows but more on this later.

    However, a national code of ethics probably won’t fly just because we don’t all belong to one organization or even one organization per state. I assume any practicing lawyer is a member of their state BAR and falls under the professional code of conduct for that state. I can’t speak for teachers in other states but in Ohio, no matter where a licensed teacher is employed, he/she falls under the Ohio Licensure Code of Professional Conduct for Teachers – link here

    Click to access Licensure-Code-of-Professional-Conduct.pdf.aspx_.pdf

    Would a national code be beneficial? I have no idea. If you’re willing to break a local or state rule, a national rule may not be much of a deterrent. And no, I’m not comparing a misdemeanor offence to breaking a federal law, just to be clear. If a teacher violates their local Board of Ed. rules his or her license is revoked by the state just as much as if by a national board. Even implementing a national code from a union isn’t going to help since not all teachers are union members, and you’d still have to get both the NEA the AFT to agree on things.

    I don’t agree this is an education profession issue, Jack. Just like any profession, education has it’s share of incompetents taking up classroom space just the same as you find with doctors, lawyers, cops, and politicians. Taking the action the teacher did isn’t taught in education classes, at least I’d be really surprised if it was. A Google search shows that this is a charter school and not a public education building so I’m guessing this person may not be a licensed professional teacher, so she may well have been unequipped to be in the classroom at all. Regardless, instead of handling it one-on-one with the student, for whatever reason, she took a route that wouldn’t have worked anyway.

    Teaching is about relationships. If you have a good relationship with your students, you can overcome 96% of classroom behavior issues. The remaining problems require documentation, administrators, and parents (if possible) to resolve. Good teachers know this and there are, by far, a greater number of good teachers out there than crappy ones, we just never make the news like they do.

    • I’d bet an In-N-Out burger that the ratio of bad-to-good teachers has been trending upwards for at least half a century. Anyways, I thought an ethics code was just a set of principles rooted in basic decency, and not hard rules. At least going over such a code would remind horrible Marxism-educated teachers to occasionally remember their ethical obligations, in between efforts to shape good little global citizens.

      • No doubt you’d be eating that burger on my dime, but again, I’d also bet the same can be said of any profession, and especially at the In-N-Out.

        Ohio, and I assume other states, have ethics codes in place as part of administrative and revised code (as far as I’ve been told and no, I’m not a lawyer in any way so this is not legal advice) and the state is usually very quick to punish any infraction they find. And we are reminded pretty frequently about the code and the consequences wherein, usually more often by the teacher’s association since they don’t what to have to clean up the mess from those who step over the line.

  7. I’ve always used “sir” and “ma’am.” No one taught me too, and I was never in the military. I think I just formed the habit because I didn’t want to risk offending a stranger with anything less than the most respectful language. I always leaned toward wanting to please people.

    It used to bother me that in California it is very common for servers and other people on the job to call you “boss” and I’ve also heard “champ,” “sport,” and even “dog.” These are poor substitutes for “sir” or “ma’am,” but I’ve learned that they aren’t usually meant to be disrespectful. People just aren’t taught any better, not even by their bosses. It could also be that people are insecure about their “menial” jobs and see humility as weakness.

    In a perfect world, that kid would be made Teacher for a Day and his teacher could sit in the back row and write “front hole” 200 times.

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