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.