Africa is a place where people have sensitive consciousness when it comes to respect for elders and for persons in authority.
In schools, we also want to inculcate this consciousness in our learners; and therefore, we teach them to address our school proprietors and members of staff in certain terms which are indicative of expected respect.
In many schools, the address, “Uncle”, “Auntie” and “Mummy,” are titles of address for persons occupying specific positions of authority in the school system. This is expected to demonstrate respect, while at the same time, suggesting closeness, congeniality or informality.
Many schools, on the other hand, use “Sir” or “Ma’am” (mostly mispronounced, /mem/), to show respect and a more formal relationship.
Even though the use of “Sir” and “Madam”, even “Ma” appears to be more widely accepted, as they are often correctly used in formal letters, these terms have so many different connotations, as to make the use of them in reference to our teachers and members of school management in today’s schools settings somewhat questionable.
In some cultures and religious settings, “Sir” is a title given to persons who have attained certain positions in the society or organisation, such the knighthood, as in “Sir George”. The female version is “Lady” and sometimes, “Dame”.
It may, therefore, be less than appropriate to address a class teacher as “Sir Chukwuma”, for instance, or “Lady Adeleke”.
Other not so acceptable terms for our teachers may include, “Teacher Simon”, and so on.
Usually, “Sir” and “Madam” (or the less formal “Ma’am”) are also used as polite forms of address for someone whose name you do not know, or whose position or age is so much higher than yours that using the person’s name may appear disrespectful; especially if you do not have a close personal relationship with the person.
“Madam” also has, in some places, some not-so-polite and less-than-nice meanings and inferences; and may, indeed have limited universal acceptance for school usage.
For me, personally, the address “Madam”, when vocalised, does, sometimes, sound a tad impolite, or loaded with not-so-respectful innuendo, especially in common oral usage.
Rather than “Madam” or “Ma’am”, especially when we want to use the person’s name as an interjection in our speech, especially, when the person is not our peer or is older or occupies a higher position than ours, we may adopt a more respectful “Ma”; so that, instead, for instance, of saying, “Thank you, Madam, for the effort”, one could say, “Thank you, Ma, for the effort”.
Using the title “Mummy”, “Auntie” or “Uncle” is particularly inappropriate for a school setting, as these terms refer to persons with whom we have familial relations, and not our teacher, school head or proprietress. We must teach our children to do the right thing, and address and relate with people appropriately and according to their true relationship to the individual. This is as much for security reasons as it is for any other reasons.
Even in our homes, we must teach our children to address domestic staff, using their proper titles.
This way, the children are enabled to differentiate between individuals whom they can trust as family members and those to just trust as being related by business or contract alone.
What then is best appellation of address for members of school staff?
“Miss”, which is pronounced as /mɪs/, is used as a form of address for a female whom we know to be definitely or apparently not married; such as a child, a teen, a student, and so on. “Mrs.”, pronounced /mɪsəz/, addresses a married woman, widowed or not.
“Ms.”, pronounced, /mɪz/ or məz/, refers to a female whose marital status is unknown to the speaker, or who prefers to be so-addressed, in spite of her marital status. And this form of address is only used by her students, and not by her colleagues or superiors. To colleagues and superiors, she is either “Miss” or “Mrs.”, depending on her actual marital status.
A school may, therefore, choose to go for specifics, and use “Mrs.” and “Miss” to address the female members of staff; while another may, as a matter of convenience, go with a general “Ms.”
The school policy should prevail, here.
“The term, “Mr.” is the form of address for all male members of staff, whether married on not.
Eventually, barring appellations which are questionable or straight out wrong or inappropriate, the onus is on the school management to pick from the generally approved forms of address, the one which it prefers, and also to ensure compliance and uniform usage by all.
Once the school decides on its preferred forms of address for staff, the school proprietors and school heads too must (except in certain exceptional cases) also address all members of staff in the determined manner; and should themselves also be addressed with the appropriate title (Mr., Mrs., Dr., Barr., Fr., Rev., Prof., and so on), depending on their status.